A winter saunter to Baxter State Park is well worth the trip.

Perhaps the best kept winter mountaineering secret in Baxter State Park is a trip to South Branch Pond.

Most climbers and mountaineers head to Chimney Pond with their sights set squarely on the summits of Mount Katahdin. A few “peak baggers” trek into the hut at Nesowadnehunk Field, so that they can access the trails to the four “high peaks” located in the western part of the park. Few are attracted to the South Branch Pond area.

There is much that is appealing about South Branch Pond. In fact, there are two quite distinct ponds; named Upper and Lower South Branch Ponds. Although its name implies the opposite, the South Branch Pond Campground is actually located in the far northeast corner of the park. Bordered by mountains on the east and west, the ponds have the character of an inland fjord. The campground features a newly constructed bunkhouse that can be reserved in the winter and is located in a remote setting with splendid views. Because other areas of the park are more popular, it is relatively easy to get winter reservations for the South Branch cabin. To obtain information on reservations and winter park regulations, access the park Web site at www.baxterstateparkauthority.com or call park headquarters at (207) 723-5140. There are three peaks in the South Branch area that have a special attraction for some mountaineers. They are Peak of the Ridges, North Traveler and a rarely climbed mountain called The Traveler. They are all over 3000 feet in elevation, with The Traveler being the highest at 3541 feet. However, it is not their elevation that is intriguing for most. Rather, it is their remote location and the difficulty of access.

This was my second trip to the South Branch in the winter. Three years prior, I had been part of a six man team that had experienced a very difficult time. We had begun the trip with wind chill factors that were lower than minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Our attempt to climb The Traveler had been foiled by heavy winds and severe chill factors that had resulted in a frostbitten finger for one member of our group. Then a subsequent attempt to climb North Traveler was turned back by a substantial winter storm that caused dangerous whiteouts along the cliffs at higher elevations. That storm continued through the night dumping 18 inches of fresh snow on the ground. The following day, we had to pull full sleds through the deep snow while breaking trail with snowshoes for over ten miles. It was one of the most exhausting days that any of us had ever experienced.

Another try

Three of us had now returned in search of redemption. The two other returnees were Gary Cole of Monmouth and my son Adam of Orono. We were also joined by my wife Nancy. This time, temperatures and wind chills were much more palatable on the trip into the pond. Further, the snow on the trail was packed down and there was a thin layer of ice on top; which made for easy sled pulling wearing just our winter hiking boots.

All of our sleds were homemade. While there were some minor differences in design, we had all purchased long, plastic expedition model sleds from hardware stores, attached aluminum or PVC poles to the sleds and then to ammo belts around our waists. We hauled our gear in water resistant duffel bags that were attached to the sleds and carried our winter mountaineering packs on our backs. This combination allows for a load as heavy as 80 to 100 pounds, which is much more substantial than most people can carry in a backpack.

For a mountaineering trip to Baxter, climbers need to pack in skis, ski boots and poles, snowshoes with climbing claws, winter climbing boots with crampons and climbing poles. It is also necessary to carry bedding, food, cookstoves, lanterns, fuel, cooking gear and eating utensils. Water is available at the outlet of the pond, which is just a few hundred feet from the cabin. The water should probably be purified.

The bunkhouse is quite spacious. There is a large kitchen/dining area with a woodstove, table and plenty of cupboard space. There are two bunkrooms with four beds in each room. Natural refrigeration is readily available on the porch. The park provides firewood that is usually stored under the porch in front of the cabin. The outhouse is located about a hundred feet away. The hut is located near the shore facing south, which provides for excellent views looking down the lower pond.

We decided to climb Peak of the Ridges and Traveler the first day, expecting that it would be our most arduous climbing day. It is about a 1.5 mile snowshoe south from the campground on the Pogy Notch Trail to the Center Ridge Trail, which then ascends steadily for 1.25 miles to the summit of Peak of the Ridges at 3,254 feet. The first portion of the Center Ridge Trail is quite steep and crampons may be necessary. The higher elevations are almost completely exposed, often windy and ice covered. The Center Ridge Trail ends near the summit and there is no maintained trail to The Traveler, which is about a mile east.

Tough Traveler

If it is a clear day, study the terrain from the cliffs just to the east of Peak of the Ridges and take a compass bearing to The Traveler summit or the direction of your planned “bushwack.” Unless you have excellent orienteering skills, I do not recommend a summit attempt of The Traveler when there is poor visibility. The risk of getting lost is too great. We descended steeply into a thick wooded area between the two peaks and followed our compass bearing through the spruce growth and along the southwest slope crossing a couple of rock slides. We then turned northeast and climbed above the tree-line and then almost due north for a short distance to the summit, which affords spectacular 360 degree views. We used our snowshoes with claws for our climb from Peak of the Ridges to The Traveler and back. There really was no good choice of footwear on The Traveler, as there was an abundance of both exposed rock and ice. After descending the Center Ridge Trail, we returned to the cabin by crossing the ice on Lower South Branch Pond, which allowed for outstanding views of the surrounding mountains.

On our second day at South Branch Pond Campground, we ascended the North Traveler Trail, which climbs 2.5 miles to the summit of North Traveler Mountain. Similar to Center Ridge, the first portion of the trail is very steep and crampons will probably be necessary. Caution should be exercised on this trail, as it is exposed on the south side and is often icy. Further, much of it follows along the edge of sheer, south facing cliffs. While there are sections of partial exposure on the trail, it is never truly above the tree-line. There is a heavily wooded area that tends to collect drifted snow just before reaching the open summit. On the final day of our expedition, we had an uneventful trip pulling our sleds out to the Matagamon Trailhead using a combination of skis and hiking boots for footwear.

The South Branch area provides opportunities for a multitude of winter recreational activities. The Perimeter and South Branch Roads can be used for cross-country skiing and skiing on trails in the Fowler Pond area is also possible. The South Branch Mountain Trail crosses the summits of South Branch and Black Cat Mountains on the west side of the South Branch Ponds and provides an essentially below tree-line day hike. The campground can also be used as the first stop on a traverse of Baxter State Park from north to south. Regardless of your choice, there is no place in Maine in the winter that is more rugged, challenging and scenic than Baxter State Park.

To reach the Matagamon Winter Trailhead from central and western Maine, drive north on Interstate 95 to the Sherman exit, which is about 1.5 hours north of Bangor. Follow Route 11 north to Patten and then turn left and take the Shin Pond Road to the scenic village of Shin Pond. Continue west on the unpaved Grand Lake Road for about 15 miles until crossing the East Branch of the Penobscot River just below the outlet of Matagamon Lake. The winter trailhead is just west of the bridge and about 1.5 miles before the park entrance at Matagamon Gate. There is a fairly large parking area that is plowed periodically. Take a shovel in case you get snowed in while visiting the park.

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