Katahdin: A History and a Finale

Katahdin Rising

Katahdin is the Alpha and the Omega for thru-hikers; NOBOs, SOBOs, and flip-floppers all recognize the significance of conquering Maine’s highest peak. For us NOBOs, we spent countless hours sharing our Katahdin hopes and fears, and of what might come after. SOBOs have quite the opposite experience, buzzing with anticipation over what the miles ahead may hold. Finally, flip-floppers see Katahdin as a turning point in their journey, marking a brief period of R&R before tackling the next section of trail.

In all cases, however, Katahdin is markedly an Appalachian Trail landmark.

The Inspiration

Believe it or not, Katahdin is far more than simply the Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

In my first post, I wrote about my early years growing up in Southern Maine. Unlike the ever-shrinking suburbs of New Jersey, Maine was untamed and intimidating. My weekends were spent exploring the wooded property lines of my family’s home. I was both fascinated and frightened of what lay beyond the pines, and eager to seize any opportunity to explore the deep woods. In elementary school, we learned all about what Maine had to offer: lobsters and lighthouses; mountains and moose; blueberries and Baxter State Park, and Katahdin. Each day we celebrated everything that made Maine so unique.

Katahdin captivated me.

My teacher, Mrs. Strout, presented our class with a unique opportunity; a screening of the documentary Wilderness & Spirit: A Mountain Called Katahdin by Huey. The documentary shows the rich history of the park, and gives insight into the legends of the local Penobscot tribe. It’s a must watch for any aspiring thru-hiker, and the soundtrack alone is enough to make anyone immediately book a Baxter lean-to for a long weekend. I remember working the concessions table at the screening with my close friend Maggie. We made a promise to hike Katahdin together some day. Of course, we were only 9 or 10 years old, and that promise occupied only our imaginations for years.

The First Climb

Years later, that promise finally came true.

Maggie and I booked a lean-to at Abol campground for a long summer weekend, and went about planning our climb to Baxter Peak. While at the time I considered myself semi-in-shape, the thought of climbing above the treeline and a mile into the sky racked my mind and my nerves. On the eve of our hike, we gathered our gear and set off for Millinocket. Upon arrival to the park, Katahdin loomed in the horizon, offering little to no reprieve for our pre-hike jitters.

We started our hike at dawn from Roaring Brook, taking our time ascending the most gently sloped trails Katahdin had to offer. By the time we reached Chimney Pond, however, we were low on food and even lower on energy. By some miracle (trail magic), a fellow hiker allowed us to use his water filter and provided some additional food to continue on. Maggie and I reassessed, and agreed to continue on at an even slower pace. As we climbed, the trees grew shorter and more sparse, providing us only with the occasional teaser of what lay around us. Through labored breathing and drenched in sweat, we scrambled up the Saddle Trail to the tabletop.

Maggie and I were exhausted.

The tabletop’s 360-degree view of the untamed Maine wilderness cannot be described with words. We nearly flew the final mile to Baxter Peak, and we stood tall on our fulfilled promise from years past.

The Final Day

After five (3 1/2 wet) punishing days in the 100-Mile Wilderness, our tramily emerged victorious at Abol Bridge. After a quick respite, we split up to conquer the remaining 10 miles to Katahdin Stream. Thankfully, that final stretch was a welcome treat; a nearly flat winding trail that guided us into Baxter State Park ever so gently. After spending the past several days in the rain, we decided to forgo the Birches and to instead spend our last night resting up in Millinocket.

Our final morning was quiet; a surreal ending to a seemingly infinite journey. We shuttled back to Baxter State Park and began our ascent from Katahdin Stream. My trail family and I opted to slack-pack Katahdin, as it was no longer necessary to carry a now unnecessary amount of weight.

Despite having climbed Katahdin three times, I had never hiked from the Katahdin Stream campground before. The trail was unlike anything on the Chimney Pond side. As we ascended, our hike became a climb as the trail gave way to boulders and metal rungs. Unlike my previous hikes, I felt strong and unstoppable; the culmination of five months on foot. Seeing the summit sign through the fog almost felt anti-climactic, as I imagined celebrating on the summit with that 360-degree view from my first hike. Showstopper and I raced to the top, touched the cairn, hugged, kissed, cried, and celebrated the end of our days as AT thru-hikers. We immediately sought refuge from the wind, and waited patiently for the rest of our trail family. The celebration grew as fellow thru-hikers and day hikers joined us on the summit, cheering and embracing like never before.

At long last, we huddled around the Katahdin sign for our summit picture before starting our descent.

What’s Next?

It’s the message of the documentary that continues to resonate in my soul. Hiking is not just a physical or emotional challenge; it’s a privilege granted to those who respect the ground on which they walk. Wilderness & Spirit inspires and echoes many of the lessons we learn on the trail.

It took me until now to begin processing the final days on trail, as I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to a journey that has provided me with so much good. My post-trail challenges require some unpacking, but thankfully I’ve reached a point where these memories can be successfully archived to make room for all the good that’s yet to come. If there’s any positive to come out of our global pandemic, it’s that we’re forced to look inward to self-soothe; a process unfamiliar to many. I’m playing catch-up now, and I hope that my writing can provide some glimpse of hope for both readers and myself.

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