Baxter State Park Loop (Abandon)
The wilds of northern Maine is host to the gem that is Baxter State Park (BSP). Within this gem is the Mount Katahdin massif, an impressive piece of earth surrounded by pristine woods. Due not only to its prominence Katahdin stands out with a unique aesthetic. It feels more bald than the whites, a looser collection of rocks than the granite state offers. It’s abrupt and mighty.
For some time I have been plotting a trip to circumnavigate the massif itself. Initially I planned it as a winter excursion that made use of the plentiful snowmobile trails in the area. After being intimidated by the prospect of that high risk traffic I narrowed down my plan to include some trails within BSP and the rest on the tote road. While the perimeter road is open to snowmobile traffic, it isn’t often traveled due to a lack of grooming. A flaw in my plan was failing to investigate the sled draggability of the hiking trails I wanted to use.
One of the towns closest to BSP is Millinocket which recently blipped on my radar because of the fanfare over the marathon they host. The whole movement behind the race is a fantastic idea, the race is free but you are encouraged to spend money in the town to help out their economy which suffered after the closing of a mill. I think the area is prime for an Arrowhead type even given the extensive snowmobile trail network, but it would require the use of the tote roads which is probably a no-go given the conservative nature of BSP. Though, they let snowmobiles out there, so there might be a chance.
My modified plan would have me do an overnight stay at the South Branch campground within BSP. Overnight trips to the park require some early registration, so in the spirit of doing things officially I filled out the 2 important pieces of paperwork. They are essentially in place to capture someone’s itinerary, to set reservations for sites, and to ensure the person has given forethought to a winter trip in remote regions (gear list, etc..).
I started my trip with an overnight stay in a Millinocket establishment. Katahdin Cabins were just what I needed and the host even had some fresh baked muffins for me. Delicious! You can tell how tight the community is as I stopped in at a local restaurant and watering hole and everyone pretty much knew everyone else. I was privy to the “How you doing, how you been” of the resident’s. I snuck to the bar at one point to listen in on a conversation of a lifetime lobster fisherman, to hear how that had changed in his time.
With an early start I headed down the long and cold dirt road to one of the BSP parking arrangements, the Abol bridge area. There weren’t many people parked here at this time of year but space here is limited other times of the year.
To start on the trip you cross the street and hop on a dirt road for a very short bit before joining the AT into the park. That is of course if you go the correct way. I went marginally the wrong way and tacked on some extra distance down IT-86, one of the dedicated snowmobile highways in Maine.
After righting myself I was into the park and came upon the first of many composting toilets at one of the picnic areas. This alone was nearly enough to reverse any ill will I felt towards BSP after the hooplah over Scott Jurek last year. The trails were very well marked, a lot more than I expected, including distance markers. The facilities were all incredibly clean and in good conditions. Views of Katahdin materialized in the golden morning light.
This little side trail intersected with the main tote road. It was here I made the decision to stick with my original plan, though I was momentarily tempted to take the Tote road in the reverse of what would have been day 2 of the trip. It’s roughly 33 miles from this intersection to where I was camping via that route, a shorter but more unknown trail system the way I had planned. In retrospect, I should have just done an out and back to the campsite via the tote road.
The tote road was primo sled conditions. A hard somewhat icy layer on top meant effortless dragging. I wore my Salomon XA Alps again with microspikes the entire time. I really dig the deep protection and stiffness they offer. I was super impressed that the XA’s didn’t even get tore up by the fitment mechanism of the microspikes. They felt comfortable to wear all day with only minor foot ache, probably due to a long day which I haven’t had in awhile. And my feet almost always ache.
A side trail I took to cut off some of the road was also primo. The Rum Pond “cut through” was frozen solid enough where I didn’t need snowshoes. This trail dropped you onto Roaring Brook road which was more of the same and I was in high spirits.
Here I met one of the rangers out on his snowmobile, presumably moving supplies. He was friendly, helpful and super knowledgeable. I let him know my plans and a backup plan if I wasn’t able to cross the biggest water crossing along the way, the Wassataquoik. He also let me know that a lot of the streams were exposed. How bad could it be I thought? Plenty it turns out.
After a brief lunch at the Roaring Brook campground (again, awesome facilities), I hit the most traily trail section of the day. Almost immediately it became apparent that the melting streams were going to be a huge pain in the ass. The huge snow depth and open streams created crossing that were beyond frustrating to get the sled over. Between super narrow snow bridges or canyon-esque crossings I was losing my cool. I dunked my gear in a stream more than once. I broke two of the straps off the sled trying to manhandle it with 50 pounds of gear in it. I accidentally flipped it more times than I can count. After deciding, “this isn’t the way to do this” I decided to turn back instead of doing it for up to another 10 miles.
Beyond that point my biggest worry would be that the rangers would be looking for me, either at my original reservation or at Roaring Brook which I told the ranger I saw I might turn back to. I signed all the registers I could on the way out to indicate I was alive. Right before the exit there was a field office that was swarming with people who I found out were getting ready to do a search and rescue training exercise. Luckily there was a ranger amongst them who I could tell what I was up to.
I think I’ll plan on trying this again next year, but doing the eastern bit on the snowmobile trails instead of in the park. I don’t think the traffic would be a big deal if I did it on some random Monday, early in the AM. The loop I had planned for this trip would make a great summer day trip, maybe even skipping some more of the tote road to make it less dusty road running.
Caltop track included of the interior ring. The eastern section outside the park seems to be a mixed bag. The International AT people seemed cautious about recommending winter travel there on the trail trails. I think there is a spattering of old logging roads somewhere over there as well. Much to be explored in the area! If the National Monument designation sticks I think we’ll see a bump in usability? Who knows.
Baxter seems like a really special place. I have no skin in the game but I feel after a trip there I can understand why the park folks might not see the lands as a good terminus for the AT. Still largely undecided as to what my personal opinion is on the matter but I see one side clearer now.