The Universal Notebook: My Maine mountain girls
Back in the summer of 1994, when I was still in shape to attempt such a thing, I set out to climb mile-high Mount Katahdin with my then-13-year-old daughter Hannah. We only made it as far as Chimney Pond because the summit was in the clouds and the ranger was advising people not to go above the tree line.
I must say, I was greatly relieved.
Hannah and I had a memorable day on the trail and got to see Maine’s iconic mountain up close, but we did not have to test our mettle (or my vertiginous fear of heights) crossing the Knife Edge. I console myself that 50,000 people a year climb Katahdin, so it’s not that big a deal. But then I guess it’s like running a marathon; it’s not an uncommon achievement, but it is a feat of personal endurance.
Hannah, now 31 and the mother of two, may make it to the top of Katahdin one of these days, but I probably never will. Not only do I have no desire to do so, I am woefully out of shape, get winded just walking up a couple of flights a stairs, and the sturdy leather hiking boots I bought for the assault on Katahdin have sat unused in the basement for 18 years.
Daughter Nora is the mountain girl of the family. An environmental educator, she lives in a little wood-heated cabin atop Tin Mountain in Jackson, N.H., with her husband, her 1-year old daughter and a family of bears. She and husband Mike, who works for the AMC, spend a lot of time tramping around the White Mountains in all sorts of weather and have climbed in the Rockies and the Olympic Range.
Last month, Nora got it into her head that she wanted to climb Katahdin on her 30th birthday, so Carolyn and I and daughter Tess joined Nora and Mike and their daughter Ollie on a weekend expedition to Millinocket, Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin. It was supposed to be a beautiful weekend weather wise, but as they say in Millinocket, “The mountain makes its own weather.”
Nora, Mike, Carolyn and Tess set out early Saturday morning to hike in from Roaring Brook to Chimney Pond, but had a collective change of mind and went via the Helon Taylor Trail instead. They got as far as Chimney Peak just before the Knife Edge before freezing rain and hail forced them to turn back.
As you have to be at least 6 years old to go above the timberline in Baxter, I stayed behind at base camp, a rather mongrel inn/cabin/camping ground jammed in between two lakes held apart by an ugly green metal dam, babysitting lovely little Ollie. She devoured all the books I could read her as well as all the apples, bananas, yogurt, cheese, graham crackers and toast I would feed her. She also delighted in feeding her rice cakes to a brace of ill-behaved ducks that followed us up from the lake shore.
Shortly before the Katahdin party returned, Ollie and drove into town and purchased a memento of the trip, a giclée print of Mount Katahdin by Marsha Donahue that I had seen the day before at her North Light Gallery.
Nora, Mike, Carolyn and Tess returned safe and sound, but unsatisfied. Nora, in particular, was determined to make it to the summit the next day.
After supper, we spent the evening in good-natured banter about the relative merits of Mount Katahdin and Mount Washington. Even though I know better, I insisted Maine’s highest mountain must be higher than and certainly superior to a New Hampshire mountain that tourists from New Jersey can drive up in their SUVs. OK, so Mount Washington may be higher, but Katahdin is more of a mountain than Washington ever was.
Early Sunday morning, the day having dawned bright, cool, and blustery, Carolyn and I packed up Ollie and headed for home while Nora, Mike and Tess went back up Katahdin in the wind.
Because the Roaring Brook quota of hikers had been filled for the day, they went up the back way via the Abol Trail and, being three fit young people, made it to the summit easily. The photos they brought back show a very pleased Nora standing beside the Baxter Peak sign the day after her birthday, but also Nora and Tess hunkered down between boulders to get out of the incessant wind.
I have no doubt that one day soon, all my girls will decide to climb Katahdin together, leaving Grampy behind to care for a brood of grandchildren. Should I ever take a notion to climb Katahdin myself however, I’m pleased to think that Maine’s great molar mountain will always be there waiting for me – majestic, mysterious and sublimely indifferent to the affairs of men.