Circumnavigating Baxter State Park on Skis

A cold, windy sufferfest through the wild of northern Maine

Driving down the ice road owned by Great Northern Paper on our way to Baxter State Park was a good preview of the trip to come. We couldn’t be sure of what was around the next bend, but chances were we’d either encounter a monstrous on-coming logging truck doing 60+mph or a gigantic bull moose in the middle of the road. The drivers of these trucks, as well as the moose, treated us as a small nuisance and if they sent us off the road, they’d just keep on truckin’. We hadn’t even arrived at the parking lot and we already felt apprehensive.

We were about to embark on a very wintery 8-day, 70-mile circumnavigation of Baxter State Park—200,000 acres of protected land in the north woods of Maine. Created by former Maine governor Percival Baxter, the intent was to keep the place “forever wild,” and driving along the southern boundary, you can see why. After about 20 miles of harrowing, icy twists and turns, we slowed enough to pull into the plowed out parking area unscathed.

That left us optimistic about solid river and lake crossings but worried about staying warm.

The day was clear, sunny, and cold. The thermometer in the car read -1F as Scott, Greg, and I unloaded packs, sleds, and skis. We could see the Katahdin massif from the parking lot, but unlike prior trips, the summit wasn’t to be on our radar for eight more days. Our goal was to ski around the park pulling sleds and sleeping outside. The forecast called for most nights below zero and most days in the single digits or just above. That left us optimistic about solid river and lake crossings but worried about staying warm.

The first few days of the trip got us into the groove. We arranged gear on our sleds to lower the weight because they kept tipping over on narrow trails. We dialed in the new winter stove that froze the first night, and we started setting up and breaking down camps efficiently.

Everything we needed to survive was with us.

Every day seemed to be a continuously slow uphill slog. We joked that we didn’t know a loop could be uphill the whole way, as the time we spent with gravity on our side was minimal. Miles slid by underneath our feet. Moving through wild lands triggered primal senses. Everything we needed to survive was with us. Our connection to the outside world dissipated as our connection to our surroundings blossomed.

Day four found us skiing to South Branch Pond in the northern end of the park and our planned meeting spot with our friends Sayde and Kelsey. After a few seemingly endless uphill miles, we found relief in cruiser downhill to camp. As we scoped out the best lean-to, our friends arrived right on schedule. The following day, we attempted a 10-mile hike, unencumbered by our sleds, but met with howling winds and below zero temperatures above treeline, we opted to turn back for the relative calm of the forest. At nearly 20 miles from the nearest road, we couldn’t risk anything going wrong.

These wild places need our protection so that our kids can enjoy them, and their kids, too.

The next day, our new team of five started moving south in the direction of the cars, though 30 miles still separated us from them. We arrived at Russell Pond for the evening, sleeping well despite the knowledge that the next morning might make or break our plans. The biggest unknown was the crossing of Wassataquoik Stream, usually thigh-deep in the summer, but potentially carrying more volume in the winter. We weren’t sure what we’d encounter. Thankfully, when we came to the banks we found a solid sheet of ice stretching from shore to shore. Relief was palpable, albeit brief.

We proceeded to lose the trail, spent an hour trying to find it in the untrodden snow, and then encountered the first of nearly two-dozen deep water bar crossings.  Each one was unique, but the maneuver was the same. Find the narrowest place to cross the span, unbuckle from our sleds, and fireman everything down, across, and back up the drainages.  It was tiring, grueling work and each one we came across drained our energy like the water that was being drained from the snowpack higher up. After almost eight miles and eight hours, we came to the last crossing.

One more night of below zero temps in a lean-to and we started the 13-mile ski out to civilization. The going was relatively easy, but knowing we were nearing the end of the trip was hard. There’s something so simple about moving across the land regardless of the season. As we skied along the eastern boundary of the park, we could see the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, created by executive order during President Obama’s final days in office. These wild places need our protection so that our kids can enjoy them, and their kids, too. I know I’ll be doing what I can to ensure that.

Approaching the cars was bittersweet. Some were hungry for burgers and beer, but I was hungry for more time in wild places. To me, that’s one of the greatest gifts the wild can give us: motivation to get back out and explore more.