June 15th sunrise: 4:49
**earliest sunrise of 2012**
On June 15th, a friend and I set out to climb Mt. Katahdin just before dawn. It's a long day - about 2 hours to drive to the base trail, 9-11 hours of hiking, and 2 hours home.
We have both been up the mountain a few times before (she many more times than I), so it is familiar territory. G said to me as we were driving that she considered doing a smaller hike, but there is something incomparable in Mt. Katahdin. Many people hike this formidable mountain of granite as a kind of pilgrimage, a spiritual act, a quest-completion kind of thing. She felt like that was what she needed, so off we went on this quintessential sunny June day in Maine.
We parked at the Roaring Brook campground. From there it's a little over 3 miles to Chimney Pond, then another 2 miles or so UP to the summit at Baxter Peak.
We met a number of people on the trail -- a man with his elderly dad; large groups with multi-day packs; one guy with no pack or water of any kind that we could see; a group of lovely young people dressed in (I think) Mennonite clothing - the women with head scarves, long cotton dresses, daypacks and hiking boots, the men with suspenders and buttoned shirts, and binoculars! trying to spot a magnolia warbler.
About halfway to Chimney Pond, which sits dramatically in a bowl at the base of Katahdin, G came to the conclusion that her quest for the day might not include the hike to the summit. The inner drive that had been pushing her through recent trials was part of what pushed her to drive through this challenging hike. But as she tramped forward up and over the rocky trail, the exhaustion that she'd been staving off for so long finally found its way to the surface. An indefatigable woman, G is also dependably realistic. This was no time to push herself further.
She was apologetic. "I can't believe I made you get up at 4:00 in the morning." But I was utterly content. There was something wonderfully liberating about being on the trail with the specter of the summit lifted away. We could contentedly gaze upon the great mountain from afar, and appreciate it thoroughly.
At Chimney Pond we had a chat with an exceedingly pleasant park ranger.
"Are you heading up?" he asked.
"Well, we were going to, but we're too tired. Not today."
"Well, if you're not out of gas, there are a couple of really lovely side trails you could check out..."
Usually, when people come to Katahdin, they have eyes only for Baxter peak, the highest summit. It is a bear of a climb. My 50-something-year-old body generally takes almost a week to recover. But there are so many side trails and little viewpoint destinations that people never see as a result.
The ranger directed us to Blueberry Knoll, an extra loop that would add about 1.7 miles to our descent. I had heard of, but never seen Blueberry Knoll. It was awesome -- here is the view. A new prospect overlooking Katahdin, which is awe-inspiring from any angle.
Then, when we got to the base of the trail, I shed my pack at the car and hiked the .3 mile jaunt over to Sandy Pond, which our ranger friend had called "the moosiest place in the park." Sure enough, it was as advertised. I watched this big guy dip his head in and out of the water several times before I turned back, and saw a deer along the way.
It was a new and delightful way to enjoy Mt. Katahdin - as a backdrop to a beautiful day.
I was taken by the wording on a plaque near the Chimney Pond ranger station. It's a tribute to Leroy Dudley, a long-time park ranger in Baxter, and it includes the phrases "genial philosophy, kindly ways, and droll tales..." It strikes me that THAT is the kind of attitude inspired by the surroundings out there in the untamed woods of Maine - blackflies notwithstanding. I can think of no worthier words to have on a commemorative plaque, and they were inspired by someone's connection to the world outdoors.
The fact is, G and I had a superb day of hiking. No distant signs of man-made development, serene brooks and streams, twittering birds, flowering ground cover - bunchberries and trillium, sunshine filtering through the leafy canopy, the awesome sight of Katahdin standing sentry nearby, and no pressure to do any more than we felt like doing. Just out there, in the middle of it all. Summit not included. A worthy pilgrimage.