My alarm blares, announcing my wakeup time of 2:45 am. I down some oatmeal, swig a protein smoothie, then dash out the door with my pack and drive to our rendezvous point in Morell Park, in downtown Fredericton. My co-worker Rene-Lynn has orchestrated this outing: three complete strangers she has plucked from various aspects of her life: one serving Canadian Forces member, one climber, one fitness enthusiast, all of us with a goal of wanting to climbing Katahdin, the highest point in the state of Maine.
Our introductions are short and sweet. “Everyone got their passports?” Cameron bellows as we pile gear and people into his vehicle, then hit the highway at 4:25 am. Rene has the map unfolded in front of her and we have an open discussion on today’s trek. Cameron is the only one of us that has done the hike previously, the rest of us are relying on his wisdom. I weigh in with “The Baxter State Park website has an announcement that Dudley trail is closed for 2018 season.” This fact throws a monkey wrench into our original plan to cross the Knife Edge trail; with no return loop, the alternative is a 30 km (19 mile) assault that is just not feasible when we factor in the 1600 meter (5269 foot) elevation gain to reach the peak.
The Houlton border guard takes our info and sends us on our way with a smile, adding “Have a good hike.” We make one brief stop for coffee and burritos at a gas station and arrive at the park gate with a few minutes to spare to hold our parking reservation. We all do quick a toilet stop, clothing and pack adjustments, sign the trail registry and gather for a departing group shot.
The first notable trail feature is a waterfall, a pretty place where we each take a turn posing for a photo, then carry onward.
The unremarkable, easy start gives way to a steeper incline. Rene, a nutritionist by profession, plunks down in the shadow of an enormous rock, and says, “Fuel stop.” She unwraps her burrito and takes a big bite. “Darn I thought I had grabbed a bean one, this is beef.” We all drop our packs and follow her lead. Several other hikers converge at this point. There is a couple standing on top of the rock. “Wow you have to see this,” the man says. I come over and he reaches a hand out and helps me up on top. Cameron, Rene and Carlie follow to have a glimpse of how far we have risen from the valley floor.
What started as stepping stones becomes boulders and the trail is suddenly no joke but a worthy adversary, foreshadowing what is to come.
Our last chance to have a private nature break disappears with the tree line. It is all bouldering up from here. My hikers hold fast to the rough granite surfaces. Two spots have iron handles nailed into the rock and we have to use them to haul ourselves up, Rene goes first then me, Carlie spots me, Cameron secures us all at the back.
It doesn’t escape me that we are now dealing with ledges – foot placement is critical but I am getting a feel for it and the footholds are good. I even tic-tac my way up in a few corners. Rene tells Carlie I have “different beta” — a climbing term for the pattern a climber choices to scale the rocks. A bit of fear surfaces as I have to roll under an overhang with very little clearance and the edge is just feet away. With that one tricky manoeuvre completed we stop for another fuel break. I pause and drape my feet over the edge to banish my fear of heights. There is truth in the words of Les Brown, “Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.”
We scramble upward, planting and pulling. A large crack becomes a good hand grip. This mountain face is littered with boulders that have toppled from above, coming to rest on each other. They are solid and stable in their precarious placement – or are they? One thought keeps repeating in my mind: What would happen if one of these rocks shifted?
My camera is safely stowed in my backpack during the hardest parts, so I have no photos. How am I getting down this part? Several spots stand out but I keep my concerns to myself. We finally crest to the top but it is a false peak. The flat plateau is a respite with a gorgeous look off. We again convene to take in food and water and to lounge against the warm rocks. A kind man offers to take our photo. “Can you do a panoramic shot please?” I set the dial on my camera then back away to join our group .
“I don’t know what I am doing,” he says. ” Just push the button and slowly move left to right.” He follows my instruction. “What is your name?” “Craig,” he replies “Thank you Craig.” Here is the product of his effort.
A sign reminds hikers to stay on the path, the ground-cover is precious and endangered and we make our way carefully, walking on top of the stones towards the next ridge. The sun is relentless but the wind is starting to pick up. We trade the lead to allow each person to take in the scenery and not just stare at the feet in front of you.
On the final approach, Carlie shifts the lead to me so either by default or luck I am the first to the peak and I reach out and touch the Katahdin sign to finalize the hike. Four hours of strenuous work is well worth the effort. The wind is strong here and I dig in my pack for my shell and put it on.
There is a lineup at the Katahdin sign, phones and cameras are out and a procession of people walk up and snap photos and selfies. We jump in for our turn and I pass my camera to the lady beside me. “Would you mind taking a group shot of us with the sign?” I return the favour, taking her photo then moving to a rock shelf to celebrate our hiking victory.
Next is the look off to the basin below. I move towards it and accidentally intrude on a couple hunkered down out of the wind eating crackers and hummus behind a rock enjoying the view.
The lady at the gate had told us it would take about three hours to cross the knife edge and return. We don’t have enough time to do, it is already after 1 pm. We set a 15 minute out and 15 minute back time limit. Self preservation kicks in and my body trembles as I reluctantly stand on the boulder-strewn peak of the knife edge. “I am not really fond of this shit” I say out loud. I creep forward, staying low, clinging to one rock before lunging for the next. Cameron is fearless, jumping from rock to rock, the heights having no effect on him at all.
The basin below is spectacular, the height is dizzying.
Time is up and we return to the peak and make our way down. Facing the rock while climbing up might be physically hard but it is mentally easy. Look out over a cliff on the way down is frightening and on several occasions, I gasp in fear when I see Rene or Cameron make a minor misstep. I quack with terror at my own mistakes. Constantly using my hands to brace against the rough granite has reddened and inflamed the skin of my palms.
Once I get where there are meters of ground to land on, instead of mere feet, I am better. The final path down is like stone stairs. I had mentioned to a friend the week before about coming on this trip, he had said, “Don’t do it Kell, the knife’s edge is terrifying, and your knees will hurt like hell on the way down.” He was correct on both accounts. My knees were starting to hurt and so were my toes from being shoved against the toe box of my hikers as I braced against gravity.
Ten hours after our departure we arrive at the parking lot, amazed, exhausted and satisfied beyond compare. At that moment if you had asked me would I do it again, I would have said, “Got the check mark in the box.” If you asked me today while I am writing this? I would say “When do we leave?”
Thanks for reading, Please join me again on my next adventure. Happy travels from Maritime Mac.
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