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Hiking in Maine: It’s Baxter State Park at its most spectacular

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Surrounded by soaring mountain walls and blanketed with thick conifers, Katahdin’s Northwest Basin is one of the wildest places in Baxter State Park. Tucked into the basin’s floor at 2,936 feet is one of the park’s most coveted backcountry campsites, a simple lean-to in the woods above the sparkling tarn known as Davis Pond.

Because of its remote location, Davis Pond isn’t an easy place to get to. In fact, it’s a two-day journey owing to park rules that require backpackers to stay the prior night at either Chimney Pond or somewhere in the neighborhood of Russell Pond. And at that, you’re limited to just one night at Davis Pond per visit, which only adds to the allure.

This hiker has put in countless miles all over Baxter State Park through the years, but never into Davis Pond. So when a text message arrived from my intrepid friend Willow telling me she’d scored a reservation there in early August – and would I like to join her and friend Dolores for a backpacking soirée – well, I couldn’t reply “yes!” quickly enough.

The plan was to make it a loop hike, meandering from Roaring Brook to Russell Pond the first day, then scampering up to Davis Pond the next morning. On the final day, we’d make the arduous climb up and over the Katahdin massif to Chimney Pond and out.

Situated in the heart of the park, Russell Pond is the perfect wilderness wayside. There’s plenty to explore within reach, like Caverly Lookout, Grand Falls and Six Ponds, but on a fine summer day, the most enjoyable endeavor is to grab a rental canoe, paddle lazily around the pond and drink in the sublime mountain views.

Wassataquoik Stream drains the Klondike, a vast spruce-fir bog at an elevation of about 3,000 feet hemmed in by high peaks. From Russell Pond, the trail follows these tumbling waters before crossing over and climbing up to the Northwest Basin. Emerging from the trees at Lake Cowles, the view into the enormous glacial cirque is awe-inspiring.

From Lake Cowles, it’s a short saunter to Davis Pond, where our trio enjoyed a glorious afternoon and evening in the resplendent solitude of this most spectacular setting. There was looking around to do, sunshine to soak up, bodies to dip in the chill water, books to read, and good conversation and laughs aplenty to be had. Oh, and black flies to swat, of course.

In 1902, a dauntless team of scientists led by University of Maine biologist Leroy Harvey explored the rugged Northwest Basin. Harvey later named Davis Pond and Lake Cowles in honor of Bradley Davis and Henry Cowles, both botanists from the University of Chicago who had accompanied him on the expedition to these ecologically rich environs.

The toil of the steep 1,500-foot ascent from Davis Pond to the Northwest Plateau is easily forgotten once you break free of the treeline and reach the expansive Tablelands. Spanning close to 3 square miles and encompassing the windswept heights of Pamola, Chimney, South, Baxter, Hamlin and Howe peaks, Katahdin’s Alpine zone is the largest in Maine.

We watered up at Caribou Spring and shuffled along through the morning’s muggy stillness to the top of Hamlin Peak, drinking in the huge 360-degree panorama of high elevation wildness with every step. Across the sweep of the Saddle, we could see a gaggle of hikers on mile-high Baxter Peak, but our mountaintop perch was populated by just us three.

The Saddle and the Tablelands are forever connected in this hiker’s mind to Donn Fendler, who in 1939 at age 12 became lost in the clouds while descending Katahdin. Fendler twice stumbled upon the Saddle Trail but opted to avoid the route due to its fearsome reputation. The boy wandered the woods for nine days before being found, and his story of survival is one for the ages.

Leaving the historic footsteps of Fendler behind, our descent via Hamlin Ridge was uneventful, but with the Great Basin and Knife Edge in view most of the way, large in scenic beauty. By early afternoon, we were celebrating Gov. Baxter and his wonderful wilderness park with cold beverages at Roaring Brook and already scheming a return trip.

Start planning your own Baxter bucket list backpacking adventure at baxterstatepark.org.

Carey Kish of Mount Desert Island is an award winning member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. His latest book, “Beer Hiking New England,” will be out next spring. Follow more of Carey’s adventures on Facebook and Instagram @careykish


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