A celebration on Katahdin, Maine’s greatest mountain

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The success of an expedition, at least from my perspective, is defined by the moments of bliss, the shared experiences and the friendships that deepen from the moment that the plan is hatched through to the acquisition of whatever goals you had hoped to achieve.

Some years ago, a friend decided that he wanted to celebrate his 40th birthday on Katahdin, the highest peak in the state of Maine. Given Harley’s status as a quadriplegic, however, this would be a little more than just another hike in the Maine wilderness. Given our semi-youthful optimism, however, we never doubted our ability to pull it off and so our adventure, aptly dubbed “Quad on Katahdin” began.

Ascending Katahdin, an Indian word meaning “greatest mountain,” with its steep slopes, loose rocks and precarious viewpoints, is a significant undertaking, even in the best of circumstances, and so careful planning was necessary. A large group of friends was called upon to assist and each assigned a set of tasks. From securing the proper reservations and permission we needed from the good people at Baxter State Park, to building or compiling the equipment we thought would get us there safely, to planning meals to keep more than two dozen of us fed and hydrated for four days, all of our puzzle pieces fell into place.

On a sunny afternoon in August, our caravan passed the south gate of Baxter State Park and we gathered on the banks of Roaring Brook to make final preparations, divvy up equipment and food, repack backpacks and celebrate the beginning of our adventure. After a feast and a bonfire, we settled into our tents to sleep among friends.

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Early the following morning, we awoke with high spirits to clear weather. Pamola, the spirit that is said to live in Katahdin, was surely pleased. Representatives of the Maine Parks Service were planning to join us for the first leg of our adventure, adding their skill and intimate knowledge of mountain lore. And, so, with boots laced tightly, packs strapped comfortably and Harley self-propelling his wheelchair, we began the 3.3 mile trek to Chimney Pond, a base camp located just below the tree line.

Slowly, we picked and rolled our way past trail signs, streams, ponds and stands of white birch. Eventually, the going got a bit rough for self-propulsion, and poles were attached to Harley’s chair to create the “mountain chair,” a rickshaw-like chair that allowed others, the “Mules,” to assist Harley as necessary. Occasionally, when the going got really rough, Harley moved into a sedan chair mounted on two longer poles to be carried by a pair of mules.

Chimney Pond campground is a small area that resembles a set from Jurassic Park. Heavily wooded with lean-tos scatted amongst boulders in a bowl created by massive peaks and 2,000’ granite cliffs, Chimney Pond is located at the spot where the trails that ascend the Greatest Mountain get serious. Seriously vertical, seriously challenging, seriously dangerous.

While some of us set up camp and began preparing our evening meal, others scouted our two trail choices to determine which might bring us closer to our goal of getting Harley up to Baxter Peak, the summit. The Cathedral Trail, named for its three spires of rock that jut out from the side of the mountain, and rising quickly past the tree line, is the most direct route to the summit, but would require some short free climbs and scrambles of large boulders. The Saddle Trail, though ascending more gently than the Cathedral, after weaving its way through massive boulders, was paved entirely with loose rock having once been the site of a massive rockslide. It didn’t take the scouts long to come to the conclusion that “Plan B” was our best option.

“Plan B” included a celebration of Harley’s birthday on the shore of Chimney Pond, at the base of the cliffs below the semi-circle of Pamola Peak, the Knife Edge and Baxter Peak. Our large group divided into 3 groups. One group stayed with Harley to spend the day enjoying the sunshine, and others hiked to the summit via the Saddle Trail. I joined the group hiking the Cathedral Trail. With several radios, our groups were in frequent radio contact sharing stories and laughs as each took its own path. Converging on a plateau known as Tableland, the two groups summited together, sharing hoots and hollers with Harley via radio and sending good wishes through the clear miles between where we stood, at the top of Maine, and Chimney Pond with Harley below.

After snacks and photographs, we set off for the Knife Edge. The Knife Edge is a 1.1 mile long rocky strip of land deposited as glaciers moved through Maine, with steep drops on either side sometimes so narrow that one can stand astride its crest with feet planted on both sides of the mountain. It connects two mountain peaks and the Katahdin guide book by Stephen Clark, as well as mountain trail signs, issue warnings for the traveler including: “Do not use this route in marginal or bad weather because of extreme exposure.” Fortunately for us, the weather was clear with visibility that could be measured in many miles. Pamola, apparently, was still happy, and so were we.

Having crossed the Knife Edge, we reached Pamola Peak and began our descent on the Dudley Trail. A significant portion of the Dudley Trail is comprised of boulders the size of buses that one must walk over, between and, occasionally, under.

Returning to Chimney Pond we rested by the cold mountain pond, soaking weary limbs, soothing sore muscles, sharing stories and gazing up at the mountain peaks that had provided us with a memorable adventure.

That evening we celebrated Harley’s birthday as a group, and prepared ourselves to leave that magical place. The following day, we trekked out of our primordial forest and back into reality.

Although Harley didn’t make it to the summit of Katahdin, we shared the accomplishment of getting him as close to the summit as anyone with his limitations had ever been and we honored, together, both Harley’s birthday and Katahdin, Maine’s greatest mountain.

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