Change is in the air. After a full day of skiing and pulling a gear sled, from Baxter State Park’s North Entrance near Matagamon, a buddy and I have reached our destination of South Branch Pond. Here we have a cabin for three days, where we quickly set to building a fire in the wood stove, and unpacking. In preparation for the evening meal, I draw water from the outlet stream, where the South Branch of Trout Brook flows from the broad, 100-acre, snow-covered pond. There is not a single other person, or any wild creature, bird or mammal, for that matter, to be seen.
Weather over the past two days has been, as we say in Maine has been “all over the place”. On the drive from Franklin County to Patten, Shin Pond, and then Matagamon, snow squalls make for near-whiteouts, high winds shake my truck, and those classic views of Katahdin from the Highway 11 ridges on the approach to Patten become completely obscured. Spring nears on the calendar, but it is a different world in Maine’s North Country, with its own set of seasons.
Skiing with Pulk Sleds
After overnighting at a Matagamon Campground cabin, we set out on a near -14-mile trek, hauling up out of the valley of the East Branch of the Penobscot River, into the range of peaks at the northern end of Baxter Park – Horse Mountain the first of these. After snow squalls and white-outs of the day before, the temperatures rose briefly, only to drop again, turning the snow surface to crust. A strong headwind blows out of the northwest, sign that the weather might clear – or might not. The skiing is an adventure, as I rattle along on the crust, my backcountry skis gaining a fair enough grip on the uphills, and giving me a pretty swift, attention-getting, ride on the downhills.
My buddy and I have fashioned “pulk sleds”, another name for sleds to be pulled behind us as we ski. I made mine using a heavy-duty plastic sled from the Farmers Union which I have equipped with long handles made from electrical conduit pipe from Goings Electric. The pipe I fastened with hardware to a wood frame I installed across the front of the sled. To hold my gear in place I drilled holes around the rim of the sled, installed eye-bolts, and fasten things down using bungee cords.
My gear includes snowshoes and extra poles, and winter boots that are good to 30 below zero. In case of a colossal gear failure, I need to be able to make my way out. We are responsible for ourselves. Park staff know we are here, as reservations are required, but if we have a mishap, we must have the wherewithal to handle the situation, as help would be many hours in reaching us. I have extra food, a water filter, and a backpacking stove with extra fuel, two headlamps with spare batteries, and a first aid kit. My buddy has duplicates of these essentials.
For much of the way in, our route is over the unplowed park perimeter road. That road, commonly known as the Tote Road, is open to snowmobiles, but is ungroomed, and has the same speed limit that applies to vehicles in the summer months – 20 mph. That That limit, and the fact that the road is not groomed, results in light traffic. We will see only five sleds over a 3-day period, three of those ridden by rangers heading into the interior of the park to check on campsites there. The way is packed from prior use, and easier to traverse than the deep snow in the woods, but we still have our work to do, pulling uphill, dropping down the far side of a hill, gaining elevation again – more gain than loss.
We climb to the Gate House at the North Entrance, reaching it after 2.5 miles on trail. There we sign in at a registration station, and continue on our way. The Gate House is not usually staffed in winter, but a Park Ranger will appear on snowmobile later that first day to confirm that we are in the park. Morning overcast has cleared. Sun ,so bright that we quickly don sunglasses, breaks through. A high wind roars, shaking the high fir, spruce, and pine – both white and red – along the way. The thick trailside tree growth provides a windbreak.
We pass various trailheads – Horse Mountain Trail, Five Ponds Trail, and Fowler Ponds Trail – on this first day, and the deserted Trout Brook Campground. We stop for a break at a picnic shelter where the snow covers the table top. the roof offers no protection from that fierce wind. The stop is a shot one. The views across the unbroken snow of open fields that reach northward toward Trout Brook and Matagamon Lake, are striking: sharply blue sky, billowing cumulous clouds, deep green conifers lining the bright fields. Quite the sight.
South Branch Ponds
Well into our journey we arrive at Trout Brook Crossing and the spur road to South Branch Ponds. No snowmobiles permitted on this 2.5-mile stretch. To make things interesting, clouds have formed, the sun disappears from sight, and a light snow falls. Temperatures rise, and the precipitation turns into damp snow-rain mix. We ascend a height of land before enjoying an easy half-mile downhill run to the end of the access road, and the shores of Lower South Branch Pond.
Cloud cover hangs low over the pond as we arrive. Light snow mixed with rain continues to fall. There is no one else in sight, and we see no one else at this interior campground during our stay. Other than the build-your-own fire, woodstove-heated, cabin we have secured, the other options are an Adirondack-style lean-to, with three walls and one open side, or tent sites. In a given winter, a few souls venture here to winter camp in such ways (I have winter camped in the Park in previous years.), but very few. We get to work building a fire, unpacking our gear, splitting kindling and firewood for the days and nights ahead, and preparing to draw water.
The source for drinking water is the South Branch of Trout Brook, which flows from the pond and gives the pond its name. A curiosity, this place dubbed “South Branch” in the northern sector of the park, flowing northward. Two miles farther on, this branch joins the North Branch of Trout Brook, forming Trout Brook, proper, and this combined brook – more a small river at spring run-off than a brook, – eventually flows into the East Branch of the Penobscot River, and the Gulf of Maine at Penobscot Bay. Got that?
We snowshoe from the cabin to the outlet, step carefully along a narrow ice shelf, testing it for integrity of the ice, bring out our water containers, scoop water. My buddy goes first, fills up, heads back to the cabin. At my turn, I peer into the clear, moving water, making its way through and over the rock rubble one finds at such outlets, to tumble out of sight around a corner, heading downstream. From a distance, the water is a brown-black, with a near-polished look, like that of hickory, walnut, or dark oak. Up close, as I say, it is clear – about as fresh as water can be, fed by the snows of a Baxter Park winter.
A Change in the Air
I sense a change in the air. Something perhaps about the blowing snow of the previous day, high winds of the morning, next the rise in temperatures and that misty snowfall. That snowfall? I realize that it has largely stopped. A flake tumbles through the air, here and there, but that is all. Something has changed.
Those who travel on foot in the outdoors, holding silence, listening, on the watch, perhaps grasp what I am speaking about. There are times when I sense a presence, halt my progress, listen, watch, and spot a coyote, a porcupine, even an otter. At other times, there is a change in the light, a sudden break in the clouds to reveal a patch of blue, or sun breaking through to tinge a cloud edge in gold. So it is that instead of hauling my water supply straight back to camp, I pause, turn, and have a look over the expanse of this broad and silent pond.
When we arrived a hour earlier, falling snow veiled the pond from much of a view.
Now that snowfall has ended, and clouds that seemed all but a pond level, have lifted halfway up the mountains that ring the South Branch Ponds – South Branch and Black Cat Mountains to the west, the Traveler Range to the east. No wind! An immense stillness takes its place. The snow-covered pond surface is unbroken, except for a section by the outlet where currents under the ice have undermined it and shaped a swirl of dark-appearing water in the form of a letter of old English script. No sight of the sun itself; rather, an intriguing gray-white light abides. I am struck by the sight.
I look upon a monochrome world – black, gray, white. I am reminded of the work of the legendary photographer Ansel Adams, so well-known for black and white masterpieces of the High Sierras. Adams recognized that a certain remarkable beauty could be conveyed in black and white that color photography does not capture. Another thought – the squalls of previous hours and days abated, that artic-born wind, well-below freezing temperatures, are on their way out. Not only the weather, but perhaps the season is changing, right before my eyes. The arc of the north country weather now bends towards spring. Happens every year of course! I find myself in a rare moment of witness to it.
There are other memorable moments on this multi-day outing. In the middle of the first night I awaken, see light on snow through the cabin window, step outside. A waning moon shines through the high pine, fir, and spruce that ring the cabin. A few hours later I look for that moon again, and find a light snow falling. Ah, winter is slow to let go, although its proverbial grip I regard as now past.
Exploring by Snowshoes
We snowshoe the full length of the ponds, Lower and Upper South Branch Ponds. The surrounding peaks, even with abundant sunlight, remain obscured. The view extends northward in the direction of Katahdin, but at an elevation of nearly 4000’ higher than that of the ponds, it belongs to the clouds this day. Perhaps there are winter climbers up there. Katahdin has become a popular winter hike for experienced and properly equipped parties. I have summited Katahdin in winter, approaching form the South Entrance to the Park. On that day our party was the only one on the mountain, the great tableland snow-covered, clouds swirling in from the northwest, and up from the Great Basin and Chimney Pond, summit sign and cairn thick with rime frost.
Howe Brook, which empties into Lower South Branch Pond at the east shore has been a favorite of mine to explore – in all seasons. We snowshoe to a set of falls and pools, where water runs quickly. Though snow stands deeply in the surrounding woods, and the day is briskly cold, the snowpack, in ways and places unseen, is gradually giving way. Remarkable how that happens as spring comes on. Run off seems to come from nowhere in particular. Then one day, a patch of ground appears in the forest, then another, and another. The transformation begins long before I see evidence of it.
Snowshoeing ca section of the Pogy Notch Trail, and over the snow-covered pond surface, we trek by the base of the sharp cliffs at the foot of the Traveler Range, and explore a beaver bog at the south end of the Upper Pond. For a lunch break we clear the top of a snow-buried, waterside picnic table – an unexpected find. The benches are well-buried, but we put closed-cell pads for sitting on the table top, and get off our feet for a few minutes. In the course of a 5-mile snowshoe hike we see moose tracks, beaver trail, and what we take to be tracks of fisher. Hours of unhurried exploring – a rare opportunity.
Two Park Rangers traverse the ponds on snowmobiles, after an inspection trip to Russell Pond, 10 miles south of South Branch Ponds, where there is another cabin. We chat about wildlife signs and, of course, the weather. Off they go toward Matagamon, and we return to our status as the only human beings within nearly 15 miles, as far as we know.
Departure Morning Discovery
On departure morning I am up early, well before sunrise, step outside the cabin and discover a racoon making its way in the half-light toward the shore of the pond, Racoons hibernate. This critter knows, in its own remarkable racoon way, that the times thy are a changing, the first cracks in the pond ice are beginning to appear, and that there is food to be had – crayfish, maybe, perhaps some minnows – or even something bigger. I count it as a gift to observe a wild creature going about its business as though no one is watching. Off it goes, disappearing into the thick stand of shoreline trees. Good luck fishing!
On our ski out, warming temperatures make for slow going, but oat least our sleds are lighter after we have gone through much of our food supplies. Sun shines on Trout Brook, free of ice on its lower stretches. Open water fishing season is almost upon us! It would take dedication to reach this remote fishing spot. I fly-fished in a Colorado winter many years ago, where the fishing season runs year-round. In Maine, I have yet to see someone on skis or snowshoes packing in fly-fishing gear but I expect there are those who do so on Opening Day up in The County, or elsewhere in the North Country.
We pass the landmark of the Fowler Ponds trailhead, and reach Trout Brook Campground. Here we stop here to sit for a while as we eat another of our many trail mini-meals. Throughout this three-day outing we make a point of drinking water and eating a nutritious small meal every hour and a half. We are working hard, burning many calories, and want to avoid energy deficit and dehydration.
Back on trail, we cross the height of land of the north slope of Horse Mountain and the Five Ponds Trail, and welcome the long downhill run as we pass a summer boat launch for Grand Matagamon Lake. A few more ups and downs, and we make the final descent towards the East Branch of the Penobscot River, and our starting point.
The parking area is a mix of slush and mud. Spring is here!
I hope to see you on trail – on skis or snowshoes if the snow holds, in hiking boots when the trails dry out!
If you plan to visit Baxter State Park, consult the website for essential information, and call the Park Reservation Office to discuss your arrangements. All entry to the park is by permit only, and all overnight stays, in all seasons, require a reservation. I find the staff to be very helpful as I plan an itinerary. baxterstatepark.org; 207-723-5140
Text and Photos copyright Douglas Allan Dunlap 2023