Baxter State Park Nordic Backcountry Tour (2018) Part 1 — The Calm Before the Storm

Hey all! It’s not bike touring, but we took our first ever multi-day backcountry ski tour in March, and we wanted to preserve it here on the blog. Enjoy!

Day 0, March 10: Brooklyn to Mt. Chase Lodge

Today was a driving day. I walked Ellie over to K&B’s, who had graciously offered to watch her for the week. When I got back home, I decided it was smart to move our car to the street directly in front of the apartment so we could pack more easily. Fifteen minutes later, we stumble downstairs carrying our backpacks, skis, and the rest of our gear and find a traffic cop looking curiously into our window. It was street sweeping day! Luckily, we got there just in time, and we didn’t get a ticket.

We were on the road by 7:45 or so, and the drive out of the city was blessedly uneventful. We stopped in Portland to grab some lunch around 1:30, and ate at a place called Sillys, which had tasty, but rich and heavy, meal options. However, fatty carbs are just the thing to eat for lots of energy!

Back on the road, we made good time (in next to zero traffic) to our jumping off point: Mt. Chase Lodge, a delightful little guesthouse run by husband and wife team Lindsey and Mike. The lodge had a cozy fireplace in the lower level and the rooms, while not fancy, were everything we needed. There were several other guests there—all snowmobilers. We ate a family style meal cooked by Mike, who is a truly wonderful chef, and who made us a vegan pesto pasta and AMAZING peanut butter chocolate mini lava cakes. Holy moly.

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After dinner we went back up to the room, waxed the skis, organized our bags, and filled up our water. Then we boned up on our orienteering skills. This ended up being unnecessary because I had a map downloaded and we always had GPS, but better safe than sorry.

Day 1, March 11: Parking lot to South Branch Pond Bunkhouse (11.27 miles)

We woke up a little before 7 and headed for the shower before other the other guests got in our way. Dani made it. But since we only brought one small bottle of soap, I had to wait and I missed my shot.

When Dani finished showering, she pointed out that I was already in the camping mindset: of course guest house showers have soap in them.

We went down to breakfast, and Mike had made some delightful oatmeal that was vegan friendly, along with scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and blueberry pancakes. I asked if the pancakes were vegan, and he did that they were not, but that he was happy to whip some vegan pancakes up for us.

So we ate oatmeal and drank coffee with the leftover almond milk we brought from home, and ten minutes later we were each presented with a stack of 3 banana almond flax pancakes. Holy mother of delicious. Judging purely on looks, they were better than the non-vegan pancakes. Judging from the jealous glances of the other guests, I’m not the only one who thought so.

After some more lovely conversation with two ladies from Bar Harbor that we met last night (they told us to avoid Acadia in August and taught us about harvesting and using chaga), we whipped together our things and headed out. It was a half hour drive to the parking lot, and the entire time we were consumed with nerves. What if we got lost? What if our packs were too heavy? What if we made it 9 miles in and just couldn’t go any farther?

We made it to the parking area, put all of our stuff on and in our bags, and set out. And all of our nerves were for nothing. We DO love cross country skiing and we ARE in decent physical shape and while our bags were heavy, we COULD do this.

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IMG_20180311_095054.jpgAnd man oh man. What a winter wonderland. Snow laden pines, frozen lakes and babbling streams. And complete solitude. Heaven.

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MVIMG_20180311_105733.jpgIMG_20180311_122522.jpgThe BSP website warns people that snow travel is slower than summer travel, and advised us to plan for 1.5-2 mph. But we found ourselves making excellent time, moving at a 2.5-3 mph clip. The first 9 miles or so were on the tote road, which is the only path in the park that snowmobiles may use. This made for some bumpy, skiddy skiing, but because we didn’t know any better, we didn’t mind at all.

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We stopped at Trout Brook farm bunkhouse about 4 miles in to have a snack (we each saved a pancake), and I had to use the restroom. While here, I lived up to my reputation I built on our bike tour and fell over when I stopped moving. Then I got lost skiing around the bunkhouse looking for the toilet. Anyways, I got myself sorted out and we set out on the road again.

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After 5 more miles (and 3.5 total skiing hours) we came to Trout Brook Crossing, which was our turnoff from the tote road. We stopped for lunch, and Dani’s idea to put hot water in a thermos full of dehydrated rice, beans, tomatoes, and spices turned out splendidly. It was so nice to have a warm meal in the middle of the day. And a cookie. The cookie was nice too.

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IMG_20180311_133410.jpgAfter lunch, we headed out toward South Branch Pond, and off the snowmobile path. This was EVEN MORE BEAUTIFUL! But it was also a climb. And the wet snow was really sticking to our skis. I had heard about how miserable this makes skiing, but I hadn’t experienced it for myself yet. And I was muttering to myself because I had noticed it before lunch and I could have applied a new layer of wax each to our skis, but I didn’t. Oh well.

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Even with the sticky snow, it was a delight of a ski, even if the first mile and change was the steepest climb of the day. At that point we came to a trail crossing that -when we looked at our map- seemed halfway between the tote road and our campsite. This was strange because we thought we to ski over 5 miles on this leg, and it didn’t make sense. that we were already at the halfway point.  But turned out we only had a little over 2 miles to ski! Bonus happy surprise!

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We came down a big hill to the campsite and our bunkhouse, which we were sharing with a group of five Mainers. Tom, Brent, Jeff, Bob, and Sherry. They were all friendly and delightful, and we passed the next five hours melting snow for water on the woodstove, playing cards, looking out over the pond (which is a lake to my eye), and just enjoying company.

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Dinner tonight was chili, which we forgot to photograph, but it was delicious and spicy. People went to bed early, around 8:30, and before we hit the hay, we went outside one last time to marvel at the sparkling Maine night sky. (And poop. I also went outside to visit the outhouse.) But those stars, friends, those stars…

Day 2, March 12:  South Branch Pond Bunkhouse to Russell Pond Bunkhouse (9.62 miles)

We woke up around 7—well, our bunkmates woke up at 7 and started packing and getting ready to go. The bunkhouse is wonderful, but sounds are amplified throughout the place. There is no sleeping in when sharing such a place.

We took our time this morning. It was a little frantic while our bunkmates were packing to leave, but then when they did it was calm and peaceful. We played an Ella and Louis album on a phone and made apple cinnamon oatmeal. After oatmeal we cleaned out our thermoses and made some coffee.  After coffee, we filled up the thermoses with our dehydrated rice and beans mix for lunch and added some hot water. It deserves mentioning again and again: Dani’s idea to buy these food thermoses and pack premade dehydrated meals in parchment bags was brilliant and, at a small risk of hyperbole, the most important (controllable) factor in us having a good trip.

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We got on the path at about 9:45. Our shoulders were sore, but we otherwise felt pretty good. The day started by skiing across Upper- and Lower- South Branch ponds. It’s a weird feeling to be skiing across a lake, but we had heard at Mt. Chase Lodge that the lakes had 24 inches of ice, so we were pretty safe. It’s also a fun perspective to see the mountains circling the lake from the middle of the lake. We were lucky to be following other people’s tracks, because it otherwise might have been a challenge to find the trail at the other side. There is a tree wrapped in some orange tape that makes the correct exit, but I’m not entirely sure we would have seen it on our own.

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On the other side of the lake, the trail became even more beautiful, because instead of following a broader road (even the path after the snowmobile trail yesterday is a road during the summer), we were on a singletrack trail winding through an evergreen and birch forest.

This is also where we learned that backing up on skis with a heavy backpack generally leads to falling. Although, perhaps I give at least me too much credit when I say I “learned” this, because I had to learn a few more times before I really believed it.

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We skied for a few miles along beautiful creek. We crossed a lot of small streams, but they all had packed snow bridges that, with one exception, were no problem at all. At one point, some unfortunately-timed wind blew a branchful of snow off of it’s branch and down the back of Danielle’s shirt. Oopsie.

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We crossed Pogy pond and stopped for lunch on the other side (about 6 miles in). We packed down some snow, and sat on our bags and ate our rice and beans while looking at Traveler Mountain. This was where our bunkmates from the night before turned around on the day prior, so the only trail we had from this point on was from two people who had done it two days before. We could still see their tracks and still benefited from the trail being broken, but there was a substantial difference in ease of skiing.

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Oh, and there was also a substantial difference in elevation after Pogy, too. We climbed 300 or so feet over a little less than 2 miles. As we entered higher elevation, the snow was deeper and fluffier.  The blazes on some of the trees were barely above the snowpack. We saw some moose tracks that followed the trail up the hill. Danielle spent much of this part of the trail singing “A Marshmallow World.”

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After we got to high point, the snow really started sticking to our skis. At times we’d fall or almost fall because there were clumps of sticky snow essentially serving as brakes on the skis when we tried to push forward. We kept wavering between feeling frustrated because we were getting tired and unhappy and feeling annoyed at ourselves for feeling frustrated while we were in paradise.

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9.2 miles in, we saw some buildings of the Russell Pond campsite and we got really excited because we thought we were done. Turns out, though, that the bunkhouse was on the other side of the pond, another half mile away. We got to the bunkhouse at 3:30, and immediately started a fire, but it took the bunkhouse a while to warm up.

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The snow at Russell was much deeper, and we had to put on skis any time we wanted to go to the outhouse. We made ourselves a second cup of coffee, and ate two dinners–ramen and a pasta primavera–and played card games. The best part of Russell Bunkhouse was that it had two nice wooden chairs (South Branch only had one), so we pulled them both up to the wood burning stove and had a cozy little heaven all to ourselves.

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Day 3, March 13: Exploring around Russell, out to Ledge Falls and back (5.04 miles)

Last night I woke up around 1 am (after going to bed around 10 or so). After peeing, I checked the woodstove and saw that the big log I put in there to last us the night had gone out.  In my sleepy haze I decided that it was critical to have a fire going to keep the cabin warm, so I pulled a bunch of bark off another log, tried to start it from the few remaining coals, and when that didn’t work, I got out the firestarter and built a whole new fire.

Then I panicked about cabin monoxide (like we didn’t have the stove going all day) and opened the window in our bedroom. In the morning, the wood had all burned up and the cold air coming in the window had chilled the entire cabin. So… Good call, Ted.

I started another fire in the stove, and started to get breakfast ready (peanut butter and banana oatmeal today). When the fire was going and the oatmeal was ready, I woke up Dani and we ate by the stove — with a quick break to ski to the toilet — and savored the feeling of the cabin warning around us.

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Finishing the oatmeal opened up our coffee cups, so Dani made us coffee and cleaned up after breakfast while I started melting snow for water.

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Shortly after finishing coffee, we stoked the stove to keep the cabin cozy and headed out for another day of magic. We thought we were going to Wassataquoik Lake, but I took us down the Wassataquoik Stream Trail in the other direction, and we ended up skiing to Ledge Falls. It was a lovely, happy accident.

Today we had to break our own trail for the first time, and it was both difficult and amazing. We averaged about 1 mph the first two miles, but it feels more wild—even though we were still following clear blazes the entire way.

But because we had to find the next blaze and figure out how to get there, we seemed to pay more attention to the wilderness around us. And it felt like we were all alone out in the forest. Gorgeous snow laden trees, elk and moose tracks, partly frozen streams, mountains lost in clouds, and us picking our way through it all. We were higher today, so the snow base was fairly deep even before the 14+ inches of snow that came last week.

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At times, we were ducking under pine boughs that I bet are a good 7 feet or more off the trail in the summer. At others we were getting weirded out by skiing through a glen where a family of elk had obviously spent the night and we were worried they’re come back and get annoyed at us for crashing.

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After about two miles, we came to a trail junction near the Wassataquoik Stream lean to with an amazing vista of the stream and the North, South and East Turner, and Russell mountains. We saw a sign declaring it was a half mile to Ledge Falls. This gave us a turnaround point at about the right distance, so we decided to go for it. The falls are more impressive when its not winter, I think, but the ski up to the falls traced the bank of the stream and treated us to more mind bending beauty and solitude.

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We turned around at the falls and headed home, trying to fix the scene in our heads, or at least the way it made us feel. Because we weren’t breaking trail anymore, we made it home in about half the time. We stopped at the bathroom since we already had our skis on, then returned to our extra cozy and toasty cabin, made coffee and ramen for lunch, mushroom vegetable stew with couscous for dinner, played games, and loved life.

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It started snowing soon after we got back. At the time, we had no idea that this was the beginning of a 48-hour winter storm and two days of trail breaking that made the trailbreaking today seem like we were getting towed by a snowmobile.

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5 thoughts on “Baxter State Park Nordic Backcountry Tour (2018) Part 1 — The Calm Before the Storm

  1. I love the “Fire Danger Low Today” sign surrounded by so much snow! Haha!
    Looks like a fabulous adventure. I’m not a huge fan of snow so I doubt I’ll ever embark on a trip like this, but it sure is fun to read about. And your photos are fantastic!

    Like

  2. Pingback: Friday Favorites #18 | Jest Kept Secret

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