Katahdin Lake Lures Coastal Guys to Snug Cabin, Deep Snow

by Steve Cartwright

Mount Katahdin from the southeast. The knife edge in upper left. Katahdin Lake at bottom.
Steve Cartwright photo


Here along the coast, we’re having a naked winter. Oh, there are a few patches of crusty snow, but lots of bare ground. If you like snow and want some winter action, it’s blah. So the time had come: Time for the annual pilgrimage to one of Maine’s premier wintry places, Baxter State Park.

For a decade or so, a bunch of gung-ho guys from Friendship, Waldoboro, and as far away as California have packed a lot of good food and drink, a lot of warm clothing, skis and snowshoes, and headed for the Maine woods. We are seeking wilderness, a break from winter boredom, a break from the routine.

Some of our trips are easy, some are brutal and even scary, such as the time we arrived over-tired at a cold cabin after dark, the temperature 30 degrees below zero. Not this year. On our ski trek in to Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps, it was so warm I stripped down to a T-shirt. Three days later, heading out, I struggled to stay warm wearing long johns, wind pants and “smart-wool” socks stuffed inside my inadequate mittens.

It was all so worth it. We are five guys, guys who can face the challenge of a 14-mile day on the trail, and how to open a wine bottle without a proper corkscrew. Two of the guys, Andy and Ted, are doctors at Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport. They said not to rely on them if we get hurt. “No nurses here, forget it.”

No wives joined us, either. You know the old song, “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?”

Basic, rustic log cabin.You can’t drive there. No roads. Just a 14 mile trail, and all heavier stuff comes in by snowmobile. By heavier stuff I don’t mean us. 

Bill is a kayak outfitter, real estate broker, bed-and-breakfast operator and disabled-adult counselor who lives in Friendship. Actually, he’s quitting all those things for now to hike the Appalachian Trail. He’ll be 62 on the trail. We’re all in that middle distance, or is it called early old age? Anyway, we feel pretty buff when we tackle Baxter State Park in the wintertime.
John is a custom homebuilder from Friendship, who I’ve known for years but didn’t realize he had an artificial leg. He is that able, skiing, mountain climbing, walking rooftops. And there’s me, the writer/photographer from Waldoboro.

Not able to come was Ted, a gourmet chef and all-around amiable guy who had to forsake this trip to stay with his ailing mother. Another tripper, Bill from the west coast, had a severe head injury and we’re rooting for him nonstop.

Sadly, my son was a regular, although much younger member of our group. He killed himself in 2008 and was buried at sea. Life and death are not far apart. There is much time to ponder such things as we briefly visit a simpler, elemental world.

The guys tell jokes, play cards and sip Screech, the rum of Newfoundland. Freeze dried food? Hell no. We ate risotto and other gourmet fare.

The beauty of Katahdin Lake is hard to put into words. A photo does it better. And then, there is the art of folks like Maine native Marsden Hartley, one of several artists who visited the lakeside camp long ago, and painted the intense, interplay of mountains, woods and water.

Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps has been around since 1885, and is now run by Holly Hamilton and a hired crew, plus intermittent assistance from husband Bryce. You can’t drive there. No roads. Just a trail, and all heavier stuff comes in by snowmobile. By heavier stuff I don’t mean us, either. We skied the whole way, although you can sometimes catch a ride part way. Park rules prohibit recreational snowmobiling anywhere except the perimeter road.
It’s a magical, other-worldly feeling to glide down a narrow path on silent skis, the lichen-covered tree trunks to either side, the sense of a vastness and fastness, of a nature that we so often ignore, but is so much part of our being.

After much legislative debate, this priceless parcel of land surrounding the Lake was added to Baxter State Park a few years ago in a land swap/purchase deal, greatly aided by the Trust for Public Land and Maine citizens who care about protecting this wild place. I was invited to accompany legendary Baxter State Park director Buzz Caverly on a walk to Katahdin Lake in 2006, before it was annexed to the park.

I was pleased to see a photo of the Caverly group, in the modest log lodge, along with other folks who have found their way to this remote, absolutely unspoiled place. Buzz, since retired, told us about meeting Gov. Percival Baxter, who personally bought and donated parcels of land to create the park after the legislature rejected the proposal. To the legislature’s everlasting shame, I might add.

We Mainers seem to get hot under the collar about conserving land for future generations, but it seems to me that if we don’t protect special places, we’ll lose them. Katahdin Lake ringed with paved roads and over-sized vacation houses?

I can’t think of a town, a county or a state that suffers from too much land being preserved. But I can think of plenty of places, mostly to the south of us, where not enough open land was protected. And now it’s too late. I don’t know if a Maine National Park is the answer, but I’m certain that land protection efforts must continue, for our health, for wildlife, for our continued survival. We humans certainly qualify as an invasive species.

Baxter was wealthy and farsighted. He bought Mount Katahdin itself, 6,000 acres, in 1930, and kept on buying up land until 1962. The park is now well over 200,000 acres. Baxter, who loved to fish the backcountry, set up irrevocable deeds of trust so that the park would retain its character, such as narrow dirt roads and no recreational vehicles or motorcycles. (See Percy’s Heirs, Fishermen’s Voice, December, 2009 - fishermensvoice.com)

You can camp in a lean-to or a tent, in drive-to or walk-in sites. You could hike the rest of your life on the many trails, some flat and some so steep you need to use your hands to climb.
After his death, park overseers violated the deeds by allowing limited snowmobile use, but on the whole, the park is the way old Percy wanted it to be, and it’s in good hands.

It helps if you’re fit, but it’s not imperative to finding your way to Katahdin Lake and those cozy log cabins, at least one of them considered original. I am so sea-oriented that it’s hard for me to leave the coast, even for a weekend. But “forever wild” Baxter Park, with its snow-covered peaks and silent forest is not to be missed. About the only noise was the tweet of pine siskins in, where else, the pine trees. Ted spotted crossbills, a partridge up close, a couple of deer on the run, and we all saw big tracks in our path but no moose.

Next time. Meanwhile, consider what Baxter said, now on a bronze plaque beneath the great mountain:

Man is born to die,
His works are short-lived.
Buildings crumble.
Monuments decay, and
Wealth vanishes.
But Katahdin in all its glory
Forever shall remain
The mountain of
The people of Maine

Steve Cartwright lives in Waldoboro. He can be reached at writer@midcoast.com


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