Foot and Paddle: Hiking Saddleback at First Light

19 mins read
Saddleback Junior, dawn’s early light.

In a stretch of sun-brightened days I rise at an early hour to be on-trail at the break of day – destination, 4120’ Saddleback Mountain near Rangeley. My truck is the first vehicle to pull in to the parking area near the Saddleback Ski Area base lodge. Even in the pre-dawn half-light, I observe that cool overnight temperatures have left a layer of clouds and mist that obscures the broad valley between the Saddleback Range and the north-lying high ground. Spotted Mountain, the twin peaks of East Kennebago, and Quill Hill, poke their heads above the clouds, as though floating on them. Where I stand, on the lower slopes of the Saddleback Range, I, too, am above the clouds. Above me, dark, fir-predominate woods sweep upward toward the summit ridge, now in silhouette.

After a gear check – water, food, windbreaker layer in case of winds on top, wool cap for the same reason – I snap off my headlamp, return it to the emergency gear pocket in my pack, head out and up. My ascent to the summit ridge, with its alpine ecological zone, is via the Grey Ghost ski trail, which departs from the front of the Saddleback base lodge. Passing under the Wheeler ski slope chairlift, I reach a gravel maintenance road built into the slope, follow that for 200 yards, turn left on a well-worn path through field grass, golden rod, and such, and reach Grey Ghost. A great quiet abides. Not a single other person in sight.

Above, the sky brightens to backlight the ridge, but the sun itself has yet to appear. At the far east end of the ridge, The Horn of Saddleback, 4041, and Saddleback Junior 3655’, loom as great grey masses, thin gold-edge clouds hanging over their summits. Rocky and rugged up close, they have the appearance in this limited light more like old grey felt hats flannel than of rough, glacier-scoured rock.

The worn pathway is wet underfoot, muddy in places. Anticipating wet ground in a summer when heavy rains and runoff have been the norm, I wear hiking boots with good grip, and use trekking poles. Plenty of slipping signs in the mid from hikers of recent days, but I have no difficulty making way. The woods that border the trail sport white birch, red maple, and fir. Here and there, maples have already made the turn to scarlet red, for I hike in the first days of September, and this location is just about on the 45th parallel, halfway to the North Pole.


North-lying cloud cover beyond Saddleback Lake.


Before me, beside me, behind me stretches a great growth of late season wildflowers: Brown-eyed Susan’s, goldenrod, yarrow, and what I take to be white aster. Meadow grasses glisten with their dewy heads. As I gain elevation, I spot a purple harebell, red bunchberries, rock moss. I am entering a sub-alpine niche, one of very few such ecological niches in Maine.

Lower Grey Ghost Trail has become the Upper Gray Ghost. I pass the landing for the Rangeley Quad Chairlift, silent and unmoving at this hour, in this season. I continue to gain elevation, steeply now, on the Tri-Color Trail, pausing to look out and over the north-lying valley, where the triangle of Saddleback Lake is now free of clouds, but the vast terrain beyond still lies hidden under hovering cloud and mist. Shafts of sunlight stream through gaps in the trail-side forest, all fir now, at this high elevation. The sun has risen, but eludes me as I hike up under the brow of the ridge. My route lies largely in shadow. I play a cat and mouse game with the morning sun, spotting the sun, losing sight of it, gaining ground and rounding corners to discover my own series of dawns – sun appearing over the treetops.

Tricolor ends where the Kennebago Quad Chairlift concludes its climb.

From here a blue-blazed hiking trail ascends through fir of diminishing size 0.1 mile to the bare, exposed ridge. The sun hits me face-on as the rocky route breaks out of the scrub, becomes a path more like gravel, the collective result of more than a century of hikers, and the freeze-thaw cycle of the alpine zone.

I step up onto rock and ledge, to behold the tiny alpine pond that occupies an irregular depression in what appears to be impervious ledge. This pond, or tarn, is miraculous in its own way, a bit of aquatic life at an elevation of about 4000’, which just might make it the highest body of water in the State of Maine. I am quite sure this tarn, sitting at about 4000’, is higher than Horns Pond in the Bigelow Range, and Speck Pond in the Mahoosuc Range. Not much to this diminutive Saddleback Ridge tarn, but in 40 years of hiking this mountain, I have never seen it dry. A story there!


Summit ridge tarn.


A signpost marks the junction with the Appalachian Trail (AT). The true summit of Saddleback is 0.3 miles north on the AT (compass northeast). I will get there, but at this moment I gain my first 360 degree view of the day. The day, the setting, the moment, are a hiker’s dream – multicolored, wild, terrain stretches in all directions. Morning light is full and rich on the silver-grey ledge, alpine sedge, and mats of stunted and tangled fir.

To the west the Tumbledown-Jackson Range and Mt. Blue command the horizon. The White Mountains and Mt. Washington, are hidden in a great mass of distant cloud cover. Not a menacing cover, but a change of seasons, land-water-air temperature with its own beauty, sun-struck here with gold, there with pink, over there, lavender. To the far northwest, in the direction of the northern extremes of New Hampshire and Vermont, a sliver of bright blue opens in the sky, dotted with puffs of cumulous cloud, as though the issue of an old puffer belly steam locomotive. Quite the sight.

Below, to the east and south, the valleys of the Sandy River and Orbeton Stream remain dusky in shadow, yet to be touched by the advancing reach of the sun. Tattered mists linger over their waters, hidden from my sight by the tree growth that lines their banks. Down there, the Fly Rod Crosby hiking trail, connecting Rangeley Lake and Saddleback Mountain to Phillips, makes a way along Hardy Stream to join Orbeton Stream – where salmon are returning to spawn. Tiny Beal Pond in Madrid, glimmers as sunlight at last makes its touch, lying like a mirror in a sea of mixed growth forest.

More northeasterly, and to the north, lie the headwaters of the South Branch of the Dead River. Remarkable lands indeed – ridge after ridge, stream valley upon stream valley, in country with scarce development. Here is rarely visited, except by the occasional hunter, those who seek the remotest of ponds and streams to fly fish, and the few outdoors people who find enjoyment in a bushwhack, making a way cross-country through the mountains by compass and by a reading of the landscape.


Fir grows in shelter of a summit ridge boulder.


Over the years I have explored much of this terrain, and had the privilege of encountering coyote, fisher, pine martin, and a black bear. In winter I have tracked a lynx on the lower slopes of Saddleback. I have discovered otter slides along stream banks. Wildlife here! Come, hold silence, watch, listen, put nose to the wind. Discover.

The early hour mix of light and dark, mist, cloud, early day breaks in the clouds, applies to the imposing hulks of our High Peaks to the northeast. Mt. Abraham, Spaulding, Sugarloaf, the Crocker Range, the Redington Range – their ruggedness softened in the shadows of the early hour, with a touch of gold, here on their highest ground. The sun, though risen, is still behind them, brightening their east-facing slopes, out of my sight. However, their high ground blocks that sun from the west-facing and north-facing slopes in my view. The peaks and the ridges on which they rise, appear as great grey icebergs on a sea of valley cloud and dark, dark fir.

Good country, my friends, perhaps the longest stretch of alpine zone terrain in Maine. Only the Katahdin tableland, 200 miles north, compares. As I hike on towards the peak of Saddleback, I observe that fall has arrived already on this high ground. Tiny diapensia, rugged flowers of the alpine zone, have long since dropped their petals. Bigelow sedge, hardy, grass-like growth which holds the soil at this elevation, has turned from green to maroon.

Reindeer lichen, complex shapes of tiny antler-like white branchings, offer a break from the dun colors of the season.

Tree line is usually considered to be the elevation where trees grow no taller than 5’. Up here, such trees are mostly fir, with an occasional variety of low birch that sports a copper-color bark. In the face of prevailing, powerful north winds, and long winter, trees grow laterally and form great tangles. Called krumholtz or tuckamore, this growth is all but impenetrable – at least for humans. When an occasional boulder affords shelter from the frigid winds, a fir, or birch, grows straight up. Otherwise, they lay low, some of them many decades old. I know of ruffed grouse who nest up here amidst such growth, among other birds that frequent the alpine zone.

I reach the peak, drop my pack, sit by the summit sign, take a water and bagel break. Morning now fully broken, the air so very fresh and cool, sun-washed alpine growth and silver-grey ledge all with a touch of gold in the rich slanting-in light of the hour. Just 50 feet from the summit cairn iron footings mark the location of the fire tower which once stood atop Saddleback. Farther along the AT northbound are the remains of the cement base of the Firewarden’s cabin. Quite the assignment, to be on fire watch from this remarkable vantage point, day after day.

Time to go. I retrace my steps. Still no other hikers in sight. Just below the AT junction, where I turn north past the bright waters of the tarn and the trail drops into the low firs – surprise! Ruffed grouse, surely this year’s chicks now matured, strut the trail head of me. Most likely, the grouse are picking up some bits of trail gravel which aids their feeding process, as they work the trailside growth. Two fly completely out of sight. One high-tails it down the trail ahead of me, and one flits up into a trail-side fir no more than four feet away, perches, eyes me. There are clucks coming from all directions.


High country grouse.


Here is a rare moment. I hold utterly still, watch. The grouse tilts its head, one way, then another, eyeing me. In hold to my stillness, and have a good, close look at the pattern of feathers, various browns interspersed with white; the distinctive tuft of feathers on the top of its head; the dark, foreshortened beak it uses to pick leaf buds, pick up seeds; its eye, fixed on me. I speak, softly, not moving. Another tilt or two of the head – trying to figure me out? Am I friend or foe? In slow, measured movement, I slip past. The grouse holds to its perch. Down the trail another grouse flies up to roost, as did the first. Same drill. I watch for a time, speak softly, slowly make my way by so as not to disturb. This bird holds to its perch as did the first. Good feeding grounds, I imagine.

Dear are the times time when I may draw so very close to a wild creature, close yet without disturbing, take in the intricacies of markings and movements. This is surely one of those times. Have you had an experience like that? I tend to have them when I hike in silence, scanning trailside as I go, listening for slight sounds in the woods, or for the slightest of movements. Even better is to sit on a rock or a log, hold still, watch, listen. The wildlife are about. They have better hearing than we humans do, and move off at the sound of footfalls or conversation.

Down, down, down, I go. Mid-way, as the woods transition from all-conifer to a few white birch and maple, I hear the rattle of a woodpecker – probably a pileated. That, and the fluttering and light clucks of the grouse, are all the sounds I hear on my day-break hike.


Saddleback summit 4120’.


I spot trailside sumac, plumes a rich, red-wine color. Missed these in the dark as I made my ascent! More red maples, too. I discover brown-eyed Susan’s, a daisy or two, more and goldenrod as far as I can see.

The months of September and October offer some of the best hiking weather of the year – cool, clear, dry days, rich colors emboldened by a sun now angling in from the southern sky, as the earth continues its timeless back and forth rock, and the seasons change. We in Franklin County have some of the most accessible pristine landscapes to be found anywhere in the world. Our fragile alpine zone is one of the most intact and wildlife-rich east of the Rockies.

I hope to see you on trail this fall!


Text and photos copyright 2023
Douglas Allan Dunlap

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