Thursday, January 5, 2006

Mt. Katahdin Adventure

Well, one of the main reasons I started this blog was to keep my friends informed of my adventures and exploits. But it's odd that I've never actually done this. It's not that I don't have stuff to share, I've just not had all the time I would like to type it all up. But now since some of you have started asking about the pictures, I thought it was time to put some up. The following is an account of the trip to the top of Katahdin that I was a part of this past August.

Dscn0653_1 This past August I got a phone call on Sunday from my sister. She asked, "So, what are you up to this week?," and when I said I had no idea, she said, "Well, how would you like to climb Mt. Katahdin tomorrow . . . well, probably on Tuesday?" So, within a couple of days I was whisked away from the heat and haze of Chicago and on a plane to the jetport in Portland, Maine. (It is a jetport, and not an airport. I suppose they want to make it clear that you can catch something other than a prop plane there). Then six hours later we were up in our campsite at the Big Moose Campground, just outside of Baxter State Park. Now, I've done a lot of camping. Camping for me usually involves taking a bus or a plane to the middle of nowhere, hiking at least six miles a day, setting up camp in a blizzard, fighting off mountain lions with my firm and confident voice (OK, I exaggerate slightly, I think it was actually a weasel, but man, at three in the morning, when a weasel scratches my canvas tent at precisely the place where my head is resting, it might as well be a mountain lion!). Camping is hence a lot of work, exhausting, occasionally life-threatening, but all in all quite a bit of fun. Camping with my sister and her beau however is a very different experience. There are stainless steel martini glasses, a plentiful supply of vodka (vodka martinis are the official drink of boo and pookie's camping excursions), enough citronella oil to permanently alter the ecosystem, and really comfortable portable reclining chairs. In a word, it's quite civilized. Dscn0629_1 This is not to say that neither of them have attempted more adventurous camping expeditions (my sister for instance spent two weeks in an old growth forest in northern Ontario, accessible only by airplane), but it is just a different way of camping. And I have to say for the first time tailgate camping seemed like a rather nice way to spend a weekend.

Of course, even with tailgate camping, there are problems. Like the showers. Man, I mean the bathrooms were very clean: surprising for any campground, well lit, and in general in very good shape. But I remember my first night there in the shower building. I was in the men's room brushing my teeth using the clear water from the tap, when I heard a crash in the next room. Someone was kicking the coin operated shower machine. This was followed by lots of swearing, the sound of a fist against a wall, and an agonizing scream, followed by the slam of a door. I thought to myself, "Man, some guys sure have anger management issues," and walked back to my tent. Little did I know that the next morning I would end up doing the very same thing. It's almost impossible for me to describe how annoying these showers were the first morning. The way these showers are supposed to work, is that you put a few coins in, turn the dial, you get nice and toasty warm water, then when it begins to fade you put a few more coins in, and you can shower for as long as you want (or as long as there's water in the tank). Well, with the machines that morning, you put the required coins in, turn the dial, and nothing happens. So then you think, the coins are stuck in the machine. So you tap it on top. If nothing still happens, you think to yourself, maybe the water tank is some distance from the shower, and that if you wait a minute or so everything will be all right. When five minutes go by, you put more coins in the machine. And then miracle of miracle there is a clicking noise, the sound of water going through a pipe, and then . . . nothing. So after a few more coins and a few more minutes, you give up and walk out the door, letting it slam behind you, only to have the water suddenly go on. A miracle! So you quickly go back in, close the door, take your clothes off as quickly as possible, jump back in the shower, experience two minutes of ecstasy before the water suddenly turns off leaving you covered with soap in a cold shower stall. At this point is there anything to do but start to yell at the machine, hit it a couple of times, make agonizing screams until by shear force of will you manage to make it work? Suddenly the guy from the night before seemed perfectly reasonable. I think I spent an hour in the shower to get my precious six minutes of water. Fortunately, we got to move to a cabin for our last night!

Anyway, our first day was watercolor day. Part of the rationale behind this trip was to spend an entire day next to a lake in Maine painting watercolors. This is actually one of my favorite activities. I love being in one place long enough to really observe the change in shadows, the different effects the light produces on the water, to really take in a vista or two. And since the whole time you're painting, you're participating in an activity that really helps you see details in the world around you. Painting can also be a way to meet people. I remember meeting many fishermen, carpenters and children this way when I traveled through Greece as a teenager. One of the better locations for this was sitting by a harbor in a particular small town - I think it was on Aegina, but I'm not sure. I didn't even have a smattering of Greek back then, so there was nothing I could say, but all day people were constantly coming up to me attempting to communicate. Most of these conversations involved one of the fishermen pointing to something in the harbor, and then pointing to the corresponding image on my canvas, and smiling. A bit awkward at first, but after a while it seemed to become a bit of an amusing game. Oh, and children would come up and stand nearby and just be entranced by the gradually unfolding picture. Of course, this is all a side note, since there was no one else at the lower Togue Pond in Maine, Dscn0643_1 there was nothing to do but just keep painting and make tuna fish sandwiches. Dscn0669_1 We probably spent four or five hours doing this. My sister is actually getting rather good at watercolors, and her boyfriend made it quite evident why he was a professional painter. I personally, wasn't entirely happy with my creations, to be honest, I haven't really found a style yet - I've been inspired by the more abstract watercolors of Signac recently, and some of the watercolor and ink creations of Kandinsky that were on exhibit at the Guggenheim last year, but my creations looked like none of the above. But I'm getting better, and besides part of the virtue of painting on the side of the lake is the pleasure of the immediate experience of sitting next to a pleasant lake in Maine. After the day of painting, we had time for a swim in the Upper Togue Pond on the other side of the road. Dscn0639_1 The water was the perfect temperature. Dscn0636_1_1 It was a bit chilly over there, with a crisp wind coming down across the water, but as long as you stayed underwater, you were warm. Anyway, watercolor day was a unanimous success, and we also got our first view of Mt. Katahdin, Dscn0634_1 as it loomed alone on the horizon. That afternoon we also inquired as to the best way to climb the mountain. If you've ever been to Katahdin, you know that the number of people allowed to climb it is strictly limited every day, and it is possible to arrive at nine in the morning and not be allowed in since the park is full. So you have to plan your trip a bit ahead of time to be sure you get to the gate early enough to get in. The woman at the park information center offered us some advice about the mountain. She told us that we probably couldn't get into any of the trails at the north side of the mountain, since they were mostly full, but we should come up by the south. There were a few trails there. One was steep, and "right of the side of the mountain," and we were told to avoid that unless we were experiencesd hikers (we had all hiked, but some members of our group had not done so for a while). Instead, she suggested that we take one of the trails further down the road that goes up the mountain more gradually. The easiest way up was probably the Hunt trail, so that's where we should head. It also had the added virtue of being the actual ending of the Appalachian Trail, which terminates at the summit of Katahdin. Anyway, I mention her advice, since there is still a bit of debate among the hikers that day about whether John chose the right trail to go up. All I can say in my defense is that the women at the gate told me it was the easiest way!

Katahdin is the tallest mountain in Maine. It is 5267 feet, and it stands at the edge of the Northern Appalachian range, so there is an unobstructed view that goes all the way to the ocean. It is also in the middle of nowhere, and it's almost always covered with fog or mist. A guide book I once looked at said that you almost never see anything from the top because of the mist, so the climb is often disappointing. The other thing that most people know about Katahdin is that it looks like a deceptively easy climb. I mean, there is hardly anything in New England that is truly difficult to climb, and Katahdin shares the same gently rolling hill line of other mountains. So it is a common mistake to assume that it's going to be a piece of cake. It isn't. I wouldn't say it was a hard climb, but it's just a lot harder than we imagined. So, needless to say, we arrived the next morning bright and early, drove to the trailhead, and began the ascent up Hunt trail. The first few miles of the trail are a nice walk through the woods. Then you begin to climb for a few miles up a gradually steepening trail until you finally break through the tree line. It was somewhere along these second couple of miles when you begin to realize Katahdin is not alone. Other mountains begin to rise around you as you ascend. I remember looking up at a mountain at one point during this climb and thinking, "I hope Katahdin isn't too much taller than that." It was then an odd experience an hour later to have to look down quite a distance to even see that "tall" mountain (The Owl, 3597 feet). Well, after all this gradual climbing, Katahdin throws its first surprises at you. First, you end up walking up to a stone wall at the edge of a cliff. Dscn0692_1 Although it is perhaps not a terribly scary cliff, with the wind blowing along the side of the rock face, it initially seems quite out of place with the pleasant walk beforehand. I suppose that is the first point at which we realized that this was not as easy a mountain as we thought. Fortunately, the wall is very short, and really no problem. But then you get to the boulder field. And these are relatively big boulders. Some of them are so big, in fact that you have to use the iron ladders and poles that are mounted in the rock to get up them. At a few places the shorter person in our group had to use someone else's shoulders. And all of this with the wind blowing back and big drop-offs all around. I think we hesitated here. We began to think maybe this climb wasn't such a hot idea. But fortunately, we were almost to the summit (which we THOUGHT we could see), so it seemed worth taking some risks now that we were so close. Well, we weren't so close, because when we got to the top, there was another concealed part of the mountain behind it. And when we got to the top of that, suddenly the sides of the mountain disappeared, and we were on a thin ridge, cliffs on either side, leading up to a very steep peak in the distance. Again, we hesitated, but we thought we were so close and trudged on since that DEFINITELY was the peak. Dscn0694_2 And of course, it wasn't the peak, because when we got to the top of that, we entered a tremendous alpine meadow, with what looked like a whole other mountain in the distance, and a sign informing us that we were still over a mile away! So we trudged across the plain, taking a break at the small water source known as "Thoreau's Spring," Thoreauspring2 because Thoreau was said to stop there on his hike up to the top. And finally, we got to the summit.

And wow, that was one of the more amazing moments of the past year. Dscn0707_1 When we got to the summit, the sky was absolutely crystal clear as far as the eye could see except for the few overhanging clouds far above. Katahdinview_2 Dscn0711_1 In fact, I do think that we could see the ocean, just barely shimmering on the horizon. Dscn0710_1 And after a few minutes up there, everyone else who had climbed that day left, and we were absolutely alone. I took up a seat next to a very large cairn, and just enjoyed the silence. And there is something almost divine about being on the top of a mountain, being able to see for miles: the smoke in the distance, the lumber trucks barely visible as they turned up the dust along the logging roads, the people on the other peaks in the distance, everything going on around you, and yet not a sound anywhere. I mean, one could probably hear a pin drop, and when people spoke on the alternate peaks about a quarter mile away, you could hear every word. I could have easily spent a few hours up there, but alas, we knew that we had to climb down, and after five hours or so up, it would take us a long time to get back to the car, so we were only there for about half an hour.

One interesting sidenote to our tale was that we ran into a 60-year-old women who was climbing up to the top of the mountain by herself. She actually had climbed up the day before, but turned back at the boulder field, and was trying it again that day. Right when we were leaving the summit, there she was, having made a successful summit on her own. We invited her to have dinner with us that night since we thought she deserved something for having attempted the mountain twice and succeeded, but she didn't accept the offer. We hope she got back safely that night. The mountain is actually well-patrolled, and the number of hikers is kept track of quite closely, so it is actually a rather safe place to climb, but still.

What followed? Well, a dinner on a porch at the Big Moose lodge - with a talented, if quirky one-man band nearby, a cabin at the edge of a beautiful lake (more photos will follow as soon as I develop the last role of film), bright stars at night, and just the sort of complete relaxation that one needs after a climb to the top of Katahdin. Then we had to drive four or five hours to the South and I just made my plane. What a great break from Chicago.

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