Back to Baxter: A Story of Then and Now

by Kevin Estela August 05, 2020 3 Comments

Back to Baxter: A Story of Then and Now

The year is 1999. Britney Spears burst onto the scene with “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and Keanu introduced us to the artificial world of The Matrix. We were less than a year from the anti-climactic Y2K panic and new millennia. In August of 1999, I was enjoying a great summer off from my freshman year of college and some new-found freedom from an ex girlfriend. My good friends from high school, Nate and Frank, were interested in hanging out again and we were all looking for an adventure. After high school, we all went separate ways but what bound us as friends was the interest we had in the great outdoors and that would unite us again for an epic road trip to Baxter State Park and summiting Mt. Katahdin. That was then. That was over 20 years ago when I was just a teenager who was looking for direction. Since then, I only returned to that part of Maine once in 2003 to summit it again. Now, it has been 17 years and so much has changed in my life. Now, it was time to go back, it was time to seek out adventure again, it was time to give into the draw of the mountains.

Mt. Katahdin sits at 5267’ and it is the highest mountain in the state of Maine. It isn’t the tallest mountain this side of the Mississippi River as that distinction goes to Mt. Washington one state over with an elevation of 6,288’. Don’t judge a mountain by elevation alone. Keep in mind, there is a road to the top of Mt. Washington and there isn’t one going up to the top of Baxter Peak on Katahdin. Mt. Katahdin is an imposing silhouette on the wooded horizon and the mile-long trail from Pamola Peak to Katahdin’s is appropriately called “the Knife Edge” as the trail is as narrow as a sidewalk in some parts, highly exposed, and features perilous drop-offs on both sides. As a 19 year old back then, danger was all I needed to hear about to drive over 7 hours from home. That trail lived up to the hype as Nate, Frank, and I reached Pamola peak after hiking hours along the Helon Taylor Trail exhausting ourselves in the process. Walking a mile is no problem for most but when you are carrying a pack (incredibly overloaded by the way), out of water, tired, sun-burnt, and trying to get back to your vehicle before sunset, it is certainly a challenge. 21 years after my first trip to the summit, I wanted to reach the summit again.

A lot has changed since the summer of 1999. When I originally hiked Mt. Katahdin, I towed along a heavy hollow-handled Buck Buckmaster survival knife. Back then, I was still about 11 years away from sending Andy Roy a sketch of the KE Bushie. After this hike, I started looking at more custom knives and using smaller and smaller blades for my personal use as my skills improved. Back then, I was a college kid working at Eastern Mountain Sports largely for the purpose of getting gear discounted. Now, I’m fortunate to be in a position where I have access to some fantastic companies that sponsor me and provide me gear to use with students in my courses. I never knew, back then, who I would be today. Back then, I was an undeclared major at Fairfield University. Now, I’m a public school history teacher who found a passion for educating others. Since 1999, Nate and Frank have moved to Colorado and California and I hardly see them anymore. I’m still friends with both but our lives have taken us in different directions. Back then, I thought I knew so much about the world and after 2 decades of travel, I know my past self was so very wrong. All of the knowledge that comes from experience has taught me there is so much more knowledge I’ll hopefully eventually acquire; with time of course.

As cliche as it sounds, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Maine is just as rugged now as it once was back then. The drive to Maine hasn’t gotten any shorter although GPS technology helps avoid construction and accidents. Back then, technology didn’t exist to point us in the direction of great eateries along the way. The little annoyances forgotten or outweighed by the good times are still there such as the lack of phone service and the relentless buzzing insects that disregard deet in any percentage. As crazy as it sounds, the smell of the northwoods, rich with evergreens and devoid of urban and suburban scents, is exactly how I remember it. Back then, Nate, Frank, and I hiked to a great spot called “Little Niagara” and “Big Niagara” where hikers use the smooth granite rock as a waterslide. Now, it was exactly how I remembered it and Amanda and I were the only ones in this pristine swimming hole for an incredible morning in between hikes to Chimney Pond and the summit. While some of the gear I carried as a teenager, more captivated by the form than the function, has disappeared, some accoutrements remain staples and their quality has improved. While I was perfectly fine eating a cheap grocery-store steak grilled (read “ruined” and “overcooked”) over a grill while smoking a Swisher Sweet cigar back then, I now buy better cuts of meat from trusted butchers and smoke much finer cigars. With age comes refinement. What was acceptable as a teenager is not so much so for a middle-aged man. On this most recent trip, I traveled with Amanda, my girlfriend, and appreciated the company, conversation, and shared laughs like before. We stayed in the same general area as I did two decades before and I was able to play tour guide sharing the beloved places in my memory with her. I was able to relive the excitement of being in the rugged beauty of Maine by seeing it in the expressions on her face. 

Mt. Katahdin is estimated to be 400 million years old. My history on the mountain is barely a blip on the lifeline and this granite mountain will be around long after I’m gone. Now 20 years from my teenage years and with more scar tissue from years of activity, the hike to Katahdin was different but I felt stronger than ever. I brought more water, had a GPS to remind me of how much distance was left to travel, and I was able to identify more edible and medicinal plants along the way. I felt more comfortable and not intimidated at all like I once was. I never lost respect for the mountain and what it could do but I felt more capable if the trip went sideways.  Amanda and I took the Hunt trail that requires 4250 feet of vertical gain over 5 plus miles. With a near 11-12 mile round trip, we were tested but it was worth it when we reached the top and when we made it back to her car at the bottom. I’m left to wonder if I will be able to do this hike in another 20 years. It’s interesting to think about your place in the universe when atop something like Katahdin. In 1999, I couldn’t tell you what 20 years felt like because I didn’t live it yet. Now, I can recall that period of time easily. Back then, I recall being able to hear my heartbeat in the silence the mountain provided and realizing how insignificant that mountain made me feel. Now, more accomplished, grounded, and significant in my circles, I still felt that sensation and actually welcomed it again. It’s so easy to get lost in the world today and sucked into the maze of social media. Driving 7 hours and hiking 4 more helped me find out more about myself than an equal amount of time online couldn’t.

Now, I’m already planning on going back to Katahdin but I won’t wait another 20 years. This time around I learned about Double Top Mountain, a smaller mountain but one with an equally enticing trail, that I want to hike next time there. I learned about camping along the Golden Road and new campsites available riverside. With so many acres of rugged wilderness, I could travel back to Baxter for annually for years to come and not see it all. I’m ok with that and am just happy to see what I can.  Mt. Katahdin and the surrounding Baxter State Park have so much to offer the outdoorsman. It’s truly THE place to test yourself, your gear, and your training in an authentic untouched destination. From hiking to fishing to hunting and boating, Maine is the “Alaska” of the East Coast. Each time I travel to Katahdin, the experience imprints so many incredible memories in my mind. Then, now, and always, this wilderness will excite and inspire me.






Kevin Estela
Kevin Estela

Author

Kevin Estela is a Survival Instructor at Estela Wilderness Education. Kevin is a frequent contributing writer for publications such as RECOIL, Athlon Outdoors, and Beckett Media. He is a Sayoc Kali Associate Instructor Level 5, as well as a BJJ Purple Belt.



3 Responses

Stephen Masten
Stephen Masten

August 06, 2020

Nice article; brings back lots of memories. I climbed Katahdin and walked the Knife Edge in the summer of 1969. Btw, Mt. Washington is not the tallest peak east of the Mississippi. There are a number of peaks in the Smokies that are taller than Mt. Washington, the tallest being Mt. Mitchell in No. Carolina at elevation 6684.

Hani Karam
Hani Karam

August 05, 2020

High school buddies all having love of outdoor activities I share your love of outdoors and the respect of Nature and all the living creatures animals and insects and plants for all are Life and Life suffers and feels pain like we do , Originally I am from the Christian side of Beirut and Lebanon and left that sad place in 1983 and in July 21 of that year i landed in Canada as an immigrant and never went back not even for a visit . I had camped in Lebanon with two of my friends in two villages however we were teenagers and not much camping was happening during the war plus Lebanon is not North America , being in Canada i was very poor and whenever i could get a job its has been the very heavy labor and in 20065/2006 i had serious eye injuries and lost my right eye’s vision lucky have not lost the left but because of several eye injuries now i have to be on special eye drops , i wish i had grown up in Canada or the U.S. i probably would have met you guys and climbed those peaks together more than once and alone also and or with wife or Girlfriend , yes how when young and healthy with the love of outdoors and adventure ( providing respecting nature and its living creatures that i had to learn thank God ) everything is tack able and easy but with age like you said comes refinement of the soul and mind and the choices of goods and the pleasures of savoring the other refined essential foods and goods . It was very pleasurable to read and thank you for the pictures and when you mentioned about the bugs on the mountain i felt i was their in the Heat and sweating and the buzzing and itching of the insects on my neck face and arms . Sadly my health is not as it was i just turned 57 in July of 2020 and i will be looking to camp on Ontario provincial grounds and next year after Covid 19 is over i will be looking for a decent group to camp with since i am no longer in the work force due to a heart attack and other not serious injuries other than the eyes that left me with blind right eye . Thank you again this story made me dream again and made me feel i was doing the climbing and savoring a really good Cigar with good company at evening camp fire , all the best to you and to your loved ones also Kevin you take care and please come up to Kitchener Ontario Canada where I live and bring your friends and Do not forget to Bring Andy also , take care God bless .

Hani Karam
Hani Karam

August 05, 2020

High school buddies all having love of outdoor activities I share your love of outdoors and the respect of Nature and all the living creatures animals and insects and plants for all are Life and Life suffers and feels pain like we do , Originally I am from the Christian side of Beirut and Lebanon and left that sad place in 1983 and in July 21 of that year i landed in Canada as an immigrant and never went back not even for a visit . I had camped in Lebanon with two of my friends in two villages however we were teenagers and not much camping was happening during the war plus Lebanon is not North America , being in Canada i was very poor and whenever i could get a job its has been the very heavy labor and in 20065/2006 i had serious eye injuries and lost my right eye’s vision lucky have not lost the left but because of several eye injuries now i have to be on special eye drops , i wish i had grown up in Canada or the U.S. i probably would have met you guys and climbed those peaks together more than once and alone also and or with wife or Girlfriend , yes how when young and healthy with the love of outdoors and adventure ( providing respecting nature and its living creatures that i had to learn thank God ) everything is tack able and easy but with age like you said comes refinement of the soul and mind and the choices of goods and the pleasures of savoring the other refined essential foods and goods . It was very pleasurable to read and thank you for the pictures and when you mentioned about the bugs on the mountain i felt i was their in the Heat and sweating and the buzzing and itching of the insects on my neck face and arms . Sadly my health is not as it was i just turned 57 in July of 2020 and i will be looking to camp on Ontario provincial grounds and next year after Covid 19 is over i will be looking for a decent group to camp with since i am no longer in the work force due to a heart attack and other not serious injuries other than the eyes that left me with blind right eye . Thank you again this story made me dream again and made me feel i was doing the climbing and savoring a really good Cigar with good company at evening camp fire , all the best to you and to your loved ones also Kevin you take care and please come up to Kitchener Ontario Canada where I live and bring your friends and Do not forget to Bring Andy also , take care God bless .

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