Joe Lelanksy at the top of Mountain Katahdin. Submitted photo

When Joe Lelansky gets to talking about his many trips up Mount Katahdin, there is majesty in his words. 

He speaks eloquently of breathtaking vistas, of sparkling ponds offering cool relief in torrid summer heat, of the soaring elation that comes when man becomes one with wilderness. 

He speaks of joy and beauty and the glory of nature. 

A lone Boy Scout sits atop The Needle at Baxter State Park. The photo is from Joe Lelansky’s collection. Submitted photo

And then, in the next breath, he’s back down to earth, describing the more prosaic experiences that come when a man leads groups of Boy Scouts out into the woods year after year for a quarter century. 

Sitting on his porch at his Auburn home, Joe pokes a finger at a picture of a kid sitting atop the narrow rock face known as The Needle. 

“Every one of my Scouts,” he says, “had to walk out to the end of that and take a leak.” 


For 25 years, Joe made yearly trips to Katahdin with groups of Boy Scouts in tow. Wouldn’t it be a little strange if there WEREN’T a few stories of youthful hijinks? 

A dollar a day

The stories from the trail Joe has to tell are fun to listen to, but the the math of his adventures is almost jaw-dropping. 

Joe, who just turned 89, made at least 60 trips to the top of Mount Katahdin and 44 across Knife Edge, a notoriously difficult scramble that stretches from peak to peak — a span that some hikers refuse to cross at all. 

After stepping down as scoutmaster, he continued climbing for another 30 years with friends and anyone, really, who wanted to experience Katahdin.

It’s estimated that over the course of 50 years, he’s introduced at least 500 people to Katahdin, the bulk of them Scouts. 


For most people, the idea of leading a large group of children into rugged and dangerous wilderness is a nerve-rattling thought. 

But Joe was no ordinary man and his troops were not ordinary kids. 

“I did something different as a scoutmaster,” Joe explains. “I didn’t let anybody go with me unless they were a first class Scout. They had to have spent at least four nights out before we went on a trip. That way, I never had to do any babysitting. I never had any problems with anybody. Everybody had a good time and in fact, I had to compliment them on a couple occasions because they had supper ready before I did.” 

What was to become an annual tradition began in 1951. Right around Father’s Day, Joe would organize the older members of Boy Scout Troop 137 for the trek to Baxter State Park and Maine’s highest mountain. They’d gather at the High Street Congregational Church, take a quick inventory of gear and then head north in a convoy of trucks and cars. 

“I also remember his big station wagon — back then there was no seat belt law — and he would cram as many of us as he could in it, along with other parents’ cars, so we could all go to Mt. Katahdin,” said Arlon “Butch” Webster, who joined Joe’s party around 1962.

Joe Lelansky, Andy Choate (center, facing the camera) and Val Taylor (left, facing Joe) in a kitchen lean-to during a 1989 trip to Mount Katahdin. Submitted photo

The Scouts who came along for the hikes paid $4 for the four-day trek. It wasn’t so much about the money, Joe says. It was about imparting lessons they would need in their adult lives to come.


“It was good to charge them a little something,” Joe says. “It made them appreciate it more.” 

And then they were out in the wilderness, and over the next four days, the Scouts, their parents and anyone who was along for the ride would put their skills to the test.

“We would camp overnight at Chimney Pond, have bean hole beans for supper and then climb Mt. Katahdin the next day,” says Webster.

It was on one of these trips that Webster would have his first “scary” experience crossing the Knife Edge: “People who have climbed Mt. Katahdin,” Webster says, “know exactly what I mean by scary.”

Those who spent time with Joe in the wilderness speak with adoration of the man and with reverence, respect and even awe of his skills and experience. That Joe was a master of wilderness survival and endurance is offered as a foregone fact and there is great appreciation that he was so willing to pass on his skill set to others.

Yet, the for first few years, the excursion to Katahdin was not the finely tuned machine it was to become. They packed too much food and too much gear. Overburdened packs were heavy and a strain to carry up the mountain. At the end of the trip, there was food leftover and there was waste. 


“When we got back from that first trip, we all got together to talk about it,” Joe recalls. “What went well, what didn’t go well? What did we carry that we shouldn’t have carried? After four years, we had that menu down to a point where you didn’t bring back so much as a slice of bread with you. We didn’t bring back any empty containers. If you happened to have a leftover item or two, you left it with the ranger, and he was happy to have it.” 

How good was Joe with keeping track of food items on the dusty trail? Expert level, according to those who hiked with him. Food, after all, is a matter of survival, and it’s a point he wanted to drill into the minds of his troops. 

Joe’s granddaughter, Jenna Lelansky, tells a funny story that emphasizes this fact. 

“On one trip to Katahdin,” Jenna begins, “we were camping at Chimney Pond. Being the well-planning, meticulous man he is, Grandpa had taught us how important our rations were in the wilderness. That lesson must not have sunk in as deeply in my younger cousin Sara at the time, who thought nothing of taking one slice of bread without permission. 

Various photos from Joe Lelansky’s collection of trips he made with his Boy Scouts troops to Mount Katahdin. Submitted photo

“The next day,” Jenna continues, “after breakfast, we ascended the Cathedral Trail, up to Baxter Peak where we would have lunch. It was there Grandpa Joe gave us our sandwiches. They were ham, cheese and just the right amount of mustard. When Sara asked why she only got a half, he calmly explained she had ate her other piece of bread the night before.

“He taught us both a valuable lesson,” Jenna says. “A lesson I carry with me today, and often tell others when I recall the story of ‘The Best Sandwich I’ve Ever Had in My Life.'” 


It wasn’t the only lesson Joe imparted, though. 

“Everything I’ve learned about hiking, survival, the wonders of nature and the life’s analogies they provide,” Jenna says, “have either been passed down or come directly from Joe Lelansky.” 

And it wasn’t only matters of hiking, camping and climbing that he passed along. He also instilled in his troops a mentality of respecting the land and those who used it. When they went off on their hikes, Joe had his Scouts pick up any litter they found as they worked their ways up the trail en route to the summit. On the way back down, they’d do the same thing. 

Every inch of the trail up the mountain was a classroom where Joe got a chance to educate and enlighten. You can kind of understand why the rangers on Katahdin came to appreciate Joe as much as the Scouts did. 

Keeping it clean

Joe finds it kind of funny that with COVID-19 jangling everybody’s nerves these days, people are only now discovering the importance of a rigid personal hygiene regimen. Are we really living in a time, he wonders, when we need health professionals to tell grown ups to wash up? 


Bob Allison will attest that anyone who hiked with Joe Lelansky knew this long ago.

“Joe brought me to new heights of camping cleanliness,” Allison says.  

Back in the day, Joe would ask his Scouts a question for their merit badges.  

“It went something like this,” Allison recalls. “‘So, now you are going to cook us a camp dinner. What is your first step in preparing this repast?’ It would have tricked me. I suppose I’d have thought, only two matches at most to get the fire going? But the right answer was, ‘Wash my hands.’ 

“Joe ran the cleanest camping trips I have ever experienced,” Allison says. “After every camp meal, dishes were cleaned in boiling water and our hands along with them. The annual Katahdin trip ended with a swim in Abol Pond and changing to clean clothes that were brought along in a separate bag for after the swim. The campsite itself was so clean when we left that low impact was actually no impact. Try as I might, I could never replicate that camp cleanliness so well in our family camping outings.” 

Why Katahdin?


There is no shortage of mountains to climb in Maine, and in fact Joe has climbed most of them. But with Katahdin, he seems to have formed a special bond. For his Scouts, the hike to the top was the perfect level of attainable and challenging. 

It’s a fact that Joe will defend every chance he gets. 

“Every year as I was getting ready to leave,” he recalls, “my father-in-law at the time would ask me: ‘Why don’t you go out and climb a real mountain?’ I’d say, ‘Just what is the real mountain?’ And he’d say, ‘Mount Washington!'” 

At this point in the story, Joe laughs at the recollection. 

“And I’d say to him, ‘Any mountain that you can drive a car up over can’t be a real mountain.’ That would end the conversation real quick.” 

Ultimately, becoming entwined with Katahdin and Baxter State Park may not have been entirely a choice. In the beginning, it was just a hike to the top of a mountain, but the tradition just grew and grew, and so did the number of people being drawn into Joe’s orbit. 


Over the years, a whole bunch of friendships were formed in the rugged wilderness of Baxter State Park.

“I joined the annual Father’s Day weekend Katahdin trip with Joe, Paul Choate, Damon Scales, Duff Ackerley and Val Taylor for the first time in the late ’80s or early ’90s — and can’t count any longer how many times we went,” Allison says. “Joe always says this tradition was not about Father’s Day back in the day when he was leading the Boy Scout expeditions, but by the time I became a part of the regular crew,  it was for some of us a father-son event. Joe’s sons came with him sometimes, Paul brought Andy Choate, and I brought my older son, Bill.” 

Wildlife encounters

Sitting with Joe on his porch, it’s hard to tell that two weeks ago he broke his hip. It slowed him down some, sure, but when you consider his age, his overall condition seems remarkable. In fact, he waves away any notion that maybe he should take it easy and not try to entertain visitors. He’s got a lap full of photographs, newspaper clippings and various souvenirs and he wants to talk about them. 

Joe Lelansky shot this photo at Baxter State Park of a moose with Double Top Mountain in the backdrop. Submitted photo

Here’s a picture of a moose — so close-up it’s actually startling — with Doubletop Mountain in the background. The twin peaks of the mountain behind the twin peaks of the animal’s ears makes for a cool symmetry. 

“I entered this picture in the Maine Sportsman show,” Joe says. “I thought maybe I’d get a prize for it.” 


Here’s a picture of a young fellow, clad in shorts and wearing a blue bandanna around his head, next to a sign announcing Katahdin as the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. 

One of the Scouts, Joe is asked? 

He laughs. “No, that’s me. I always wore shorts up there. And I can tell you that this picture wasn’t taken yesterday.” 

Here’s an undated newspaper clipping, a black and white photograph featuring a small handful of adults and several Scouts preparing for their annual sojourn. 

Off for Mount Katahdin Again,” begins the caption. 

An undated newspaper clipping from the Lewiston Sun Journal featuring Joe Lelansky and his hiking pals. Submitted photo

Every now and then, as he’s thumbing through a photo album or an old hiking guide, something sparks a memory. He’ll stop what he was saying, stare off for a moment and then offer a laugh. 


It happened this way with the prunes. One moment Joe was scanning some of the faded photographs, when he suddenly began to chuckle as he recalled how he used to have the Scouts eat prunes during the trip to help their bowels to adjust to the disruption to their normal eating habits. 

Spoiler alert: kids don’t tend to care for prunes. 

“On one trip,” Joe remembered, “during the night, a bear came along and dumped over every one of those cans with prunes in them. In the morning, the Scouts were putting the food back in the no. 10 cans and they’d say, ‘Uncle Joe! Even the bears don’t like prunes!'” 

Pass the bean hole beans

When the journeys to Katahdin began, Joe was aided and encouraged by other Scoutmasters and committee members. Some of them became lifelong friends and hiking partners. Joe has no trouble remembering those names. When it comes to remembering the names of all the Scouts he led up the mountain, things get a little cloudier.  

“My wife and I were out shopping at Shaw’s,” Joe says, “and this stranger came along and said, ‘How are you, Mr. Lelansky?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m fine.’ I have a fairly good memory, but I couldn’t remember who the hell it was. Finally, he tells me his name and says, ‘You took me to Mount Katahdin a couple times.'” 


The fact that Joe didn’t instantly recognize a Scout from the old days made him feel bad, even after the fellow in the Shaw’s parking lot had gone on his way. 

“I got to thinking about it afterwards, but I couldn’t find a telephone number or anything for him,” Joe says. “I wanted to tell him that, you know: Back then I was 23 or 24 years old and he was 12 or 13. It’s now 60 years later and he just didn’t look the same.”

Joe and the Scouts’ journeys north to Katahdin went on for the rest of the 1950s, all of the 1960s and most of the ’70s. In 1976, Joe relinquished his scoutmaster duties, and you’d think he’d give his tired legs a rest from climbing. 

“After 25 years, I decided that it was time to give somebody else an opportunity to serve,” Joe says. “But my troop committee, four other men, weren’t ready to give up Katahdin, so for the next 30 years or so, we’d go with just the adults.” 

Every time the grown-ups hit those familiar trails, Joe would continue to cook, as he did when he was leading Scouts up the mountain. On the menu were things like beef stew with bread, bean hole beans, spaghetti with meat sauce, mashed potatoes, sauteed onions and hamburgers. 

While talking about all those excursions — which continued right into the early part of the 21st century — Joe rattles off the names of some of his favorite spots, places like Chimney Pond, Little Niagara, Big Niagara, Kidney Pond, Kathadin Stream, Knife Edge, Nesowadehunk Stream . . .


He climbed Katahdin for the last time in 2001. You have to imagine that the end of a 50-year lifestyle left a sizeable hole in Lelansky’s life. But he hasn’t sunk down into an easy chair just yet to ride out the remainder of his life on his backside. For several years, he ran in the Dempsey Challenge where he was typically the only person in his age bracket to take on the course.

And of course, he has visited Baxter State Park even after he became unable to climb to its peaks. Not long ago, Joe, his wife, Linda, and another couple went up to stay in one of the new cabins near Daicey Pond. 

“It was $1,000 a week, but when you go as two couples, you end up paying $500 a week to stay in a brand new 30-by-30 cabin, right on the shore and looking right at the mountain,” Joe says. “You can’t to stay in a motel for 500 bucks a week.” 

These days, Joe does more around the house than he used to. Just recently, he’s taken up hobbies, like building American flags out of paint stirrers and other items and then either selling them or giving them away as gifts. 

Talking to him, though, watching him leaf through old photos and notes from the trail, you get a strong sense that at least part of him is still up on the mountain and that seems just about right — as far as Joe Lelansky is concerned, his relationship with Mount Katahdin is a long-term commitment. He even has plans to be there after he has departed the world in a mortal sense.

“For a couple hundred bucks, they could fly my cremains over the mountain, and that’s where I’d be forever,” Joe says. “People would spend more time visiting me there than they would in a cemetery.” 

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where Joe goes when his time comes. His legacy is already as firmly set as the mountains themselves. The number of lives he’s influenced over the decades might, at this point, be incalculable. Many of those lives belong to people whose names Joe has forgotten. Others are much closer to home. 

“Every day, the lessons Grandpa Joe instilled in me influence my life in a positive way,” Jenna says. “Just as I know they have for his sons, grandchildren and all those who have carried with them the honor of being one of Joe Lelansky’s Scouts.”

An old climbing guide from Joe Lelansky’s collection of photos and trinkets from his many trips up Mount Katahdin. Submitted photo

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