The Knife Edge
For most of the time that I’ve lived in New England, hiking Katahdin has been something that I’ve put off. I’m not sure if that’s a story unto itself or not, but while I was in NH, it was partly the 7 hour drive that kept me away. Now that I’m sitting in Bangor, it’s hard to find an excuse not to hike such an inspiring mountain, so we jumped at our first invite and set off for a weekend in Baxter State Park.
Grace and I drove to Nesowadnehunk Campground after work on a Friday evening to meet with two friends, set up camp, ate a quick dinner, and promptly went to sleep. The plan was to wake up at 2am, drive to the Roaring Brook parking area and begin an alpine ascent via the Helon Taylor Trail. Our hope was to get above treeline before sunrise, and so after four hours of sleep, we grabbed our packs and jumped into the car for the hour drive to the starting point.
My last alpine start was a year ago to hike the Presidential Traverse in a day but they always feel the same. For Grace, this was her first. It’s strange to be tired, hiking when your body knows it should be asleep, and experiencing the world through the glow of a headlamp. We trod ever upwards through the trees, racing the clock and the sun, inevitably stepped in mud, and eventually realized that we wouldn’t see the sunrise due to the clouds. All we caught was a glimpse of pink across the horizon as the trees thinned, but once we left treeline behind, the clouds began to break. Sunlight filtered down in obvious rays and lit up Katahdin Lake.
Once the display of light at our backs settled down, it was time for the swirl of clouds to begin. As we hiked up the ridge towards Pamola Peak, mists rose out of the valley below and slowly built into a fog that obscured the crisp air. The forecast called for showers later in the day. By the time we reached the summit of Pamola, the fog swallowed us and left us in an abstract world. We scrambled over to Chimney Peak, which is no easy feat while holding a camera in one hand, and continued along the Knife Edge towards Baxter Peak. For the entire journey we existed in a cloud, a white realm that hid the mountain views, and I found it very surreal. There we were on our first trek up the mountain and we didn’t get to see anything. Nearer the summit, a large crow emerged from the fog. Symbolic, maybe, as they can be a sign of luck and are associated with life mysteries and magic. It sat on the rock and we were scared that it wouldn’t let us pass.
A fair number of thru-hikers were gathered on top, having just finished their pilgrimage and discussed failed footwear and how fast they cruised the 100 mile wilderness, among other things. Everyone took the requisite photo with the Katahdin sign and moved on. We followed the Saddle Trail down, then set off up Hamlin Peak, somewhat losing the clouds that camped on Baxter. Occasional blue sky afforded us a glimpse of the basin below and a quick sighting of the peak ahead. Once we stood on top of Hamlin in a quick break in the weather, we could see down to Chimney Pond, follow the Knife Edge from Pamola as it disappeared into the cloudy netherworld, and see the trail of our descent ahead of us.
Blowing in from behind, a rainstorm engulfed the mountain. We pulled on our jackets and walked on. Slick rocks slowed us down but before long we were back to the roaring brook, soaking our feet in the stream, and sitting in a car. Without a doubt, we’ll be back.