The summit of Mount Katahdin, photographed in the 1870s by A.L. Hinds and prepared for stereoscopic use. New York Public Library’s The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection

Editor’s note: Below is the entire story that first mentioned a possible map made by Henry David Thoreau in the mid-1800s. It was published in the Lewiston Journal Magazine, published by the Lewiston Evening Journal on Jan. 10, 1970.

By Dr. Webster Chester

In 1912, Colby College Commencement was over on the last Wednesday in June. We, three teachers, Professor Carter of the Mathematics Department, professor Little who had but recently arrived at Colby from Johns Hopkins and was in Geology, and I, who had come to Colby in 1903 to introduce a course in Biology, had our plans all set to climb Mount Katahdin. We had discussed the idea thoroughly and were all ready to leave that first weekend after Commencement.

Our first problem was to find a map showing us how to get to Katahdin. All that we could find was a diagram that Thoreau had made in the middle of the last century when he paid Katahdin what was to become a famous visit. We borrowed the Thoreau diagram from the Colby College library.

Equipment for hiking was not available in 1912. We were told that we would need a blanket, a waterproof cover, a mosquito net and good walking shoes. I supplied myself with a khaki tarpaulin that I could throw over my head and cover my body if it rained. I think that my footwear was an ordinary pair of shoes and rubbers. My blanket was a down puff. Mrs. Chester’s confidence that would return the puff unharmed was evidence of the family cooperation in my endeavor.

TRAVELED LIGHT

I don’t remember what footwear Carter provided for himself, but I do remember that Little wore a pair of walking shoes that came halfway to his knees. One of us contributed a skillet to fry the bacon, another a coffee pot and we also had a pan for cooking Cream of Wheat. We had a compass and a hatchet and food for four or five days.

We had been advised to prepare for insects. Each one of us supplied himself with a generous yardage of cheesecloth. It wasn’t possible to obtain insect repellant, such as we have now. However, we did make up a concoction of tar and oil of citronella. We were told that lumbermen used this mixture in the woods. We carried a good supply of it. Little had been able to find a book of railroad tickets. As I remember, it was possible then to buy a book of 1,000 tickets for two cents a mile. Little kept that ticket book pinned to his shirt pocket.

We three hikers reached Millinocket late Friday afternoon and immediately we began the walk toward Katahdin. After a short time, we made camp under a small maple. In the morning, a white throat in the tree above us urged us to be on the way. The tote road toward the mountain was good road. When, in later years, we used a Model T we were sure we could have driven over that 1912 road easily.

We walked that road all day Saturday.

Now, as I look back on our progress, it seems as if we must have walked very slowly for we did not reach Abol stream that afternoon. In the evening, we made camp by the side of the road. Here we had a chance to try out our cheese cloth net. Little didn’t seem to get his net arranged well. We heard, during the night, a good many expressions from him and about 3:30 a.m. he exploded. He swore that he would not stay in that place any longer. Carter and I were willing to vacate, too, for the mosquitoes and black flies were dreadful.

WONDERFUL BREAKFAST

On that early Sunday morning, before the sun was up, we made our way to Abol stream. We were not accustomed to see a stream with such lovely clear water and it fascinated us. What was more, the brook trout in it were all we could have wished for for breakfast. No one had told us that, on a hiking trip, we would need a hook and line. We didn’t have a hook, but we did find a pin and a piece of string. By turning over some rocks, we found worms. Soon we had the loveliest trout sizzling in the skillet over our campfire. A wonderful way to start a day.

BLACK FLIES

It wasn’t difficult to find the trail to the top of the mountain. Late that Sunday afternoon, we reached a bunkhouse near to Thoreau’s spring. The water in that spring was the most wonderful water that any man ever drank. Through all the years, since 1912, I have remembered that drink of water. Not surprising, because we were thirsty. The afternoon had been hot, and we had used a lot of our homemade fly dope. The black flies, that I never had before experienced, were AWFUL! I can remember now what a relief it was to enter that hut, where it was dark and free from those horrid flies. In those bunks, that night, our cheese cloths surely kept away the mosquitoes.

On Monday morning we started the rest of the climb. The only trail from the hut that we could find was up the southwest slide. The bottom of the slide was a short distance from the spring.

The slide was very steep. We climbed about 20 steps and rested. The view from this region was magnificent. Toward the west and south there was nothing to obliterate the view. The higher we went the larger the horizon. Unfortunately, it began to cloud over; the atmosphere was very clear.

At the top of the slide were a number of large rocks piled on top of each other. There was an opening among them large enough to enter. This hole was the ‘Needle’s Eye.’ We passed through this to the top of the mountain. It was a flat area. On the opposite side we expected to find the trail down. On the right was the sharp extension of the Mountain, the ‘Knife Edge.’ After our mid-day meal we walked to the beginning of the Knife Edge.

Many years after our experience in this area, an airplane picture of this part of Mt. Katahdin was hung on the lobby wall of the Depositors’ Trust Co. Bank in Waterville. Almost every time I entered the bank I stood in front of that picture and recalled that Monday climb in 1912.

The Knife Edge on Katahdin is seen from Chimney Pond in Baxter State Park. Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald

RAIN

Early that Monday afternoon it began to rain. Our immediate concern was to find a trail on the east side of the mountain. The map indicated a trail, but we could not find it. We attempted one, but we soon refused to take it. There were some blazed trees on our left that indicated a route to the north. That we decided to take.

None of us seemed worried about our condition. We were on top of Mt. Katahdin. We had to get down. We didn’t know, but we had missed the easiest exit toward Chimney Pond. We could have gone back over the slide, but we realized that going down that wet slide ‘might’ be dangerous. We felt if we followed the blazed trail, it would carry us away from the railroad.

EXHAUSTING TRIP

One of the odd things about that trip was that had seen neither deer nor moose, yet in those days they were said to be many in the area. On that Monday we did not meet anyone. We struggled along, knowing that the trail had to lead to somewhere. In our progress one of us would go forward and find the next blaze and hold it until the other two came up. In this manner, we inch-wormed our way all afternoon. Our progress was faster than you might think. The route was over a relatively level area. I don’t remember going up or down any steep incline.

How far we traveled I don’t know. Before dark we came to an open area and it seemed to be an abandoned lumber camp. It looked as it if had been vacated only recently. We were on the top of a very high hill. Because it was raining, we could not see the surrounding peaks. There was a wooden sluice way leading from the top of the hill to a stream far below. We found a path alongside the sluice way and took it.

WE SLEPT

At the bottom of the hill was an abandoned sawmill where there was enough dust for a good bed. There was enough roof to keep us dry. Soon after supper we turned in. Little felt so concerned about his wet shoes that he pondered long as what to do. He was certain that if took them off to dry he wouldn’t be able to put them on in the morning so finally he decided to wear them all night and he fell asleep in his wet, uncomfortable shoes.

Sometime during the night, the rain stopped. After breakfast we crossed the stream and found a road that led off to the right. Little had gone no more than a few steps before he sat down and took off his shoes. He couldn’t stand them. What he was to do without his shoes, we didn’t know, but he couldn’t go on wearing them.

Luck was with us. Little hadn’t walked very long in his stocking feet before we came upon an active lumber camp. They welcomed us and Little was able to buy a pair of moccasins and with these on his feet, he finished the trip in comfort.

WHERE WERE WE?

Just where we were, we did not know. The map didn’t go that far. We were told that the tote road would take us to Staceyville, so we travelled, all that day, toward Staceyville. The road wasn’t comparable to the road in that we had taken from Millinocket. It was passable for buckboards — and for us.

During the day a noisy load of lumbermen passed us. They were on their way in. That night we came to a clearing where there had been a lumber camp. There was a body of water with a raft of logs moored near the shore. The quietness of the water was an ideal breeding place for mosquitoes. We learned that the place was called ‘Mosquito Dam.’

A man who lived in one of the old bunk houses invited us to stay all night with him. The perfectly dark interior and the heavy odor of smoke persuaded us to choose the open air. There were scattered logs against which we could fasten our sleeping equipment. We were each of us careful to place our mosquito nets in such a manner that it would be almost impossible to enter our prepared sleeping quarters without taking in at least two mosquitoes. We slapped mosquitoes, it seemed, for hours, but we were tired out and when we finally fell asleep, we slept till early morning.

We found that we had passed that Tuesday night not far from the east branch of the Penobscot River. We had been told that if we called to the ferryman across the river, he would come for us and take us across. That we did and before noon we were at the railroad station at Staceyville.

DEAD BEAT

Since there was some time before the train arrival, we rested on the ground. We had our share of walking. The fact that Carter, in fun, ‘lifted’ the book of railroad tickets from Little’s pocket as Little slept on the ground shows that even at the end of that grueling trip Carter still had enough energy left to play tricks.

Out in the open air we were not conscious of the odor of the mosquito dope we carried on us, but once on the train it was another matter. We occupied a corner of the smoking car and slept all the way back to Waterville. I am sure few people used the smoking car on that trip with us.

When I reached home my wife rushed out to greet me. She was glad to see me. A minute later I was refused entrance at my own front door. Instead, plenty of soap and hot water were handed to me along with fresh clothing. I cleaned my body, but I never did get that down puff clean. That was a casualty of my one and only mountain climbing trip. I never undertook another mountain climb, but I wouldn’t have missed that 1912 trip for anything in the world.

Lewiston Journal Magazine editor’s note: Majestic Mt. Katahdin now has well mapped trails and safety precautions for climbers, but in 1912 it was a wilderness. … The three young Colby College professors had only Henry D. Thoreau’s diagram of his Katahdin trip for a guide for their journey. The Thoreau ‘map’ they borrowed from the Colby College library. … In light of today’s preparation for a climb of Katahdin, of the precaution and training needed for the climb, it is a miracle that the three young ‘teachers’ in their street shoes and mosquito netting and down puffs ever survived their 1912 adventure.

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