As a school teacher, one of the many perks of my job certainly includes February break (I teach Emergency Medical Services at Waldo County Technical School). Sometimes I’m not certain who is more excited for the break–teachers or the students. The vacation week allows me to enjoy the beauty of the Maine winter, and plan extended visits to some of the more scenic spots our state has to offer. For this winter break, our group’s destination was Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument (KWW).
One of our nation’s newest national monuments, Katahdin Woods and Waters consists of over 87,000 acres of pristine wilderness. Located just east of iconic Baxter State Park, the land was gifted to the federal government by a non-profit foundation headed by Burt Bee’s entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby. President Barack Obama designated the land as a national monument in August 2016.
Our reservation (made in late fall) included a three-night stay for our group of seven intrepid adventurers. For our winter excursion we would enter through the northern entrance of KWW located near Matagamon Lake and approximately 25+ miles from the town of Patten. Most of our group traveled to Patten on Sunday and spent an overnight at the Bradford House, a B&B located on Main Street. This allowed us to be on our trail by early Monday morning.
Despite an ominous weather forecast, the start of our trip was blessed with brilliant sunshine, an azure blue sky, and temperatures in the low 30’s (which is a veritable heat wave for February in this part of northern Maine). One of the delights of this trip was the ability to ski into our destination. For our trip, we had four people hauling plastic sleds (known as ski pulks), and three folks utilizing backpacks for their gear. Our destination for our thee-night stay was Haskell Hut. The hut was located approximately six-miles from the trailhead, and would follow the Messer Pond Road. We decided to take the Messer Pond Road and save the more scenic Old River Road for our departure (the Old River Road hugs the East Branch of the Penobscot River and provides a more scenic route).
As we started our trek, to our pleasant surprise, we were met by the KWW trail-grooming snowmobile. His early morning sled artistry left us with freshly groomed corduroy trails, which made the trip with our sleds and packs much more enjoyable. The terrain for skiing was quite mellow with mostly flat sections interspersed with a few mild ups and downs. Our “pulk-pullers” were grateful for the skiing conditions, as there were no frightful moments of out-of-control sleds during our journey to the hut. Over 25 miles of trails are groomed within KWW, and snowmobiles are not allowed on any of the trails groomed for skiiing/snowshoeing/fat-tire biking. The solitude and scenery of the initial part of our journey over the gentle rolling hills was splendid!
We arrived at Haskell Hut by 2 P.M. While “pleasantly whooped” might describe our physical state, we were all eager to explore more terrain, and also investigate the amenities that Haskell Hut offered. The hut is an old vertical-log style cabin. It sleeps up to eight people on wooden bed frames. A wood stove made our stay incredibly comfortable, and our only concern was not to overheat the cabin at times. The cabin also provided propane lights, propane stove-top, numerous pots and pans, and a wide array of games. The aforementioned sled-groomer graciously even left us a five-gallon container of potable water! Wow, talk about amenities! The hut sits on a small ridge overlooking the Haskell Deadwater which provided a stunning view from the cabin.
After getting warm and unpacking our generous array of “stuff,” we then all donned our skis once again, and explored some of the surrounding sites. Our first stop was a one-mile ski to Stair Falls. While the skiing to the trail was excellent, unfortunately the side-trail to the best viewpoint was a bit icy, and we had left our snowshoes back at the hut. However, the ice formations on the tumultuous Penobscot still provided us with some outstanding scenery. Our final destination for the day was Haskell Rock Pitch, a 1.5 mile round trip excursion. This stop provided outstanding views of the roaring river along with a great vantage point to view the actual Haskell Rock, a 20 foot pillar emanating from the river bottom (some of us more artsy folks thought it resembled an elephant). The late afternoon sun provided warmth, and a great stop for snacks and some tea.
“There is no love sincerer than the love of food,” penned Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw. Well, after a wonderful day spent in the splendor of KWW, that adage proved to be correct. Our group shared meal responsibilities and it seemed that each couple tried to outdo the others with their culinary talents. Our first night we dined on Maine seafood chowder, and homemade sourdough bread, washed down with some nice wine (white, of course!). Sitting around the atmospheric wood stove, we told stories, played some board games, and gradually all felt drawn to the warmth of our sleeping bags. Another latent benefit of staying in KWW is that there is no cell phone service. Being without electronics for four days is a great tonic for one’s soul!
After a hearty breakfast of pancakes and oatmeal, we ventured out for another day of exploration within KWW. While a mild mist fell on us, the skiing conditions were still excellent with the warm temperatures creating butter-like snow. This section of the trail provided a bit more hilly terrain which was fine for us, as all we had to carry were day packs. Our entire group skied the trail to the Big Spring Brook Hut, located about six miles from Haskell Hut. This hut is larger than Haskell, and sleeps up to 16 people. We were surprised that the hut was totally empty when we arrived. After eating a bountiful lunch on the front porch of Big Spring Hut, we then journeyed to the Lookout Trail. This trail was fairly gradual grade although there were sections that were a bit more steep. After a few miles, we had to take our skis off and finish the trail to the summit via snowshoes. The summit was shrouded in fog and mist and despite our gallant efforts, provided no view on this day. There is however, a mystical aura on top of a ridge in the fog. Fortunately, the return ski to Haskell Hut featured a lot of downhill. We rolled back to our cabin by late afternoon with the light mist still coming down. Our second night menu consisted of beef stroganoff made with locally raised beef, and yes, more wine (red, of course!). Doing dishes at the hut during winter takes a bit of planning and hauling. We carried in five gallon buckets of snow and melted it over the wood stove, and also carried out the grey water, as the drains are not operable during the cold winter months. Monday evening also provided a celestial delight as the skies cleared quickly and the stars came out in full force as we were making our solitary trips to the outhouse.
On Tuesday we once again chowed down heartily for breakfast. This morning’s delicacies included the traditional bacon, eggs, and home fries. The morning sunshine was a delight, and a stark contrast to the misty grey skies from yesterday. Our skiing mileage was lower for the day’s journey. We selected some of the secondary trails that took us to Pond Pitch and Grand Pitch. Folks canoeing the East Branch would recognize these as two of the portages required (for most) along this stretch of river. This section of trail is also part of the International Appalachian Trail which travels through the Monument and north to Canada. While we didn’t spot much wildlife during our trip, we were surrounded by numerous tracks: deer, moose, raccoon, and an evidence of the whimsical river otter slides. Our final night’s dinner featured burritos and what else–more wine (red and white, of course!).
A brilliant colorful sunrise greeted us on our last morning at Haskell Hut. We spent the early part of the morning cleaning the cabin, doing dishes, and repacking our pulks. After the warm temperatures of the previous two days, this mornings temperatures were back in the teens. While refreshing, it also iced over much of the trail back to our vehicles. After much slipping and sliding, we discovered that skiing on the very outside of the trail provided a firmer base and a safer method for exiting the park. The scenery was spectacular. On early part of the trail, we had the backside of the Traveler Mountains in front of us. We then took the Oxbow Road to the Old River Road which leads back to the parking lot. As mentioned previously, this section hugs the East Branch of the Penobscot, and provides visually stunning scenery. Being surrounded by the ice and sections of open water made the ski out of KWW incredibly joyful.
In retrospect, our getaway to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was a great winter excursion. The Monument provides an idyllic destination for folks that really want a unique winter experience, and possess a sense of adventure. While KWW was initially controversial, this seems to be abating. KWW will protect 87,000 acres of pristine wilderness for future generations. Maine’s greatest resource lies in its abundance of natural beauty. KWW is a wise investment for the future. All of our group was thrilled with the winter opportunities provided to us through KWW: groomed trails, no snowmobiles, a cozy cabin (did I mention this was free!), firewood, and solitude for four days. After greeting our snowmobile trail groomer on our first day, we did not see another person till we exited on our last day. Henry David Thoreau explored and wrote about this land that now has been gifted to the people of Maine and U.S.
In the 1800’s Thoreau mused, “At night, the general stillness is more impressive than any sound.” We must cherish this land, this Monument, and preserve it for our children, our grandchildren, and beyond.