For most hikers, climbing up Baxter Peak is the crowning achievement—the climactic event after a months-long trekking episode from Georgia to Maine. For me, however, Baxter was in no way the conclusion; it was only a part of a broader drama. This was an incremental victory among numerous others contained within a larger story. The plot had thickened and I’d reached a high point, but going down the mountain did not mean going home; instead, it symbolized the end of one chapter and the start of the next. There were still enchanting fields and forests beyond, stretching into the northern reaches of Maine and deep into the Canadian provinces. The best was yet to be.
As a thru-hiker of the Eastern Continental Trail (ECT), I needed to connect from the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail (AT) at Baxter Peak on Katahdin to the southern terminus of the International Appalachian Trail (IAT). To achieve this, I followed a particular route, one that I have come to call the “IAT Approach Trail.” The IAT Approach Trail is 11.8 miles long and serves as a critical linkage for the two termini such that the ECT remains a continuous footpath.
During a frightful thunder-shaking storm that began right after my summit atop Katahdin, I scrambled upon sleet-slickened rocks on the much-feared Knife Edge Trail, a section known for having near-vertical precipices on both sides and only a sharp narrow path to walk on. A fatal fall was only one small slip away and the precariousness of the situation could have easily triggered mental panic. With some previous experience mountaineering at high elevation, I knew I needed to descend the mountain as swiftly and safely as possible. Staying calm and alert, I aimed for one blue blaze at a time. Using the blaze-by-blaze approach allowed me, amid low visibility and slick conditions, to get down off the mountain alive and uninjured.
A weatherworn junction sign marks the location where the Knife Edge ends, whereupon I connected to the Helon Taylor Trail, a trail which gradually led me all the way down to Roaring Brook Campground. While descending on the Helon Taylor Trail, the sun began to burn away the clouds and the rain dissipated. Looking to the east far off into the distance that morning, I took in my first glorious glimpse of Katahdin Lake where I’d be hiking later that afternoon.
From the Roaring Brook Campground, I roadwalked south on the main dirt road to the Katahdin Lake Trail sign. There is a privy there that serves as a noticeable “landmark” easy to spot from the road. Turning onto the path, I hiked east on the Katahdin Lake Trail following the blue blazes that had been painted onto the trees. At first the trail conditions surprised me because the path was well-maintained and easily navigated. The striped blazing was frequent and unfaded and there were sturdily built bog bridges. But all this would soon change.
When coming to wood junction signs, I carefully followed the arrows that pointed to “Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps.” Still within the bounds of Baxter State Park at this point, I came upon the abandoned, or “semi-abandoned,” camp. The park officials had apparently chosen to decommission the camp some years ago and the buildings did not, for all practical purposes, exist. Viewing the deteriorating condition of the once-thriving cabins and dining hall, I could tell that the lakeside camp’s heyday was long past. The “ghost camp” was steadily becoming run down due to intentional negligence. Instead of tearing down or selling off the one-roomed cabins, it was as if the buildings were simply left to the wild to succumb to its forces. Nature would disguise them, strangle them, and, with enough time, swallow the buildings whole. The cabins, all of which had been padlocked by rangers to keep out trespassers, were covered up as ancient history. It was the camp that never was. Although the camp no longer existed in the minds of the park staff for unknown political reasons, I not only found the cabins of “Camp Neverwas,” but I explored them, taking careful notice of all that I saw.
Entering the vacant campground, which was nearly camouflaged with grass and ferns, caused a most eerie sensation. Hairs on the nape of my neck stood on end as I cautiously proceeded past, one at a time, the now-forgotten camp cottages. There were privies on the periphery and situated near the center of the encampment was a wood shop. Along the shore, canoes had been stacked and locked up in a shed. Exploring the grounds of the old camp, I decided to get a closer look at the cabins. Each camp cabin had a sign by its front door with its own catchy name such as “Windy Pitch Camp,” “Purgatory Lodge,” “Camp Traveler,” and “Camp Freeze-Out.” Pressing my cheeks and nose to the windowpanes for an inside peek, I could see furniture had been left behind as if nothing had changed since the day the camp closed.
In one such window, I viewed something that sent chills down my spine, especially after hearing from other hikers that the camp was haunted. If the creaky porch floorboards weren’t enough, I stumbled back all the way against the railing after seeing what I thought was the movement of a person inside. Since it was dark inside the room, the object was obscured, making it difficult to make a positive identification. But I saw something, and, upon sighting the mysterious figure, fell backwards. It looked as if a boot had moved in the back corner near one of the cobwebbed-covered beds. Perhaps it was simply a reflective phenomenon in the glass pane or some other explainable activity. Apart from a disbelief in ghosts and doubting mind with respect to the paranormal, my face became ashen. Whatever it was moving on the other side of the windowpane had scared the living daylights out of a grown man. A tingly sensation of fear covered, if only for a few slow-motioned seconds, my entire body. Petrified by what I saw, or thought I saw, I went partially numb. Time was suspended and even my hearing briefly went dead. Heart palpitations felt heavy and loud. The amrhair-raising occurrence was enough to send me back on my way!
From the abandoned wilderness camp buildings I turned right heading south at the towering birch tree located smack dab in the middle of the camp. My eye caught the first of a new series of blue blazes that marked the continuation of the Katahdin Lake Trail I’d hiked in on. The wood trail signs from here on had mostly rotted with time and the lettering was eroding away. Some signs had decayed beyond recognition and others were missing from their posts entirely. The trail at this point was unmaintained and overgrown, requiring much bushwhacking. Employing my trecking poles as a makeshift machete, I knocked down bushes along what was only a faint impression of a path. The trail soon disappeared into a dense wilderness at which point I was led onto an old Jeep trail. Continuing on the overgrown Jeep trail with only a vague impression of a pathway, I beat back the ferns in front of me with the swinging motion of my poles. Trying not to get lost and being unsure of my whereabouts, something soon caught my eye ahead. Sighting some boulders that had been placed to barricade the Jeep trail, a road came into view. Could it be? Why yes—Katahdin Loop Road! It was here I spotted my first SIA/IAT emblem. This meant I was only one mile directly south of the now-recognized IAT terminus, the waypoint where the trail technically began. Rangers at the Baxter State Park purposefully do not recognize the “IAT Approach Trail” route as an official “park exit;” nonetheless, there is in fact a continuous footpath from Katahdin to the IAT and I had just hiked it!
Pitstop picked me up at the terminus for some much-anticipated time off before hiking the IAT-Maine section. Having a reservation at Katahdin Shadow Campground in Medvale near Millinocket, I triple-zeroed over Fourth of July weekend. The three-day hiatus was refreshing as it allowed my muscles to recover and my mind to engage with something other than hiking. While at the Hannaford grocery mart in Millinocket, I bumped into some AT hiking buddies who’d recently summited; of course it was bittersweet as we said our farewells. On the last night at the campground with Pitstop, the two of us had a calorie-loaded pasta dinner and a bonfire to celebrate all I’d accomplished. I’d walked so far to get here but much trail still lay ahead.
That first day on the IAT after Pitstop had dropped me off it rained in sheets, contrary to the day’s weather report. White rectangular aluminum trail signs with their characteristic light blue lettering spelled the letters “SIA/IAT” (SIA is a French initialism for Sentier international des Appalaches). These tree-mounted emblems led me down old decommissioned logging roads, most of which were wildly overgrown and littered with tree blowdowns. Within the first mile of the IAT was the Katahdin Brook lean-to (mile 0.4) and soon there was yet another at the WassataquoIk lean-to (mile 4.2). These lean-tos, as with others I’d seen on my hike north, were built with much craftsmanship, even more so than the average AT shelter. A fire ring and picnic table were placed in front of each lean-to and a logbook was placed inside within a plastic bag. Wildlife was abundant on the IAT in Maine. By only the second mile of the IAT, I’d seen a moose. The creature was a beast of an animal blocking the trail only yards away from where I had been standing; however, a quick clack of my poles, and the big animal disappeared into the woods.
There were numerous stream crossings, one of which involved me walking on top of a beaver dam. Stepping carefully on the dense network of sticks, I “beaver-blazed” my way across. Along the WassataquoIk Stream, an inhabiting beaver ran out in front of me making a grumble and bark noise. One major river crossing required me to ford through knee-high water but the crossing was well-marked and the waters were calm. The mosquitoes came in clouds those first few days and so a bug head net was worn to protect my face and neck from involuntary bloodwork.
Ruins of a dilapidated fire warden’s cabin provided much interest just before making my first ascent, the first of two climbs on the IAT-Maine segment. Walking around the half-collapsed edifice, one can imagine what it must have been like in the confined living quarters as a warden for the Forest Service. The cabin was once occupied in the late 1940’s by Ed Werler, author of “The Call of Katahdin.” Up the mountain was the Deasey Fire Lookout. Deasey’s summit is the location of one of the few remaining “ground cab” fire lookouts. From the top I could see Katahdin off in the distance, which was remarkable to view having come off only days previously.
The trail parallels the Penobscot River for several miles, which is a river especially popular for canoeing and kayaking. I stealth-camped the first night only yards away from a snorting bull moose. The deep grunt sounds can be quite intimidating, particularly when accompanied by stomping hooves! To detour the mammoth creature, I banged my pot several times with my titanium spoon as if celebrating New Years at the stroke of midnight. The clamorous clanging worked like a charm.
After leaving Katahdin Woods and Waters (a U.S. national monument located on the eastern border of Maine’s Baxter State Park), I charged my electronics on the porch of the Matagamon Wilderness Camp General Store. While there, I devoured the most flavorsome egg-and-bacon sandwich of my life. Eggs cooked in bacon grease make for happy hiking! While sitting on the porch with the proprietor’s well-behaved dog, a scouting group launched their canoes into the Penobscot as part of a scout paddling trip. “One day,” I told myself, “I’m coming back here to canoe the magnificent Penobscot.”
From the Matagamon Wilderness Camp General Store there is a 14.7-mile pavement roadwalk to an ATV trail near Shin Pond Village. On the roadwalk, I passed numerous logging roads and, at times, a whole convoy of logging trucks zipped by me at warp speed. The camp store at Shin Pond Village provided an opportunity for some mid-afternoon shade. At the camp’s restaurant bar, I nursed a pint of Allagash, sharing hiking stories with some interested locals. Northern Maine has an entire infrastructure of ATV trails, all of which are used as snowmobile trails during the winter months. Hiking on the ATV trails was favorable since the ground is largely well-graded and maintained. Back on the highway on Route 2, I hiked through the hamlet of Smyrna and through farmlands which had a heavy Amish presence. The community included Mennonite-run woodworking and metal shops along with fruit-and-vegetable stands. One Amish boy wearing plain homemade clothing was riding his bicycle in the opposite direction as I was hiking. As we passed each other, we both waved at one another at the same exact time. In acknowledgment of our differences but with a sincere respect, I flashed an appreciative smile. A sign mounted near one one the workshops could be seen from the roadway and quoted the last part of Mark 13:13, which read: “He who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
After passing under Interstate 95, I ate lunch at the Brookside Inn restaurant. The overalled farmers who frequent there saw me with my pack and became curious. Conversing with the agrarian locals, I was welcomed with kind words and firm handshakes. After ordering a juicy burger, French fries, and a side of shrimp, the waitress informed me that my bill had already been paid anonymously. A feeling of gratitude came over me at the thought that a stranger would help me. Before leaving the inn, I ordered a chocolate whoopie pie to go and booked it toward Houlton. There in Houlton, I would have my last resupply in the states before entering Canada. At Hannaford Supermarket, I loaded up with enough food to get me through Mars Hill and into New Brunswick. The ATV trail picks up behind the grocery store and, only a few miles away, I stealthed for the night.
The next morning I walked into the town of Mars Hill. Now this Mars Hill has no relation to the red planet nor does it have any relation to the place in Athens where Apostle Paul reasoned with the philosophers. Instead, this Mars Hill was the last northernmost town in Maine that I’d hike through before leaving the country. Hiking up the Mars Hill ski resort (Bigrock Mountain), I met a kind of local named Eric. While resting at the Mars Hill lean-to, Eric informed me that the mountain upon which we were standing was the first place in the entire United States to receive sunlight. There was much history atop the mountain and the views were captivating. A man called Wendell Pierce used to own the mountain and was central in approving the IAT route through the area. Wind turbines graced the hilltops and could be seen and heard on my walk down to East Ridge Road.
Prior to walking the last stretch of the IAT-Maine section, I filled up my water bottles at a roadside piped spring. Upon informing border patrol, I hiked the border stripe, what is known as “The Slash” along the US-Canada border. Since I would be tripping sensors, the agents wanted to know I was coming, along with my physical description. I was to walk in a straight line, aiming from one granite obelisk to the next, staying on the American side the best I could. The regularly spaced obelisk monuments have the words UNITED STATES inscribed on one side and CANADA on the other. The Slash was largely overgrown and unmaintained so I had to proceed with much cognizance. The border strip involved walking a dusty road with numerous stream crossings to ford and even a beaver dam—that’s right, a beaver dam—right in the middle of path! This was the Canadian border but I felt as though I were crossing the Rio Grande. Sometimes I’d walk up on the piles of sticks that form the perimeter of the beaver dam but that proved to be troublesome. Even after bushwhacking around the dam, I found myself in knee-high water walking through the bogs. Eventually, I was able to clear the dam and the border strip gradually improved. Dirt turned into pavement and I made my final turn into the Canadian customs port of entry.
Through it all, after 4,277.8 miles on the ECT, I had made it to Canada where I’d continue my hike into five separate provinces: 1) New Brunswick, 2) Quebec, 3) Nova Scotia, 4) Prince Edward Island, and 5) Newfoundland.
A whole new world was about to open up.