The sun was still tucked away beneath the horizon when my eyes opened. I lay still, listening to the bubbling gurgle of Katahdin Stream as it wandered past the campsite. I rolled out of my sleeping bag, pausing to gaze up into the still-dark sky at the waning gibbous moon that shone down on me. It took only a moment for the cool morning air and my excitement for the journey ahead to clear away the last bit of sleepiness from my mind.
Bacon sizzled over the fire as the sound of rustling sleeping bags and murmured voices coming from the lean-to signaled the rising of my friends. We spoke in whispered voices so as not to disrupt the sleep of the other campers as we filled our bellies with bacon, eggs and fried oatmeal, then prepared our packs for the hike ahead.
Although the sun was still hidden beyond the mountains, the sky above us was filled with her soft morning light when I stepped onto Hunt Trail. A potpourri of trees—pine, birch, maple and mountain ash—bordered the path. As I walked past the trees, I slid my hand along their trunks, feeling the energy of the wilderness around me. To my right, water splashed and swirled as it rushed over rocks and down miniature waterfalls. Beneath my feet the trail varied from root-strewn packed dirt to large stones—some scattered haphazardly along the path, others arranged neatly into stairs.
I paused to snap a picture of the heavy iron eye-hooks that had been drilled into large boulders on both sides of the stream. I pictured a rope bridge stretched across the stream and imagined what it must have been like to feel it sway beneath my feet as I made my way across the water.
The rush of water turned to a roar and I hurried ahead to take in the beauty of the falls. After breaking for a few pictures, we continued up the trail,
which was now a long, smooth surface of rock. Here, along the falls, the trees
had been replaced by bushes. It took only a second to recognize the tiny crowns on the round blue berries. I plucked a few as I walked and enjoyed the sweet—with a hint of tartness—taste of the late season blueberries. And then, the bushes faded back into the towering trees of Maine’s largest wilderness.
The trail grew steeper as we traveled over the next mile. Added to the terrain of dirt, roots and rocks (mostly rocks) was the intermittent flow of water emerging from underground springs. It ran around and sometimes over the rocks on the trail, and I was thankful for the water-resistant hiking shoes on my feet. In the midst of one of these tiny brooks the trees spaced out around a large boulder.
Not far up the trail, we discovered a large boulder with ‘3M’ written in white letters. Almost half-way there, I thought. Little did I know that ahead of me were some of the toughest miles of the trail.
Before long, I noticed that the trunks of the trees were thinner and they no longer towered above us. As the trees grew smaller, the rocks grew larger, until the towering trees were replaced by mountainous boulders. I craned my neck as I tilted my face upward, searching for the white blazes that had marked the trail. And then I spotted them, marking a path straight up.
I scrambled, hitched and hoisted myself higher and higher along the side of the mountain. Over and over I crested sections of boulders, thinking I’d reached the top only to discover a new section rising above me. I watched for the iron ladder rungs I’d read about in the trail description and laughed to myself when I finally reached “them”. I’m not sure if that ‘S’ was a typo or if I’d misread it, but what I discovered was a single rung and a curved iron peg just below it.
“Here goes,” I said to myself and gripped the rung, pushed off with one foot, stretching with the other, just catching it on top of the curved iron peg so I could scrabble to the top. I paused, catching my breath as I waited for my hiking companions, ready to offer a hand if needed.
My bouldered journey continued, inching my way up through narrow crevices and finding a few more iron pegs to help me along my way until finally, I found myself standing on the Tablelands of Mt. Katahdin.
The trail wound its way through the fragile vegetation of thick stemmed grass and low growing bushes. Half-way across the Tableland, I reached Thoreau Spring, named for Henry David Thoreau, author of ‘The Maine Woods’ which he wrote after ascending Katahdin in 1846. What had it been like to ascend this mountain without the benefit of a beautifully maintained trail, blazes and cairns?
At this point I was used to the fact that the spring and the trail were one. I hopped from rock to rock, continuing this habit beyond the spring, because it was more rock than earth. At the end of the Tableland, I knew I’d reached the last phase of my journey. At the top of the steep trail before me I could see people—small splashes of color—moving about on the summit.
Twenty minutes later I reached Baxter Peak. I felt a thrill of accomplishment as I stood at an elevation of 5,267 feet and gazed at the Katahdin sign. I turned and looked behind me at the path I’d travelled and felt a surge of pride.
As I waited for the last two members of our group to join us, I took in the breathtaking views. Below me, the deep green of the forest trees was broken only by the numerous lakes that shone in the late afternoon sun. Mountain ranges stretched as far as I could see. White clouds billowed and streaked across the blue sky. A raven landed beside me, hopping about and flying short distances. My hiking partner pointed out a large cairn. He told me it was thirteen feet tall, built to give Katahdin the extra feet necessary to be a full mile. My eyes shifted past the cairn to Knife Edge, a trail for another day.
I settled onto a rock and enjoyed watching Appalachian Trail through-hikers summit, often running the last few steps to the Katahdin sign, some stopping to plant a kiss on the worn wood. What will it be like for them to return to their lives after months of being surrounded by nature? Will the walls of their home be warm and welcoming, or claustrophobic? Maybe a little of both.
My friends summited and we spent the next hour on Baxter Peak. In hindsight, it was a bit too long, because reaching the summit of any mountain is only half the journey. Although our descent of Katahdin was, without a doubt, faster than our ascent, by the time we reached Katahdin Stream Falls, the sun had slipped below the horizon, forcing us to complete the last 1.2 miles of our journey by the light of our flashlights.
As I sat by our campfire, I gazed up at the millions of stars that shone down on me. I was filled with awe and appreciation of the beauty of this Maine wilderness, and although my legs were tired, I dreamed of my next hike.
*All photos are taken by Teri Lee and may be used with permission only