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Home » TRAVEL AND LODGING » MAINE » Moonlit Mountains and Cozy Cabins
Moonlit Mountains and Cozy Cabins

Winter in Maine’s Katahdin Woods

By Don Perkins | January 26, 2012

Pondside Canoes are hidden by snow during Winter
Canoes in the Fall
South Branch Pond Frozen
South Branch Pond
A Tree by the Bank of South Branch Pond in Winter
The Same Tree in Fall
The Sign to South Branch Pond
The Sign Looking a Little Taller Without the Snow

In the middle of Maine’s north woods, the cabin had everything the eight of us needed: a wood stove, gas lamps, bunks and tight-fitting windows. Ten miles from the nearest plowed road and some thirty from the nearest grocery store, it would be our home for three nights.

At the north end of Baxter State Park, about fifteen miles as the crow flies from the mighty Mount Katahdin, we were returning to South Branch Pond, a place we knew well. I had never seen it in winter and was eager for the opportunity to glimpse the pond and its neighboring mountains under a snow-covered mantle.

Stella the Moose

By chance, the February weekend coincided with the full moon—the Full Snow Moon. The Native peoples chose this moniker because the heaviest snows often fall in February.

Deep snow makes hunting especially demanding. For some, this moon meant true hunger, locked in the grasp of a seemingly endless winter.

As we pulled our sleds into the clearing on the campground’s packed trail, we were greeted by one creature seeking respite from the deep snow: a young moose was content to munch on branch tips and paid little attention while we pulled out cameras.   We named her Stella.

From the distribution of droppings throughout the area, we gathered Stella had taken up a winter residence here. The outlet of South Branch Pond that flows right behind the ranger’s cabin showed her tracks along its bank—a convenient watering hole for wildlife, and the only one for South Branch campers.

It was all too evident why Stella chose this spot. South Branch Pond is a jewel of a place. Nestled beneath the towering remnants of a once active volcano, Traveler Mountain, the pond is an idyllic pool in any month.

A Full Moon in Maine's North Woods

Nighttime was spectacular. The moon rises right behind the peak of North Traveler Mountain.   At nightfall, you can go down by the flowing stream of the pond’s outlet and witness the climbing moon. It’s a truly singular experience; you feel as if you’re the only soul in the world. When the sun goes down it’s as if a curtain has been lifted from the earth. The universe, where planet Earth is invisibly tethered—its stars, far off galaxies and limitless breadths—are there to see. The trickling sound of the stream helps soothe your psyche as you realize the vastness of space and just how deep in the woods you are at that moment. The only sound besides the waters is a far-off breeze caressing the neighboring mountain peaks. It could be like any other night here 5,000 years ago.

There’s a price to be paid for these rewards. This is not a place you can pull up to in a Jeep, coffee in hand. You must snowshoe or ski in, dragging your gear behind you for the ten or twelve miles from the terminus of the plowed road. Or, as we did, you can choose another option: a snowmobile shuttle will take you and your gear within two miles of the cabin. To ensure the solitude, snowmobiles are allowed just along the Park’s main perimeter road. The shuttle must stop at the junction with the campground road.   It was here that we loaded up the sleds and donned our snowshoes.

On our way in, we passed a group of serious ultralight trekkers who were heading out. With cross-country skis, they towed small plastic sleds with negligible gear. They were in the midst of a multi-day adventure, stopping off at different campsites along the way. By contrast, our sleds were piled high and we needed the extra purchase of snowshoes for the ascent. “It’s only two miles,” we told ourselves. Plus, everyone wanted a few luxuries. Instead of eating rehydrated food from a foil-lined bag, we would dine like royalty.

A Seafood Supper

A plethora of seafood was served one night. Our friend Jeff never disappoints on these trips with his “Salmon Baxter,” complemented with scallops and shrimp. And he didn’t spare by serving up farm-raised; we had succulent sockeye.

Our last night saw Wendy unveil melon-sized amalgamations of perfectly prepared chicken breasts from her small cooler: Chicken Cordon Bleu. It was snowing out, as it had been all day. The temps dropped to the teens; but we were snug, feasting in our little cabin in the woods.

We didn’t know it at the time, but that night as we sat around the woodstove, a hiker on Mount Katahdin was fighting for his life. A student from the University of Maine was above treeline hiking the mountain’s Helon Taylor trail with a few companions when a gust of wind blew him off a narrow ridge. He was sent tumbling down a steep snowfield.

He’d been bringing up the rear in his group. By the time his friends noticed he was missing, it was too late. The forty-plus mile an hour winds and driving snow muffled any shouting. Nobody could find where he’d tumbled. Climbing back up the steep slope proved futile for the lost hiker. His friends used a cell phone to call for help when they got below treeline. The hiker spent a cold and lonely night in a crude snow hole he managed to dig out of the terrain.

He was very lucky. With frostbitten feet, he was rescued the next day by helicopter and was expected to make a full recovery.

Accounts like these reinforce why the indigenous population never ventured beyond Katahdin’s treeline, thought to be the realm of powerful spirits. The greatest among them is Pamola, the evil moose-bird. Years ago white explorers hired Penobscot guides to hike Katahdin, but these escorts let their patrons ascend the final stretches alone.

For more on Baxter State Park, visit www.baxterstateparkauthority.com.

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