Chimney Pond and South Turner Mountain in Baxter State Park

Here we are again at the beginning of what will surely be another glorious summer of adventure in the great state of Maine.  As I write, I am quickly reminded that I failed to meet my deadline for both the winter and spring issue. Sorry, Angela and also fellow subscribers. I had a busy fall and winter with a few changes being thrown at me that created for an awful lot more work at my current job.  

With that off of my chest, I want to tell you about our adventure last June in Baxter State Park.  It was wonderful, educational and DISASTEROUS. I’ll tell you about the disaster first as in retrospect it is rather funny.  Kj and I still laugh about it all of the time.

A Failed Experiment at Roaring Brook

Camping at Roaring Brook in Baxter State Park

Kj and I really love hiking and climbing, and we are out in the woods every chance we get.  Our favorite place in Maine would have to be Baxter State Park. The unspoiled wildness of the place just seems to call to us each spring and as such, I make it a point to spend at least a week each year exploring the trails, mountains, and waterfalls.

This year, just like last year, we will be in the park during the last week of June. However, this year, unlike last, we will be staying at Wilderness Edge Campground just outside of Baxter’s south gate entrance in our 5th wheel.  Be sure to check out our fall edition as I will post a review and hopefully a few quotes from our hosts.  The reason this is mentioned is quite simply because last year we had planned to spend the week at Roaring Brook in Baxter.  We became very aware of just how little we enjoy backcountry camping.

If you Don’t Enjoy Roughing It, Don’t Reserve a Walk-In Site

I know an awful lot of you enjoy “roughing it” in your tents and don’t mind a few days without the comforts of air conditioning, microwave, a coffee maker and even a hot shower, Kj and I are NOT in your group.  We do love Baxter and all of its beauty. We love the fact that there is no electricity, running water or any other amenities that we have all gotten used to, but we just couldn’t do it.

I had made my reservations for Roaring Brook online four months in advance.  For those of you who don’t know, the reservation system for Baxter campgrounds is on a four-month rolling schedule.  Kj and I were actually on vacation in Los Angeles at the time.  Even though I was online bright and early, 5:30 am in LA, the sites I wanted were already booked.  So I reluctantly selected a walk-in site, mistake number one!

Now, don’t get me wrong, the walk-in sites are nice and peaceful at Roaring Brook.  All of the sites are great there, but little did I know just what a problem my selection was going to create.   

Planning Time

I spent the next few months researching and purchasing a tent, a high-performance cooler, camp stove, sleeping bags, air mattresses and whatever else we didn’t already have in our 5th wheel.  The week of our trip finally arrived and we packed up my new (new to me anyway) truck and headed north.  I was pretty confident that we were all set for the week. I had plenty of food, snacks, bug spray, and clothes for any kind of weather.  In other words, I was way over packed and had gone completely overboard.

We arrived at the south gate, Togue Pond of Baxter at promptly 3:30 pm.  We checked in and veered to the right following the tote road to its end at Roaring Brook.  Our spirits were high and we were singing along with the SXM radio as we pulled into Roaring Brook half an hour later.

Prepare for Bear

We walked over to the Ranger’s station to check in and get our assigned campsite.  The ranger was friendly and welcoming, he looked over my reservation, smiled and said, “You guys are planning on being here for a while, great to have you! Now a few things, if you’re not at your site you MUST place any coolers or food in your vehicle as well as at night. There are a mother bear and her cubs nearby that have been roaming through regularly.”

“Really?” I asked, “I bought bear proof gear specifically for that purpose”

“I’ve been a ranger here for 15 years,” he replied, “there is absolutely NOTHING a bear can’t get into.  You’re staying at a walk-in site, that’s gonna kinda suck for you two.”  HE WASN’T KIDDING!!!   

Camp Disaster

We humped all of our gear up to our site, the furthest one in of all of the walk-in sites and began setting up camp.  The tent wasn’t a big deal and was up in a mere 10 minutes. The bugs found us just as I was discovering that I had bought D cell batteries for the little air pump I was going to use to inflate our air mattresses, the pump took C cell. We set up our canopy over the picnic table and I got the grill going in order to cook our dinner.  

Kj rolled out our sleeping bags over the not yet inflated mattresses and went down to the ranger station to buy a bundle of firewood. He returned only to find his father cursing loudly at the grill. The darn thing had been used for years and basically fell apart half cooking our burgers. Kj began to laugh just as the first few sprinkles began to fall from overhead.  We humped our cooler and food back down to the truck and headed for Millinocket to get some dinner along with the correct C cell batteries to inflate our mattresses.

Camp Disaster, Take Two

Two and a half hours later, we were back at our campsite, it was now steadily raining and getting dark.  We inflated the mattresses only to discover that they were way too big for the tent we had and took up all of the floor space inside.  Kj was exhausted and so was I, this was NOT going well! We climbed over our clothes and into our sleeping bags at about 8:15, turned on the battery-powered DVD player we had brought along for some entertainment only to discover that the sound would not work. I shook my head, Kj was now laughing hysterically and we turned in.  

I was tired and quickly fell asleep only to be awakened sometime later by the crash of thunder and flash of lightning. The inside of our tent was not leaking, but everything was damp from condensation. I laid there for hours trying to sleep until I could see that the morning light was coming so I got up made some absolutely terrible coffee and waited for Kj to rise.

 

Up and At-‘Em

He eventually did, I made him hot chocolate, we had a couple of Pop Tarts and struck out for Chimney Pond, our first scheduled hike of the week.  Kj was in pretty good spirits considering the miserable night we had endured. He was his usual self on the trail, telling me all about the past school year, the games that he was currently enjoying and everything else that seems important to the younger generation.  Most of what he tells me on our hikes go completely over my head. My gaming knowledge ended with Pac-Man, Asteroids and the Atari 2600, but I enjoy knowing what he feels passion for and he knows he can talk to me about anything.

 

Chimney Pond

Now, just because we are not the tent camping type of guys that doesn’t mean we don’t love hiking into amazing and remote places.  Chimney Pond is a must for anyone who loves hiking in our state. The trail is not overly difficult or terribly long. It’s approximately 6.6 miles from the Ranger’s station check-in at Roaring Brook, up and back.  I say up because you will gain 1,463 feet in elevation as you trek towards this shallow glacial pond in the south basin. The elevation at Chimney Pond is 2,914 feet and that is the least impressive thing about your experience when you arrive.

Chimney Pond Campground

As you emerge from the wilderness you will arrive at one of the two backcountry campgrounds within Baxter.  You will quickly realize why this campground, established in 1938, is by far the most popular of all the campgrounds.  You will be blown away by the sheer magnitude of Katahdin as it reaches skyward in front of you. There are 9 lean-to’s and a 10-person bunkhouse available to stay at and reservations are pretty much mandatory as you can’t just pitch a tent anywhere due to environmental concerns.  There are also no campfires allowed for the same reason. A Ranger’s cabin sits on the pristine shore of this crystal-clear pond.

From this point, you have full access to the Hamlin Ridge Trail (Kj and I are bagging this peak this year), The North Basin, Saddle, Cathedral and when it re-opens the Dudley Trail which will take you to Pamola Peak and the infamous Knife Edge.

Putting Things in Perspective

The views of the sheer granite face of Katahdin are magnificent and intimidating as you gaze across the pond and behold Maine’s highest peak.  Later, when you climb Katahdin and look down upon Chimney Pond from Baxter Peak, you will begin to realize just how massive this mountain really is because Chimney appears to be a small blue dot in an expansive sea of green.

To put it simply, Chimney Pond is an excellent preamble to climbing Katahdin.  Whether you ascend it from Chimney on the same day or, head back down and attempt your climb from the other side on Abol, or The Hunt Trail.  I highly recommend going to Chimney Pond first, just so that when you look down upon it from the summit you will be moved by the magnitude of what you are seeing.

Heading Back to the Campsite

As we were descending from Chimney Pond that afternoon, we were stopped just before the Helon Taylor trail taking a break when he asked, “Dad, are we really going to stay in that tent the whole week?”  I laughed and replied, “Honestly, Bud I’m hoping Momma bear and her cubs wandered into our campsite and ripped all of our stuff to shreds while we have been gone.”

“Really?” he laughed.

“Yup, why don’t we grab all of our crap, pack up and just stay at the Katahdin Inn for the rest of the week.  We can still do all of our hikes, but at least we will get a good night’s sleep.”

That kid laughed like a loon for the hour or so that it took us to pack up our stuff and toss it in the truck.  Most of it was thrown willy-nilly into the truck, we left our site just as we had found it, spent the rest of the week at the Katahdin Inn in Millinocket, a really friendly place to stay, and agreed to NEVER try “roughing it” again!

South Turner Mountain

During our week we ventured far and wide within Baxter’s expansive borders.  We spent one day exploring as many waterfalls as we could find and another driving the tote road from the south gate to the north.  On our adventure, we spotted two black bears, 3 owls, an untold number of foxes, birds, salamanders, toads, snakes and unfortunately BUGS!  At Kj’s request after the camping disaster, we didn’t climb Katahdin, that feat will be accomplished this year. We did, however, tackle a great, yet slightly less formidable mountain, South Turner.

The Quiet Mountain

The start or finish, depending on whether you are a NOBO (northbound) or SOBO (southbound) of the Appalachian Trail, is the summit of Maine’s highest peak Mt. Katahdin.  Across from Katahdin sits South Turner Mountain.  While only 3,100 feet above sea level it offers expansive views of Katahdin and the surrounding area that only a select few get to enjoy.  I say a “select few” because this trail is one of the many within the park that almost no one sets foot on. In fact, once Kj and I passed the waypoint at Sandy Stream Pond and snapped a few pics of our goofy selves and the views, we never saw another person all the way to the summit and back.

Challenges and Rescue Training

South Turner is a challenging hike.  Most hiking books and apps, I use the AllTrails app myself, rate it as moderate and for the first mile, it is relatively easy and flat.  However, once you start to really gain altitude it becomes quite challenging. From the Sandy Stream Pond waypoint, the trail is pretty much straight up with a few switchbacks.  There are several spots along the way to stop and gaze out across the valley and enjoy the peace and sounds of the wilderness.

The day Kj and I tackled South Turner happened to coincide with one of the many mountain rescue training days done by the Park Rangers and volunteers.  We were a little concerned by the helicopter that kept passing overhead thinking that someone may have been badly injured deep in the wilderness or on Katahdin. Thankfully, that was not the case as we learned later when we signed out at the Roaring Brook Ranger’s Station.

Summit Lunch

There are quite a few steep sections and as you near the summit a nice boulder scramble above tree line that offers a magnificent view of Katahdin and the unspoiled world all around.  Once upon South Turner’s summit, you may come across a lone photographer or possibly an artist painting the breathtaking landscape that unfolds itself all around you. Kj and I had the vista all to ourselves.  We stretched out on a warm flat slab of granite, ate our turkey and swiss wraps, split a can of sour cream and onion Pringles, re-hydrated and re-energized with a bottle of water and a single-serve packet of Kool-Aid from our backpacks and enjoyed the peace and tranquility that so many quiet places within Baxter’s borders allow.

It’s Always Easier Going Up

The trip back was, as all trips down mountains, in my opinion anyway, a little more difficult.  I always tell anyone who asks about hiking that coming down the mountain is always more difficult because you are tired from the climb and you are constantly fighting gravity.  One wrong step and your great day on the trail could take a bad turn. The whole trip from the Ranger’s Station at Roaring Brook to the summit and back comes in at a little over 4 miles total.  I’m a slowpoke so I took my time, and to be honest what’s the rush? Take your time and enjoy the peace and quiet.

We’re Done Roughing It!

I hope that you have had a good laugh at our foibles in our attempt to get into backcountry camping.  Like I said before, I know many of you love “roughing it” and are of the opinion that we aren’t “camping” when we lie down in our air conditioned campers in the evening and wake up to the smell of our coffee brewing already from the coffee maker, but if you pass by our camper and see Kj or I sitting by the campfire or messing around with something feel free to say hi and pull up a chair.  

I’ll offer you a cold bottle of water or an ice-cold Sam Adams if you’d like and you can listen to Kj tell all about that one night spent at Roaring Brook in the rain. He’ll be giggling away almost from the start and if you aren’t laughing as well by the end of the tale then you just don’t know what funny really is!

Enjoy the best season of the year in the coming months and tell your friends and fellow outdoor enthusiasts about this magazine.  I really am tired of driving that truck! As always, if you come across a tall skinny kid making fun of his middle-aged Dad feel free to say “Hi!” Hope to see you out there.   

Author’s Note

Late last August I was asked, and I declined, to become a driver trainer.  A long time ago I was one but gave it up at the beginning of ’08 as I left my job temporarily due to the loss of most of our workload.  Anyone of you who were a part of the workforce back then remembers well what an awful financial disaster our country went through, but we all came through eventually and are back on solid ground.

Now, even though I declined the offer, I was made a driver trainer anyway.  Doesn’t sound like a big deal to most of you I know, however, the company I work for takes these things exceptionally seriously.  So, along with the week of training at our corporate headquarters in Chicago I had to learn how to teach others how to do, what it is that I do, and become familiar with the mountains of paperwork and training manuals that make our trainers some of the best in our industry.  Thus, I have been a wee bit busy over the past few months. So please, I do apologize for my absence and kind of leaving Angela in the lurch. I’ll try very hard not to do so again.

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