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New Bike, New Adventures - A Winter Excursion in Maine's Largest Wilderness Area - Logan Kasper

"Stick to the plan" was my motto for the long weekend. Sticking to the plan, trusting gear, and being sure of decisions makes adventures safe and memorable even when the difficulty increases.

With record breaking low temperatures, it made for a memorable three days of B-hikepacking. On paper, a fat bike trip through northern Maine in the dead of winter is actually not too crazy of an idea. The plan was to ride around fifty miles a day for two days then finish the trip with a mountain ascent - not just any mountain; it had to be a notable one. Katahdin is one of the east coasts highest and most challenging peaks due to its technical approach and remoteness. It’s also the end of the infamous Appalachian trail. As weeks went on the route became more refined. Baxter State Park appealed to me given its remoteness. While still being relatively local, it meant I didn’t need to take tons of time off from work for flights and a huge logistical journey. It was the perfect balance of feeling out of the grasp of day-to-day life without the hurdles of leaving my New England backyard.

Surrounding the park are Maine's Interconnected Trail Systems (ITS) snowmobile trails. These were the trails I would have to follow. Riding off the trail is impossible without sinking in several feet of heavy snow so the route was already somewhat nonnegotiable. After looking at the trails I decided to do a counter-clockwise loop around the park, camping on the north end of the park in one of the parks campgrounds on the first night. The second day I would use the park tote road to finish my loop back down to the southern side of the park to the mountains trailhead. The park tote road is closed in the winter and only accessible by snowmobile or skis and; turns out, fat bikes also. I would camp on the second night at the Abol Campground. As the name suggests the campground is at the start of the Abol Trail. On the third day the plan was hike the Abol Trail to the summit of Baxter Park also known as Mt. Katahdin. After summiting, I would hike back to the camp, pack up and complete the loop by riding out of the park to my original starting point. Easy peasy.

Two days before the trip, I was informed that it was going to be very cold on the days I had planned going. How cold could it be? Well turns out Mount Washington broke a record that weekend of -108 degrees F with the wind chill. Ambient Temperature was -49 F, with winds reaching 128 Mph. Even though that was Mount Washington, I was a few stones throws further north and at a similar elevation. I was blessed with a low on Friday -20 F with 40 mph winds. A high on Saturday of -1 F With a wind chill of -60 F. Sunday having a low of -3 F on the mountain it almost felt like a sauna compared to the previous days. This is where not only trusting my gear but being confident in how to use it properly played a big role on this trip. Lots of people make the mistake of having great gear but not knowing how to use it to their advantage. I always use the analogy you can have the fastest car in the world, but if you don’t know how to drive you won’t win any races. I stuck to the plan I created and didn’t second guess my decisions to go where I was going. Sure, the moving got slower due to the brutal cold and regulating my temperature but I managed to stay on track to the schedule. I couldn’t control the weather so why was I going to let that spoil the fun I was going to have enjoying the great outdoors. Not to underestimate the difficulty of this adventure but none of this trip seemed overly complex. Two long days of fifty miles on a fat bike were not unreasonable either. An eight-mile hike thrown in at the end was also not an unreasonable task of a winter hike.

The challenge that first arose was the logistics of bringing my hiking equipment along with my fat bike equipment. Bike packing equipment has a lot of overlap with summer hiking equipment. The issue was winter hiking is a whole other ball game, especially in New England. If I was summiting this peak in the summer a standard day pack would suffice. Since this was a solo winter ascent on one of the most technical peaks on the east coast, it was not wise to hike lean and mean with no emergency sleeping bag rated for the conditions. A bigger pack was required. If I was to get injured help wasn’t going to come for a very very long time so it was a must have. Winter hiking boots would also need to be worn compared to a lightweight pair of summer trekking shoes. Legitimate crampons were crucial for a rocky icy ascent like this as well. Microspikes, although an awesome light piece of kit, were going to be under- gunned and useless for this adventure.

Bike packing gear fits bikes great. Winter hiking gear does fit but not great, it definitely took a bit of creativity to load the bike. The plan was stashing the hiking boots and other gear in the bottom of my peak pack and leave them there until they were needed so I wasn’t fumbling around with them. Crampons got strapped to the fork mounts and out of harm’s way so they wouldn’t shred my gear. The pack was big enough that I did not want to wear it while on the bike. It actually fit reasonably well on my rear rack. I certainly lost a ton of style points but the practicality of it worked better than anticipated. Trekking poles eventually got strapped to the rack to help support the part of the bag that hung off the rack and reduce bouncing of the pack.

New bike, new adventures. Fortunately, I was able to get my hands on a brand-new Fezzari King Peak fat bike two weeks before this trip. What better way to test a new bike than taking it on an epic trip on the third ride?

Baxter State Park requires winter hiking and camping permits to be filled out reviewed and granted permission for the safety of the participant and preservation of the state park. When I first called the park a few months prior seeking info, I was shut down quickly by some older staff. They said absolutely no bikes in the park I think assuming I was going to be on a standard bike. The trip did seem a little strange but I persisted with another phone call a week later and was eventually helped by some great staff who listened to what I was laying down and were very helpful with logistical suggestions. After my permits were sent in I received a call by a staff member reviewing the details of the trip. She granted me the permission for it but you could tell she was doubting the whole trip. Comments like you “know that’s close to 50 miles in one day are you sure you can ride a bike that far” were dropped a few times but I humbly assured them I would be ok.

Friday morning, I woke up in my van at 6 am. The six hour drive to the Abol Bridge parking area was made the night before after getting out of work early. With a belly full of oatmeal, I began my adventure. Navigating into the park I filled out the entry log book and made my way to the south side of the ITS trails. About two hours in I stumbled upon a yard sale of plastic snowmobile dash parts in the trail. About ten feet back from that was an orange newer model snowmobile wrapped around a tree with an older gentleman still sitting on it rocking around. I got off my bike and came up to him asking if he needed help. His helmet was cracked with the windshield hanging off the side. His riding buddy pulled up behind him the same time I came up to him. He clearly was a bit out of it and appeared to have banged up his shoulder good. As he turned sideways and sat on the side of his mangled sled, I asked his name and told him mine. He started falling over but I was able to hold the bigger guy up. He slowly regained normalcy and came back around. As I offered him some Aleve from my first aid kit, his friend gave him some water. Right after that two more people pulled up on snowmobiles. After informing them of the situation and seeing everyone had it under control, I parted ways. I still had a whole day ahead of me and couldn’t afford to spend a ton of time on issues that didn’t directly influence my journey. This was quite the way to start a trip I remember thinking to myself.

The trails were riding good but pretty slow. I noticed as the temps dropped the snow seemed to increase its rolling resistance. In addition the grease in my cranks and wheels became thick and slow. The wind progressively picked up as the day went on l. It was a northern headwind that was punishing,making the riding very slow and temperature management tricky. Exposed skin was warm from the effort but cold from the bite of the gnarly winds. I stopped for a late lunch at a trail intersection. I hunkered down in a gully to boil snow for water and some good ol’ mac and cheese. Anytime a snowmobiler rode by they had a wild confused look but I would give them the thumbs up they’d wave and keep on their way. My right toes got pretty cold due to my sock constricting them, the weather probably didn’t help. Right after my little pit stop the trail got unrideable. The trail hadn’t been ridden since the last storm so there was around six inches of unpacked powder on not that used of a trail. I was wondering why the trail hadn’t seen that much traffic.

After several miles of steep hike, a bike the path thinned out to just one snowmobile track in about a foot of powder. It was well after dark at this point, and the wind was whipping. I kept heading up a small mountain. As soon as the mountain crested and started going down, I found out why the trail was so lightly trafficked. Turns out there was a bridge out. I could walk across it but with the winds pushing my loaded bike like a sailboat it was a bit sketchy. The trail was a mirror image for a few miles after that, unpacked and lightly traversed. It was a good clip of hike a bike. Once I was at the bottom of that mountain, I stumbled upon what I thought was Trout Brook campground. Turns out it was a shut down hunting camp operation. Under the full moonlight, I made the decision to seek shelter from the winds and sleep in a cabin versus my bivy for the night. The cabin was nice but bare bones and provided a great spot to cook dinner and boil some more water.

After good night’s sleep I began cooking breakfast on the porch of the cabin. I was having a hard time keeping my stove lit because of the insane winds. I looked up and saw a bigger outdoorsy fellow walking my way. He introduced himself as the caretaker of the cabins and invited me to his main cabin which had a gas stove where I could boil water. This was very ideal because it meant I could conserve liquid fuel for more melted snow water later in the trip. Given the lower temperatures the trip required tons of fuel to melt snow. As water was boiling and oatmeal was chowed down, we chatted and got to know each other. He explained how the owner of the camp is trying to sell it so it wasn’t open this year to the general public hence the untouched trails and unfixed bridge. After topping off all my water, I said good- bye to the friendly guy and tried to make up some lost ground.

The head-wind became worse and worse over the next few miles. A fox ran across the trail. We made eye contact and had that telepathic look of “yeah how about this weather” look nod of the head and carried on minding our own business questioning why the other was even out and about. The next few miles were rough. I was pedaling downhill in my granny gear getting blown to a stop or almost over. Fortunately, I popped out at a general store in the middle of nowhere. Catching some funny looks walking in all bundled up. They were welcoming and I was able to grab a hot coffee refill my waters and grab some breakfast sandwiches for the road. Business was slow because they said it was too cold for the snowmobilers. Graciously, one of the ladies working there had service and let me use her phone to reach out to my girlfriend. Service was scarce so I had no reception since I drove into Millinocket Thursday night. I was more or less letting everyone know I was a little behind schedule but fine after the frigid night.

Leaving the general store I went over to the park tote road and continued south into Baxter State Park. The snow drift from Lake Matagamon made the trail crazy deep for about a quarter mile. After that, though, very smooth sailing. It was more of a doubletrack trail that the shaded trees helped firm up. There were sections that were slow but with the wind at my back and shelter from the trees it was much easier cruising. The farther I went south the more mountains appeared. The trail paralleled a river valley, making it a scenic windy path versus the more highway like ITS trails. About an hour after the sun went down so did the temperature again. It was strange but my shifter malfunctioned, freezing and causing it to only shift down to about my middle gear. This on a loaded fat bike was not ideal but the trail actually was manageable in that heavy gear. I pulled into the Abol campground around 7:30 and was able to take my time setting up camp in a lean-to. Like the night prior I cooked a nice warm meal and hit the hay in a comfy spot. My right big toe definitely caught a hint of frostbite from the day before and was feeling swollen but agile today. The dampness of the nearby river was apparent even with the cooler temperatures. The air was feeling much thicker than the previous days.
In my normal routine after a big cup of warm oatmeal I set off for my final day of the excursion.

This day was a bit different though because it was a hike rather than saddling up on the bike. While signing into the trailhead log book I noticed I was the only one in several days who had been out there. The trail confirmed that because I broke trail all the way to a rock scramble about two miles in. the heavy winds and snow fall made it hard to navigate where the packed trail led. The trail may have been four or so feet wide the majority of the way but the packed trail was only about a foot wide. Anytime I stepped off I post holed up to my hip in snow. Surprisingly I was able to feel the majority of the trail out by looking at the natural lines and curves of the trail. At the base of the rock scramble, I put on my wind breaker ate some cheese and drank the last bit of water I was going to have before I hit the top. I knew once I started there was no stopping from here on up. As I ascended, I walked into a storm that progressively got worse. Reaching the top plateau of the mountain was almost a white out. Visibility was about 20 yards. There were several times I had to question if moving forward was a good move. I kept my eyes pealed and caught a glimpse of rock cairns at perfect times. As I got closer and closer to the top everything became a white wall. Winds where thrashing because I no longer had the shelter of the mountain to block the gusts. By surprise I stumbled upon the peak marker covered in ice. I managed to use my trekking pole to chip off the thick layer of ice to take a quick picture and then quickly turned around.

Even though I was on the edge of massive cliffs with the white out conditions it felt like a massive white field. I went off trail several times but managed to always navigate myself back on and restart the decent. By this time all I could see was my body and feet; the wind and snow were blinding, left, right, up, and down all looked the same like a sandstorm. Somehow, I bumped into another random person off trail. We were both walking the same direction. He was French so there was a bit of a language barrier but I asked him if he had summited yet. He replied he was heading there now. Feeling a bit strange, I pulled out the GPS and told him he was going the wrong direction. We compared GPS maps and he soon realized he had gotten turned around and was heading back off the mountain. We wished each other luck as we split ways.

Conditions for sure were very dangerous that afternoon. After a long time, I made it back to the rock scramble. The storm made its way to this point of the mountain which made climbing down and navigating the icy rocks very challenging. Eventually I made it under the storm and back onto the snow-covered trail. To my surprise you would have had no clue I even broke trail up the mountain because the snow had drifted over my track that I laid that morning. Once I was in a safe spot, I grabbed some salami and more cheese and hiked back down to the base of the mountain.

When I arrived back at my bike, I repacked everything, changed my clothes and prepared for the ride out of the park back to the car. By this time the temperatures were very comfortable and the trails were riding really well. The remainder of the trails were mostly downhill so time flew by with easy effort. Before I knew it, I was signing out of the original park log book and riding into the lot where the van was parked. I let it warm up as I unstripped the gear off the bike and made a warm cup of water and goldfish that were left in the van. From there I opted to make the drive home because I was all charged up and not in the mood to sleep. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I had a huge smile and sense of accomplishment seeing a storm riddled Katahdin in the background. A few miles down the road I passed the snowmobile that had crashed. It had been towed out to the icy road for a truck to eventually come pick it up. It made me laugh how full circle the whole trip went. Starting the trip seeing this same exact snowmobile that shouldn’t have been in the predicament too ending it in another location that it shouldn’t be was comical.

Trips like this may be dangerous and become more difficult than originally planned but just like anything in life that’s what makes them memorable and spurs peace of mind. To unplug from day-to-day and immerse yourself in isolation is when we can truly cherish and consider the little things that make us happy in life.