[September 2, 2016]
I had made reservations to hike Katahdin via Davis Pond / Northwest Basin Trail in early June, but my plans were altered when the park informed that the trail was still closed due to snow. Instead the hike was rescheduled to September, which was exciting since it's my favorite time to hike. This was to be my friend Becca's first Katahdin ascent, and I prepared her for the trip in two ways, smaller backpacking trips at Baxter and informing her that I'll give her "The Hike of a Lifetime".
The first day was incredible. Perfect September weather paired with a fairly easy 7 mile hike to Russell Pond. We stopped at the Wassataquoik stream crossing by the leantos for lunch and it was nothing short of a utopia when it comes to hiking/backpacking. Somehow I convinced her to do another 2 1/2 miles after we got to Russell Pond to see the lookout. That's when I realized that she had no idea what she was in for, as she thought the hike to the lookout was tough. To make matters worse the ranger told us to pack our food safely at night or the "pine martins" will get it. We did not know what they were but it kept her up at night -- and I'll admit it, I slept like a baby.
The second day began with an early campfire in the morning as temperatures must have been in the lower 40s. We got a late start and were on our way to Davis Pond by 10am. I was not rushing as the map showed only 5.6 miles from Russel to Davis. Before we left we decided to check the weather forecast by the Ranger Station and it said Sunday should be in the upper 60s/lower 70s and sunny, which was encouraging!
Let me begin by saying, these are some worthy 5.6 miles with stream crossings, and inclines that require you to drag yourself up by holding on to trees, and lots of muddy and slippery terrain. There's nothing like hiking these rugged trails at Baxter. It brings you back to a bygone era and enlightens your soul.
Becca struggled to reach Davis Pond, but I slowed down and we eventually arrived there around 3 or 4 in the afternoon. The winds had picked up and temperatures were in the 40s. When I went to the pond to filter water, my hands felt frozen and I looked up at Becca and said, we're going to have to drink unfiltered water as I don't think I can sit here for 5 minutes filtering and not freeze. I expected resistance but the cold winds must have numbed her too, and it wasn't long until we were in the lean to enjoying some hot cocoa.
After eating some grub, we both got in our awesome sleeping bags and I informed her that the next day was going to be even tougher as we were to reach Baxter Peak, and then hike back down to Chimney Pond, where we would spend the night. She did not express much concern and given what transpired on Day 3, I was in for a surprise myself. Around 6pm, she was out like a light, and I just listened to the winds howl for another hour until I fell asleep. I woke up during the night several times and the winds were not dying down, so I began to grow concerned about the morning ahead.
We both woke up fairly early and were on our way around 7am. The winds had died down, the sky was mostly clear and partly sunny, and my thermometer showed 50 degrees. The hike to the plateau was not bad at all. There was a bit of rock hugging in an area (Abol-like) but overall it was much easier than a lot of Baxter hikes. Unfortunately as we hiked another 5-10 minutes on the basin the winds started to kick up, visibility was lowered, and was it cold! It got to the point where the only way that we could stand and not get knocked down by the wind was if I pushed my body against hers. Communication involved screaming to each other in order to be able to hear. Eventually I realized that there was no going forward or back and that we were stuck in a bad situation.
I said to Becca that we needed to get in our sleeping bags and wait it out. After an hour or so in a dark sleeping bag with only the wind as company, and losing body heat by the second, I made the call: I informed Becca that I did not think we were going to make it if we stayed in the sleeping bags as the weather was not improving. We hiked back down with me pushing her against the wind, and even though it felt like an eternity, it was probably only 15 minutes or so until we reached the rocky area where the weather was fairly calm. At that point, poor Becca was in tears.
After recollecting ourselves, we still had to hike back down to Davis Pond and then decide whether to go back to Russell Pond (where we did not have a reservation), or try to make it back to the Roaring Brook parking lot. It was about 4:45 pm when we reached Davis Pond and I informed her that if we were to hike back to Roaring Brook it'd be another 13-14 miles and we would probably only make it back by 10pm or so. Having lost one of our sleeping bags, a water bottle, a phone and some food, we decided to tough it out.
That involved nearly 4 hours of hiking in the dark with our headlamps, crossing Wassataquoik in the dark, and I don't think I've cursed more in my life, given that I know the area so well that every time I knew where we were and how far we still had to go, I'd start to lose it a little.
We reached the parking lot sometime before 11pm and the drive home was no cakewalk either. It was foggy all the way from Baxter to Damariscotta. I hit a porcupine on I-95 in Bangor and was taking porcupine quills out of my bumper the next morning. Becca was barely walking the next day and lost several of her toenails. I did cook her a steak dinner a few days later, as that's all we could think about while we were hiking out. But the most she was willing to walk by then was from her car to the table.
Our survival story was made possible by having appropriate gear such as several maps, headlamps (and extra batteries), high quality sleeping bags, several layers of clothing and extra food. We did end up drinking from several ponds and streams, but would not advise anyone to do so. We were lucky that neither of us ever got sick or felt any effect from it. Lastly, when people talk about how the weather at Baxter can change quickly, it's hard to visualize and fully understand until it happens to you, my advice to anyone is to prepare as much as you can, and turn back if that's the quickest way out.
- Pedro Guimaraes
Westport Island, ME