A winter expedition into Baxter State Park begins months in advance. Last Nov. 1, Allen Gaskell and I traveled to Baxter State Park headquarters in Millinocket to participate in the winter reservations lottery. Our goal was to obtain a six-day reservation at the South Branch Pond bunkhouse in the northeastern sector of the park. Allen’s name was drawn, and we secured the cabin for the second week of March.
The eight bunks in the cabin were quickly filled with six additional experienced mountaineering and skiing friends, including my son, Adam. Seniors were well-represented by four retirees, three of us well into our 70s.
I reserved a cabin at Matagamon Campground just outside the park for the night before the excursion began. In deference to my arthritic hips, we hired the campground to shuttle our gear by snowmobile as far as permissible on the park Perimeter Road. Our plan was to haul the gear with sleds for the remainder of the trek to South Branch Pond.
A Baxter State Park winter expedition requires hauling a heavy sled (left) into the park. A skier (top right) heads toward Horse Mountain on the Baxter State Park Perimeter Road. Expedition members (bottom right) collect water from the outlet on South Branch Pond. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase
Eight exuberant participants met at the Matagamon Winter Trailhead on a partly sunny, cool morning. For most winter park undertakings, sleds, snowshoes, skis and microspikes are necessary. After the snowmobile and trailer departed with our sleds and gear, most of us elected to ski approximately 10 miles to South Branch Pond Road. Allen’s GPS measured the total journey to the pond to be 12.4 miles.
Initially, the trail was a bit icy as we skied west on rolling terrain toward distinctive Horse Mountain on a fast irregular surface. The snow softened as the temperature rose en route to the South Branch Pond Road junction where our gear and sleds were waiting.
Everyone discarded skis and donned microspikes for the rigorous haul on South Branch Pond Road. We pulled heavy loads steadily uphill for most of the trek before enjoying a delightful downhill cruise to the cabin, located at the northern end of Lower South Branch Pond. With lofty peaks on both sides, the picturesque pond has the character of an inland fjord.
After settling into the bunkhouse, some of the younger members departed to break trail partway up North Traveler Mountain. We seniors took advantage of the quiet time to bring in firewood, start the woodstove and collect drinking water from an open section at the outlet of the pond. All water has to be purified.
During dinner, plans were made for the following day. Five of us decided to attempt a climb of North Traveler Mountain with the prospect of completing the famed 11-mile Traveler Loop. The demanding trek consists of North Traveler, Traveler and Peak of the Ridges, all 3,000-foot peaks with daunting forested saddles between. Complicating our objective, a winter storm was predicted to arrive sometime during the day and the hikers had reported trail-finding problems on North Traveler.
Cool temperatures, gray skies and a hard-packed trail surface greeted us the following morning as we began our quest. Some of us chose to start with microspikes while others favored snowshoes for the very steep initial ascent of North Traveler. All wore snowshoes at higher elevations.
Progress was slow ascending the precipitous, sometimes intimidating, route to an exposed prominence. Pausing on the rocky crag, we obtained an updated weather forecast relating unfavorable news — a winter advisory was in effect starting mid-afternoon. Phenomenal views were accompanied by increasingly gusty northeast winds as we proceeded up a partially exposed ridge. Possible storm clouds were observed over the summit of Traveler.
The impressive ridge is interrupted by two densely wooded areas. We lost the trail for a short time in a magical white birch forest and again in a stand of stunted spruce trees. After a futile search in the latter, we finally elected to bushwhack straight up to the barren summit.
Hikers descend (left) from the summit of North Traveler Mountain in gusty winds. Hikers climb (right) a false summit on North Traveler Mountain in Baxter State Park. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase
Winds were gusting but the clouds over Traveler had cleared. Two in the group decided to continue on the loop while three of us chose to return.
Following our tracks provided for a much more efficient descent. We converted to spikes and carefully negotiated down the steepest section. Our two companions reached the summit of remote Traveler but were forced to turn back without completing the loop due to long delays trying to find the trail.
Snow started to fall as Allen grilled steaks in a snow pit. After a delicious meal, we hunkered down wondering what the nor’easter and the new day would bring.