First off, let me say, that if you’re physically able and you haven’t yet climbed up Mount Katahdin, then it’s fair to say you don’t know nothin’ about anything. Mount Katahdin is everything there is to know about Maine, mountain climbing, yourself, everything. If I had one climb to convince someone to get into hiking or the outdoors in general, I’d take them up Katahdin, for two reasons.
1) It’ll break you if you aren’t truly into the outdoors. If you’re faking it, or one of those “do it for the likes” type of outdoor people, it’ll come to surface really quickly on Katahdin. Those people don’t like Katahdin. There’s no room for Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat whores out there, this is the real deal Maine Wilderness my friend. If you want an easy hike so you can take pictures to beef up your Tinder profile and maybe trick some guy or girl into thinking you’re outdoorsy, stick to the hills in Southern Maine.
2) I believe it’s the hardest “family friendly” hike in the region. My 11 year old cousin went up it last year, and I routinely see kids around that age slogging it up the big hill. I wouldn’t take a kid out on say, Mount Washington because people die out there. Since the year 1900, close to 150 people have died on Washington. The White Mountains in general are a wild and dangerous place unlike any other, as evidenced by the fact that a hiker died in between Mount Adams and Jefferson not even a week ago. Juxtaposed with the fact that no one has died on Katahdin since the 1990s, and most of those are heart attacks, and you start to feel a bit better about Katahdin.
That being said, Katahdin is no cupcake. I can remember two years ago climbing it with my dad, when I was just starting to get my feet under me as a hiker in New England, and feeling like death during and after the hike. It’s a trudge and a half. You can read the blog entry about my hike up last summer with my dad, uncles, and cousin here.
This blog post, however, is about the Katahdin trip after that one. On August 22nd, I took the first non-Neville up Katahdin with me, in the form of my buddy Matt Wojciak. We all call him Woj, because who the heck wants to say Wojciak multiple times a day. (No offense to the Wojciak clan). Woj is pitcher on the Saint Joseph’s baseball team, so he’s not really an athlete, but I had faith that he would get up the mountain in one piece. Originally, we had two or three other members of our group, but as is the case with most outdoor trips, people drop out at a fascinatingly rapid pace as the day approaches. They were probably too soft to make it up anyway.
We made it through the Baxter State Park gatehouse where the gate ranger mentioned she knew my father, who’s apparently becoming a local big-wig in his own right. We’re like the Kennedy’s but just in Maine. Everywhere I go I meet someone that knows a Neville. We got to the Roaring Brook Trailhead bright and early, and set off.
Now, before you climb Katahdin, you need to know, respect, and fear Pamola. Pamola, according to the Abenaki tribe’s mythology, is the guardian of Katahdin, the god of thunder and storms, and the main reason it was very taboo to climb the mountain until white dudes showed up and did it anyway. Anyways, Pamola has the head of a moose, the body of a man, and the claws and wings of an eagle. Quite a sight, I’m sure. Needless to say, Pamola gets blamed for every crazy thing that happens on Katahdin. In an effort to appease this wrathful god, Mainers have kindly named a peak of Katahdin, a beer, and a motel in Millinocket after him/her/it. I’m sure that’ll keep it pleased.
It had rained like the dickens the night before (thanks Pamola) so the climb up from the trailhead was essentially walking up a flowing brook. We broke tree line after about an hour and half of walking. Being above tree line before the sun fully comes up is one of the coolest things you can experience I think. The way the clouds sit over the valleys and the whole world is blocked out except for the few mountain peaks that break the single unwavering plane of grey.
From here on, it’s straight up the spine of the ancient mountain. The Knife Edge is a site to behold. A pretty unique for the area arête between the two peaks of Pamola and Baxter, the Knife Edge is infamous due to being the site where the majority of incidents on Katahdin happen. More than one person has taken a spill off the four foot wide trail and tumbled down the thousands of feet on either side of it. There’s not a large margin for error, and it’s not a place to joke around. It rears up into the sky like the spine of some primordial beast, just daring you to give it a try. “Don’t slip little one,” it mocks “one false move and you’re mine.”
It’s not exactly the place that you want to find out your hiking buddy is scared of heights. We got out on the ridgeline, and I turned around after about ten minutes to find Woj full on crab-crawling across the ridge. “Four points of contact!” he hollered to me. I could only laugh as I watched the big 6’7 bird scoot across a ridgeline on his ass using both hands and feet at the same time. But I really can’t blame him. The Knife Edge is not exactly a relaxing place, it takes a ton of focus all the time, and it’s definitely not somewhere that even my crazy ass wants to get caught out on in bad weather. Thank Pamola it was a crystal clear day at this point, and we made it across in one piece.
After we got about two thirds across the Edge, clouds starting building up on our left side. Knowing Katahdin, I knew we didn’t want to be out there much longer if the weather was about to get weird. So we hustled across the Edge, as fast as we were willing to go, but Mother Nature was just a little bit faster. We were engulfed in clouds for the last three hundred or so yards of the Edge.
Ever been in a cloud? It sucks. Cause you know what clouds are made out of? This is going to blow your mind. Water! They’re all water. So when you get sucked into a cloud, you get soaked. Thankfully, 95% of the Knife Edge was behind us when the clouds hit, but it still was like walking through a mist machine for about 10 minutes. We got real sopping wet, as Henry Bankshaft would say.
We made it up to the summit, touched the very worn out summit sign, and sat down to shoot the shit with some long distance hikers and people who had gone up the west side of the mountain.
We then decided NOT to go over the cloud covered Knife Edge to get back to the car, but instead to head north on the ridgeline towards Hamlin Peak (Katahdin has an unnecessary amount of peaks), then cut down the Cathedral Trail back to Roaring Brook. I had never been down, or heard anything about the Cathedral before this very morning. A ranger at Roaring Brook said that that’s the only trail anyone has gotten seriously injured on in the last decade. Someone apparently had a tumble and had to be airlifted out of the place.
Well, since I’m always up for a challenge, and not necessarily the wisest trip leader, I said let’s go to Wojjy and we headed down the Cathedral Trail. It was steep, steeper than any section of the hike up that morning, and essentially just a rock slide. It was like the Baxter State Park rangers saw the rock slide, decided painting a few trail blazes on some of those rocks was easier than cutting an easier and safer path up, and called it the Cathedral Trail cause you better pray to whoever you believe in to not get a turned ankle on this trail.
We made it down pretty uneventfully, although we did meet a young lady covered in sweat and looking pretty worse for wear who claimed she had hiked Katahdin every day that summer to this point. It was about 2 in the afternoon at this point and she was heading up while we were just about finished, so to put my thoughts as kindly as possible, no fuckin’ way lady. After that, it was a long trek down past Chimney Pond and back to the Blazer.
Katahdin is huge for me. In more ways than one. I always loved the outdoors, but Katahdin made me obsess over it. I liked mountains, and went for a hike every now and then, but Katahdin made me yearn for the big mountains. Katahdin is the reason for all of the things I obsess over. Katahdin is the reason I scare the shit out of my girlfriend by going hiking in the dead of winter, or worry my parents by sleeping in my car for weekends just to get the maximum amount of time in the mountains. Katahdin is a symbol for me, the start of this lifestyle.
So in conclusion, get out and hike Katahdin. Seriously, you can do it. Start early, climb hard, be tough, and get up there. I have two scheduled hikes already for this summer, and I’m always open to taking new people up the big hill. Contact me if you want, and I’ll either help you plan or maybe we can work it out that I’ll take you up. I’m always down to go up, and hopefully meet Pamola.
We ended the day with some fly fishing on the West Branch of the Penobscot with Dad and my godfather Eric, pretty much how I’d prefer every day of my life to end.
Till next time…
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