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The Trip

Getting Together

The weather forecast called for rain on Sunday, then reasonable weather during the week, with substantial rain coming in over the weekend. Temperatures would start off low, then gradually rise.

I drove up alone on Sunday in intermittent rain, reaching the motel in Millinocket around 4 PM. My roommates, regular hiking companions, were already there. Two other members of the group arrived around 5 PM. The five of us went out to eat at the local Chinese restaurant, we did not wait for the remaining couple who planned to arrive late at night. We went to bed early, and met next morning at 6 AM for breakfast.

It is time to introduce the group. The trip was organized by Paul and Leslie who, in recent years, have been doing more climbing than hiking. Paul was the leader of the very first trip I co-led with the Boston AMC Hiking and Backpacking Committee. I had not hiked with him in a long time, but Leslie would occasional join us for winter hikes. My roommates, Gary and Tim, are very strong hikers with whom I have often hiked. Alan and Linda had not hiked regularly with any of us, though we had occasionally been together on hikes.

We did not all have the same objectives for this trip. Gary, Tim, Linda and Alan wanted ("needed", in peakbagger terminology Smile! ) the peaks, and for them the backpack into Baxter was a means to an end. Leslie and Paul, on the other hand, have no interest in peakbagging, and organized the trip because they love staying in Baxter in winter. I had mixed motives; I wanted to bag at least North Brother, but I also wanted to see how well I would do on a multi-night winter outing.

Day 1: Into the Park

After breakfast we loaded everything into the cars, and drove to the junction of Telos and Williams Pond Roads. I did not bring my skis because I did not intend to use them, and Tim decided, from the weather over the past few days, not to bring his. Williams Pond Road looked very icy, and Gary decided to leave his skis in the truck. Leslie, Paul, Linda and Alan all started out on skis, but soon all, except for Leslie, took them off and walked.

Williams Pond Road has a net elevation gain of about 400 feet over about five miles, it has many ups and downs so the total elevation gain is somewhat more. Nevertheless it is a very easy road to pull a sled up, and we made good time. Once inside the park the perimeter road goes down for about three miles to Slide Dam, again with several minor ups and downs. Both the Williams Pond and perimeter roads were well packed down by snowmobiles, the perimeter road was, on the whole, icier than the access road.

We reached Slide Dam around 3 PM and, after putting on warm clothing, set up tents. Alan and Linda shared one tent, Tim and Gary a second one, and I shared the third tent with Leslie and Paul. We then started setting up our cooking equipment on the covered picnic table, and enclosing two of the open sides with tarps. We were ready to start cooking well before sunset, and were in our tents around 6:30, as often happens in winter.

While we were setting up camp two groups of hikers came down the Marston Trail. Both groups were staying together in a heated bunkhouse at the Nesowadnehunk Field Campground. One group had done North Brother without doing Fort, as they were interested in the Northeast 111 list, which only includes 4,000 footers. The other group had done South Brother and Coe. So we knew that all the trails, except for the bushwhack from North Brother to Fort, had been found and broken out.

That first night was the coldest of the trip, with a temperature of 2° at 6 AM next morning. I was warm in my -20° bag, and did not feel really cold when I had to get up in the middle of the night.

Day 2: North Brother and Fort

We woke up at 6 AM next morning and went through the usual rituals of preparing and eating breakfast and heating water for the trip. The fact that we were in remote Northern Maine rather than in my familiar New Hampshire mountains did not seem to matter much!

We started the hike a little after 8 AM wearing snowshoes, as much for the traction as for the flotation. The Marston Trail has many steep sections, the one from the small pond being the longest. Beyond that point the trail flattens, and soon reaches the upper junction with the Coe Trail, which goes to South Brother and then Coe. We rested and ate at that junction, and continued, initially going down to the col between the two Brothers.

From the col the trail rises very steeply, and soon breaks out of the trees. It was neither really cold nor really windy, but the combination was quite chilly. We just touched the summit cairn on North Brother and descended the other side, heading towards Fort. The cairns which mark the herd path in summer were invisible, so we headed in the direction of Fort. We were going over moderately steep snowfields, but the compacted snow had a consistency that allowed the crampons of our snowshoes to get a really good grip.

Once into the trees we hit a short patch of dense growth, but quickly got through it. We were delighted to observe that the snow had become very compact, and that the going was very easy. We often were able to see the summit of Fort through the open trees, and soon reached the col between it and North Brother. To our joy the blowdowns that infest that col in summer were completely covered with snow, and soon we were ascending Fort.

Once again it was quite chilly above the trees, so we just touched the summit and immediately started the return journey. The steep section above the pond clearly demonstrated the value of aggressive snowshoe crampons, those of us who had them just walked down, while those with less aggressive ones had to be very careful.

We reached camp just in time to start cooking dinner before dark. It had been a tiring hike, and at dinner Paul and Leslie told us that they would not join us for South Brother and Coe next day, exploring the ponds instead. I decided to wait until the morning before deciding what to do. We were in our tents around 7 PM, and the night was slightly warmer than the previous one, with an early morning temperature of around 10°.

Day 3: Kidney and Daicey Ponds

Once again I slept well, and was up before 6 AM. Once again the morning routine went smoothly, and I was happy to realize how groundless my fears had been. I started out with Linda, Alan, Tim and Gary, but at the first steep pitch my legs told me clearly that they did not want to go up that steep trail again. So I turned round and got to camp as Leslie and Paul were getting ready to start their exploration of the ponds.

We had a wonderful day! We walked down the perimeter road, and had excellent views of Coe, OJI with its slides, the long Barren, Owl, and of course mighty Katahdin on one side of the road, and of Doubletop on the other. We had lunch by Kidney Pond, then continued to Daicey Pond. The view of Katahdin over Daicey Pond is one of the best I have seen in our New England mountains. Then a leisurely trip back to camp, our peakbaggers had made it to the peaks and back before we did.

Over dinner Gary and Tim announced that they wanted to leave next day, and soon after Linda and Alan made the same decision. Paul, Leslie and I initially planned to stay one more day and do South Brother and Coe. As time went by Paul (our effective leader) decided that we should all go out together.

Day 4: Back to Civilization!

Temperatures warmed up even more for our last night, and a few snowflakes fell. Next morning we broke camp, packed our sleds, and started the trip home. The snowfall had improved the skiing conditions a bit, but only Leslie decided the ski out. The trip out was uneventful, though the sleds somehow seemed heavier than they had on the way in! We reached our cars around 1 PM, and soon were on our separate ways home.

Looking Back at the Trip

On my first winter backpack, in April 1999, I discovered how much I love an occasional night out in winter. Though I do a fair number of overnight trips every year, I had never thought of doing a multi-night trip before, as it seemed to me to be so much more difficult. My greatest joy on this trip was to discover how wonderful it is to spend several winter nights in a row in the outdoors.

I did not regret my decision not to do South Brother and Coe. For me peakbagging is a small part of the overall hiking experience. Yes, I enjoy bagging peaks, and do like to see the list of peaks bagged grow. But it is more important for me to enjoy the hike. There are days when I find it a pleasure to push my limits, on others I prefer to listen to my body. I enjoyed the trip so much that I hope to return many times, and when I do so the mountains will still be there.

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