The lion in winter

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Maine’s tallest mountain attracts hikers even at the height of our coldest season

Imagine yourself waking before dawn in a strange frozen landscape and squirming out of your sleeping bag under an open-air lean-to to greet sub-zero temperatures and biting wind.

Bundling up in several layers of your warmest clothes, and taking extra care not to expose even a millimeter of skin, you tuck your water for the day inside your coat so your body temperature will keep it from freezing, and get ready to ascend Mount Katahdin, Maine’s tallest peak.

You and a handful of companions are the only human life for miles in any direction. The fresh snow before you is undisturbed by snowshoe or ski, and all around you is the clearest, most star-filled sky you have ever seen in your life.

No one says a word as you make your way toward the treeline, not wanting to disturb the almost supernatural quiet of this remote place. Pine trees give way to bare rock and the sun peeks over the horizon, filling the world with light and turning thousands of ice and snow crystals into radiant brilliance.

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This is Baxter State Park — one of Maine’s most beloved natural treasures — in the wintertime. And though it’s only a few hours away from the Lewiston-Auburn area, it’s an exotic landscape that only the most intrepid outdoor adventurers experience.

Emily Ranucci and Marie Dufresne-Dixon, two 2011 Edward Little High School graduates now rooming together at the University of Maine in Orono, recently joined their numbers.

The girls, who have both cross-county skied competitively and are co-presidents of their college cross-country ski club, decided to join Maine Bound, the university’s staffed outdoor adventure center, on one of its excursions to Baxter last month.

The entire trip took two days, including the drive from Orono to the park. The five students and three staff members on the trip arrived at Baxter after dark on the first day, shouldered their 70-pound packs, and skied an hour to their campsite, a three-sided lean-to open to the bitter minus-10-degree cold.

After setting up camp, the group settled in to sleep at around midnight. Wake-up time was 4 a.m., but Ranucci said she got even less sleep than the allotted four hours.

“It was really cold. I don’t think I slept at all,” she said.

After covering every inch of their bodies to prevent frostbite, the girls strapped on helmets, goggles, crampons and light packs, and readied their ice axes for a day of climbing.

Despite the hostile conditions, Ranucci and Dufresne-Dixon, who had each climbed Katahdin four times in the summer, said the ascent wasn’t as hard as they had expected. Their guides had warned them to take it slow and avoid taxing themselves too much, so their pace was relaxed and comfortable, even if the temperature wasn’t.

“As long as we were moving, it was easy to stay warm, but as soon as you stop, the cold catches up with you,” said Ranucci.

At one point, Ranucci, who was anxious about the possibility of frostbite, noticed that Dufresne-Dixon’s exposed nose had turned white. Fortunately, her friend covered it in time to avoid any serious damage. Some of their other companions also experienced a little numbness from the cold, but no one suffered any permanent damage.

Though the group climbed almost the full vertical elevation of the mountain, they had to stop and turn back before reaching the summit. The final mile before the summit is a mostly flat table completely exposed to the wind on all sides. The subzero temperature and the speed of the wind made it impossible for the group to complete that final leg.

“It’s just the luck of nature whether you’re going to be able to make it to the top,” said Corey Walker, a teacher at Dingley School in Lewiston, which offers a program for students who have been expelled from high school.

Walker just returned from his third winter trip up Katahdin last week, during the February school vacation. Like Dufresne-Dixon and Ranucci, Walker was unable to summit his first year due to extreme weather conditions, but he made it to the top the second time he attempted.

“It’s one of the hardest workouts that you’re ever going to get,” said Walker of the climb.

“In snow and ice, everything takes at least one and a half times longer than it does in the summer. Your feet slip a little bit with every step, and it adds up. You have to be a lot more aware of time.”

Walker’s usual route begins more than 12 miles from the base camp at Chimney Pond. After spending a cold night in a lean-to, he sets out for another three-plus miles to the summit. While three miles may not sound like much, those three miles encompass 2,300 feet of elevation gain.

Walker said the hardest part of climbing Katahdin in the wintertime is coming home, and he doesn’t mean in a sentimental way.

“You have to do all 16 miles back out on the last day. It’s grueling. After six or eight miles, you’re just junk and you’re thinking ‘Oh, God, I’ve got another eight miles to go.’ And there’s no one around who’s going to pick you up,” he said.

Still, to Walker, the tranquility of Baxter in the winter makes it all worth it.

“It’s serene and peaceful and there aren’t actually a lot of people in the world that do it,” said Walker.

He recalls one particular trip when it snowed overnight, blanketing everything in a fresh coat of powder. He got up before dawn and headed up the Saddle Trail to watch the sun rise.

“I’ll never forget that morning alpenglow coming down onto the fresh snow,” he said.

Moments like that have brought him back each winter, and he believes they will for years to come.

“If you love the outdoors, I can’t imagine anything better,” said Walker.

Fellow outdoor enthusiast Dufresne-Dixon isn’t so sure, though.

“It was fun to do at least once in my life, but I don’t know if I’d ever do it again,” she said.

Ranucci said she probably would, “But I’d definitely try to pick a warmer weekend.”

For Dufresne-Dixon, coming down the mountain was the best part.

“On the way down, there was so much snow you could just sit and slide down,” she said.

Below the Tree Line

If spending a winter day clinging to the side of a mountain in subzero temperatures doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, there are other ways to enjoy Baxter in the snow.

Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster and Lewiston Public Library Director Rick Speer recently spent four days cross-country skiing below the tree line.

Though the temperatures in the lower elevations are no more hospitable, the landscape is much gentler.

Speer’s first trip was in the winter of 2004.

“I was a little apprehensive the first time because I wasn’t sure I was up to it physically. You have to pull a sled with your gear. I didn’t know what the conditions would be like — how steep, how strenuous — but I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was,” he said.

The trip to the Upper Branch Pond campsite is 12 miles. After the first few times he went, Speer learned that a local outfitter will snowmobile your gear out to a road crossing 10 miles in, only requiring winter campers to haul their gear in for the final two-mile leg. Not having to drag 70 pounds of gear for the first 10 miles makes an incredible difference, said Speer.

“The reality is that it’s literally and figuratively a drag. You don’t go too fast,” he said.

Webster had only skied Baxter one other time. Instead of staying in the heart of the park, he traversed its length, skiing 50 miles over several days, and spending a night sleeping in a lean-to in minus-15-degree weather.

“That was one of the worst nights of sleeping in my life,” said Webster.

This time, though, the pair stayed in the wood-stove-heated bunkhouse at South Branch Pond, travelling a total of 54 miles of trails on a series of day trips.

Though the bunkhouse is very rustic, with only a wooden platform for a bed, the wood stove and supplied firewood make a real difference.

“You can get it pretty cozy in there,” said Speer, who has visited the park for eight of the past 10 winters.

Speer said experiencing Baxter in the wintertime isn’t as daunting as most people probably imagine.

“It’s not that difficult. With a little forethought and planning, if you enjoy skiing and you’re in shape, it’s pretty easy,” he said.

While Webster doesn’t disagree, he thinks the mental hurdle is still too high for most people to overcome.

“It’s so foreign to what most people, even people in Maine, would be open to experiencing. It puts you in very select company, and that is neat,” he said.

“There are many things that, if people actually wanted to, they could do, but the thought of doing it is just too much. I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘Why would you even want to do that?’”

The answer to that, said both Speer and Webster, lies right in the question. The very remoteness and presumed difficulty of the trek are what make Baxter in the winter so irresistible.

“One of the things I like about Baxter is the opportunity to get off the beaten track and go to places where, at that time of year, no one else has been,” said Webster.

“To know that there is no one else within 15 miles of you in any direction is both sobering and wonderful.”

The only people he and Speer saw during their time in the park were a couple of rangers.

Speer said Baxter is one of his favorite places, and the snow and ice just add to it.

“If you go to Russell Pond in the summer time, there aren’t a lot of people, but in the winter, it’s a whole different world,” said Speer.

The only tracks around belong to moose, bobcats, rabbits and other creatures native to the landscape. Other than their own, there were no human tracks to mar the snow for miles around.

Webster said he particularly enjoyed seeing sights he knew from summer visits with fresh eyes, such as touching the frozen-solid waters of Green Falls or standing below the cliffs at Upper South Branch Pond, which he had jumped from numerous times in the summer.

“There’s something about winter in a place like Baxter. There is this complete silence. There’s no phone coverage. There are no electronics that do much of anything for you. It brings you back in time in a way and gives you a new appreciation of nature,” said Webster.

Know yourself and the park

It’s important to be physically fit to climb Katahdin or spend a significant amount of time camping in the winter.

“You really have to know yourself, know what you’re capable of and know that you’re going to have to push yourself a little harder than you even think you will,” said Corey Walker, a Lewiston teacher who recently returned from his third winter trip to Baxter State Park.

“Try shorter, less remote winter trips first to get a feel for it, and be sure to read up on it so you have an idea of what to expect.”

Reservations are required to camp overnight in Baxter State Park at any time of year. The park website includes a section on winter camping, complete with an outline of park policies and a handy guide on visiting in winter. Visit http://www.baxterstateparkauthority.com/camping/winter.htm for more information.

If you are going, be sure to . . .

Winter temperatures in Baxter State Park often plummet to 20 below zero or lower for extended periods of time. Staying warm is, in the truest sense, a matter of life and death.

While having the right outdoor gear is important at any time of year, it is especially crucial in the wintertime. Here’s a brief, and by no means complete, guide to some necessities.

Clothing: Wearing layers is the key to staying comfortable in the harsh weather. Avoid wearing cotton, which can soak through easily and retain moisture for a long time. Instead, opt for high-tech wicking base layers covered by several warm, insulating layers of fleece and/or wool, topped off with a wind-breaking and waterproof outer shell. Hats, scarves and multiple layers of gloves and mittens are a must, as are ski goggles and, if climbing, a helmet.

Footwear: Look for waterproof, insulated boots with the warmest possible rating. Boots with removable liners are best. Use multiple liners if possible, and well as a waterproof inside barrier.

Sleeping: Find a sleeping bag rated to at least 20 below zero. Anything with less protection will be useless against the relentless cold of northern Maine’s mountain terrain. A good sleeping pad is important, providing another layer of insulation between you and the cold ground.

Food: Food is your body’s primary source of heat, so having enough to eat in the wintertime is essential. Remember that you are going to be miles from civilization with no chance to resupply. Be sure to plan your menu for a good mix of carbohydrates for quick energy, fats for extra calories and protein to rebuild taxed muscles. Gorp is an easy, light option for on the trail, but be sure to bring some heavy, satisfying meals to cook. Open fires are not allowed in most of Baxter, so a good camp stove is essential. Bring a backup, and plenty of extra fuel, in case of failure or leakage.

Snowshoes or skis: A good pair of snowshoes or cross-country skis is essential for getting around in the snow, which can get pretty deep. Trekking poles will also make the going easier on uneven terrain.

Sleds: Because you’ll need so much more gear in the winter, a sled is a great investment. You can use a basic plastic department store sled, but you’ll need a harness to drag it comfortably.

A snow shovel: Be sure to bring a sturdy collapsible shovel for clearing out lean-tos, getting to buried water, or digging yourself out in a jam.

Ice axes and crampons: If you hope to summit Katahdin, a good set of crampons and ice axes are essential. The ascent is both steep and slippery.

Water purifier: There is no safe, potable water anywhere in Baxter State Park. To prevent contracting giardia or another waterborne pathogen, you’ll need to treat your drinking water. Boiling for five minutes is the most effective way to purify water, but you can also treat it with iodine or bleach, use a special filter or an ultraviolet wand.

Emergency supplies: Have a fully stocked first aid kit for each member of your party, as well as some basic tools to repair snowshoes, skis, crampons, etc.

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