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Winter Wonder in Baxter

Ever since I moved to Maine, Baxter State Park has been one of my favorite to places to camp and hike.  The sheer beauty and wilderness setting is unparalleled in New England.  Our family and friends typically visit Baxter in late summer.  Always on my “bucket list” of adventures was a winter excursion to Baxter State Park.

A few years ago, the Baxter winter trip became a reality.  Our group included my husband, Gary, and two of our more adventurous friends, Deb and Phil Bloomstein. Our trip was in mid-March. While still cold, the temperatures were not brutal.  Typically low single digits at night and teens to mid-twenties during the day.  Our itinerary was to enter the northern gate, Matagamon.  It would include a overnight at Trout Brook Farm, followed by two nights at South Branch Pond.

We made our reservations in mid-fall and filled out all of the necessary paperwork.  For winter camping, Baxter State Park requires basic medical first aid experience within the group.  

Living in Unity, we decided to drive up to Patten the evening before beginning our sojourn into Baxter.  Driving the three-hours would allow us to enter BSP at an earlier hour.  The four of us crammed into a small hotel room right off Interstate 95, with nervous expectations of our upcoming adventure.

Rising early in the morning, we drove the remaining 30 minutes to a parking lot outside of the Matagamon gate.  Our next destination was to ski into Trout Brook bunkhouse, a 5.2 mile distance.  The tote road is not plowed in the winter, but is kept open by snowmobiles.

Our gear for the three-night four-day trip was to be transported via small plastic sleds that we had purchased. Our homemade pulk sleds consisted of the plastic sled, nylon cord, ½” PVC piping, carabiners, and bungee cords. You can find directions through many online sites. The complete sled would then be hooked to a waistband and off we would go!  Not so fast!  

As we approached our first downhill, all of our packed sleds ended up tipping over onto the tote road.  After much discussion we realized that we had to really make sure that our packs had to have the weight distributed equally in the sled.  We also made adjustments to lower the center of gravity, and reduce the height of our packs in the sleds.  After another few spills, and near-spills, our pulks served us extremely well.

The snow conditions on our trip were exquisite.  That particular winter, Maine received copious amounts of snow. We estimated the snowpack at around five feet in most places, higher in areas that had drifted.  The beauty of Baxter State Park in winter can almost be overwhelming.  On our first day ski to Trout Brook, we encountered no other people, or snowmobiles. All in our group, felt a truly spiritual aura as we rhythmically made our way to the bunkhouse.  The quiet whiteness surrounded us and the concept of time disappeared.  

We arrived at the Trout Brook bunkhouse at noontime, and unpacked our gear.  Firewood is provided at the site, and we quickly made a fire in the woodstove.  During our trek into Trout Brook we were warmed through our exertion. During winter, you quickly chill after you stop moving.  The bunkhouse is very small at Trout Brook and it took no time at all to warm.  

After a quick lunch, we decided to hike Trout Brook Mountain. During the summer months, this is a relatively easy 3.3 round trip hike rising to approximately 1800’ above sea level.  With the huge amount of snow, it provided a nice challenge for the four of us.  We alternated our lead hiker as we ascended the trail. With the snow getting deeper and deeper, the lead hiker got quite a workout.  Even with snowshoes, we found ourselves sinking knee-deep in the snow.  Trout Brook Mountain, while not long, has ample rewards along the way with vistas present in many directions.  At the summit, there are vast views of the Traveler range.  To put it mildly, the views in winter are breathtaking.

At end of our first day we were all “pleasantly whooped.”  We were able to cook a bountiful dinner over the woodstove in the cabin, and help replenish the number of calories we used this day.  In case you are wondering, yes the cabin was warm.  In fact about an hour into our slumber, we realized we needed to open the windows to actually cool it down a bit.  We all slept well that first night.

While our first day had somewhat cloudy conditions, we woke to abundant bright sunshine in the morning.  It only amplified the beautiful surroundings with the deep blue sky serving as a contrast to the white backdrop of the park. By this time, we were “semi-pros” in pulk sled packing, and after a hearty oatmeal breakfast we were back on the tote road for an 8.2 mile ski to South Branch Pond. The skiing was excellent, with great glide, little ice, and continual beauty surrounding us. A continual surprise was the fact that we did not see another person on our second day.  We felt like the park was ours.

We all used Rossignol backcountry skis and boots that we purchased at LL Bean. We would highly recommend this type of ski and boots.  With metal edges and strong ankle support, they provide ample support, control, and confidence.

The last mile to South Branch is mostly downhill which provided an exhilarating finish to our daily trek.  The scenery was stunning.  South Branch Pond is surrounded by the Traveler range, and provided us an alpine setting.  Spruce and fir were laden with heavy coats of winter white.  The hardwoods were bare, and creaking with gusts of wind.  Yellow birch glowed a golden hue, reflecting the brilliant sunshine.

The cabin at South Branch was a bit larger than the one at Trout Brook, and allowed us ample room to spread our gear out.  While we did carry approximately a gallon of water per person, we were pretty low upon arrival to our camp. Gary and Phil trudged to an inlet at South Branch Pond and filtered the water through a Katadyn Micro Water Filter.  This provided water for drinking and cooking.

The evening blessed us with a rising near full-moon.  After a hearty dinner, we donned our skis once again and skied across South Branch Pond.  Brilliant moonshine lit our way without any difficulty.  We discovered a trail that also took us to Upper South Branch Pond–another bonus to one awesome day.  

Our favorite trail in Baxter State Park is North Traveler.  Upon awakening, we decided to take advantage of the brilliant sunshine and moderate temperatures and attempt to summit North Traveler in winter. We brought snowshoes and crampons on our hike, and we would need both.  The snow depth kept our pace pretty slow as we made the early steep ascent.  Before cresting to the plateau section of the hike, we needed the crampons to get over a short but exposed section that was covered in ice. “Don’t look down” was our mantra as we quickly pulled ourselves up to the flatter section of the hike.  Snow depths varied tremendously as we got closer to the summit.  Some sections were bare rock, yet other sections we plummeted to waist-deep snow. We passed through a stand of stunted white birch, known as the krumholz (German for crooked wood). Reaching the summit felt like a great adventure achievement for all of us.  The view from North Traveler to Mount Katahdin is one of the best by far.

Our descent from North Traveler took us less than half the time it did to ascend.  We felt child-like as we plowed through the deep snow, stumbling and sometimes falling, but always smiling.  Our endorphins certainly provided a natural “North Traveler” high.

The evening provided another stellar moonrise, and despite our exhaustion from our hike, we took advantage of this opportunity to ski across the South Branch Ponds.  Upon return to our cabin, we all agree that this one of those days you didn’t want to end.  

We were filled with gratitude for our adventure, our great friendship,and the beauty that Baxter State Park provided us (not to mention the bottle of wine we saved for the last night!).

Sunshine greeted us as we awoke. After another calorie laden breakfast, we started our return to our vehicles.  The distance from South Branch to our vehicle was approximately 13 miles, but the wonderful ski conditions made it bearable.  We did pass a few snowmobilers on the return, and talked to them about the grandeur of Baxter in winter.  

Reflecting back to this adventure, it really exceeded expectations.  Baxter can be brutal in the winter, but we were blessed with great snow conditions, moderate temperatures, and packed appropriately.  We enjoyed the Traveler/South Branch area tremendously.  The terrain for skiing was fairly easy ups and downs with little to no snowmobile traffic.  The trip provided an opportunity for all of us to see Baxter State Park through its winter lens.  The park’s stark beauty, wilderness, and adventure opportunities created memories that will stay with us forever.


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