Climbing Mount Katahdin, Maine
A View from the summit
Climbing Mount Katahdin
The Maine Woods were and are a breeding ground for mysticism, as much so as the Himalayas, the Amazon, or the Plains of Serengeti. I think it must be the piercing note of the white-throated sparrow or the cry of the loon that makes the damp and mossy coniferous woods of Maine so conducive to mysticism. Or perhaps it is the pagoda-like white pine reflected on the clear waters of an unnamed pond. Or then again it might be the ghost of Henry Thoreau seen faintly through the flickering flames of a campfire.
Twenty-five years ago, I and some companions camped at Chimney Pond before our first ascent of Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine rising 5,267 feet. It was late August, and the nighttime sky throbbed with colored threads of Northern Lights. We had difficulty closing our eyes to get some sleep. And yet seemingly only moments later, we rolled up our sleeping bags all covered with hoarfrost at 5 a.m. and, like French Jesuits of old, followed a trail through thick black spruce. The high-rising exposed granite of Baxter Peak loomed above us; if our eyes focused correctly, we thought we saw a skein of fresh snow on the summit. The spruce and aspen around us seemed so utterly still and silent!
Before long we had worked our way through Katahdin's treeline of matted dwarf spruce; sometimes we'd sink up to our knees trying to get through it, and our boots got soaked in rivulets of spring water which trickled under the dense matting. With each ten or fifteen feet gained, we could see more and more of the boreal forests of northern Maine, giving off an aroma like incense at some Buddhist temple in Kyoto or Nara.
And when our feet touched nothing but naked granite, we began to see distant Moosehead Lake and cow-moose-shaped Mount Kineo, mythologized by the Penobscot Indians. We paused to take a few swallows of icy spring water gushing out of a crevice; the sudden chill made our teeth hurt. Though the sky was bright and sunny, a chill wind drilled through us up here four thousand feet above the relatively flat terrain around Katahdin's base.
Finally we stood on the rugged and spiny summit of Mount Katahdin, over five thousand feet tall, and peered down sheer granite cliffs into the glacial cirque of Chimney Pond. We hadn't expected to see such sweeping alpine terrain east of the Mississippi, but wild and sweeping it was! As clouds gathered and poured over Katahdin's Knife Edge Ridge to the east, the temperature dropped twenty degrees, helping preserve the tiny crests of fresh snow between the rocks.
Dense clouds seemed to be born at our very feet. We elected to descend. Thoreau, a hundred years earlier, called this rocky perch an unfinished part of the globe that robbed him of his "divine faculties." In a sense, all of us standing there could have agreed with him in that the flood of sensations was too quick, too vast to be absorbed in a reasonable period of time. This one day's climb entered our spirit's core in undecipherable ways. Thoreau's book, The Maine Woods (1864), however, offers ways in which one can at least begin to decipher the impact of the Maine woods, with its pagodas of pine, its eerie and plaintive bird calls, its mossy and damp fragrance, and its alpine heights.
A footnote. Three of us who climbed Mount Katahdin (J. Boucher, G. Fader and I) got together again to climb Mulleyash Mountain in Ireland 55 years later in 2013.
This is a short excerpt from my introduction to the Harper Perennial Classic edition of Thoreau's Maine Woods (1987). Other books of interest about Thoreau and Katahdin are: William Howarth, Thoreau in the Mountains (1982) and J. Parker Huber, Elevating Ourselves: Thoreau on Mountains (1999).
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