A 'Day' in Baxter State Park

What a summer! On top of everything else, I stopped to pull some orphans and nuns out of a burning station wagon right as it was about to go over a waterfall and strained my arm. Okay, I didn’t. I slipped on a wet bathroom floor. But the result is the same. Prolonged typing…ouch. I know, wimpy writer injury.

Soooo… I was supposed to contribute A Day in Baxter State Park to the Maine Crime Writers July “A Day in…” series. But I can’t type. Fortunately, I’ve written about how great Baxter is before. A slightly longer version of this appeared in my Kennebec Tales column in the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal on Jan. 15, 2015, and on the website centralmaine.com. I know! Lazy rerun. But the orphans and nuns…

South Branch Pond, Baxter State Park, Maine

South Branch Pond, Baxter State Park, Maine

I will add this: Forget a day in Baxter State Park. Sure you can get a day pass, but you’re a chump if you only go for a day. And don’t feel you have to hike Katahdin. Many who go there never do and haven’t missed a thing.

Baxter Canoes

Shore of South Branch Pond

Read on:

It’s still dark in Millinocket and the temperature is minus 14. Mount Katahdin looms to the north, but it won’t be visible for another couple of hours.

At 5 a.m. Wednesday the town is quiet. But there’s a stirring behind Baxter State Park headquarters on Balsam Drive. A dozen people mill around in the dark, too cold for much conversation. The hardy ones stayed overnight in tents. Others stayed at nearby motels or, like me, left home in the wee hours of the morning to get a good spot in line.

Daicey Pond, looking at Katahdin

Daicey Pond, looking at Katahdin

You may be thinking, wow, 14 below, that’s cold. Yeah. It is.

But in a few — OK, maybe more than a few — months it’ll be warm; the cold, dark, sleepless morning will be far away; and those who braved it will be standing at the top of Mount Katahdin, drifting in a canoe on Daicey Pond, gazing at the view from the summit of North Traveler or just sitting in a lawn chair at the edge of the woods, enjoying the peace.

My brother Bill and nephew Tim on the North Traveler Trail in the north part of the park. You don't have to hike Katahdin to experience Baxter.

My brother Bill and nephew Tim on the North Traveler Trail in the north part of the park. You don’t have to hike Katahdin to experience Baxter.

Percival Baxter, who created the park and donated its first land, said, “Man is born to die, his works are short-lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes. But Katahdin in all its glory, forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine.”

Baxter made sure when the park was created it would remain “forever wild.”

That stipulation — not just for Katahdin, but the entire park — means nature unspoiled. The best Maine has to offer.

My sister Nicki and her kids Adele, Elise and Tim pull up to shore on Daicey pond. Baxter is a great family getaway.

My sister Nicki and her kids Adele, Elise and Tim pull up to shore on Daicey Pond. Baxter is a great family getaway.

Unspoiled, though, comes with a price.

Park restrictions are unforgiving, including how many people can camp there at a time.

The Baxter State Park Authority rolling reservation system allows campers to make reservations for the park’s 10 campgrounds online, by phone, in person at the park or by mail four months before their trip. Not a day earlier.

But on this one glorious day in January, reservations can be made for any site for any day. [July 2016 Maureen here: Don’t despair, if you want to take a trip to the park this year, there are openings available, if you’re flexible, all season, particularly at South Branch Pond, the northernmost campsite at the park.]

My sister Liz looks out over South Branch Pond from North Traveler Mountain in the northern park of Baxter State Park.

My sister Liz looks out over South Branch Pond from North Traveler Mountain in the northern park of Baxter State Park.

What’s the catch?

Only 20 percent of each campground for each day the park is open can be reserved on open reservation day. That may sound like a lot, but it isn’t.

Baxter State Park has no wifi, phone service or electricity. Everyone slows down and enjoys.

Baxter State Park has no wifi, phone service or electricity. Everyone slows down and enjoys.

Those arriving for open reservation day sign in, noting the time they arrived. Wednesday’s signup started Monday with those who camped out. By 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, 25 people had signed up. I was number 23.

The atmosphere is friendly, congenial. But the line is sacrosanct. No cuts, no saves. And you stay in it, no matter how cold it is, until the door opens at 7 a.m.

Liz kayaks on Daicey Pond with Katahdin in the background.

Liz kayaks on Daicey Pond with Katahdin in the background.

Wednesday, because it was so cold, the rangers opened the doors a half-hour early, at 6:30. Those walking through the door are handed a number — their rank for when reservations start at 8.

There's plenty of hiking to be had.

There’s plenty of hiking to be had.

Open reservation day isn’t a day for fanciness and glamour. Hat hair, worn fleece and flannel-lined pants are the look of choice.

Dad sets up a tent at the South Branch Pond campground in 1976. We've revived the family tradition of vacationing there every summer the past several years.

Dad sets up a tent at the South Branch Pond campground in 1976. We’ve revived the family tradition of vacationing there every summer the past several years.

The campgrounds closest to Katahdin fill up first. August is the most popular month.

After making their reservations, those who had waited for those hours in the cold come out of the inner office, receipt in hand.

“Did you get it?” those waiting ask.

The earlier the arrival, the more likely the answer is yes. The ones still waiting seem genuinely happy for the success of those before them.

Me, eating blueberries fresh off the bush in 1976 at Baxter State Park.

Me, eating blueberries fresh off the bush in 1976 at Baxter State Park.

The old-school, no frills, feel-good ritual is pure Baxter.

The park is a throwback: no wi-fi, spotty and mostly non-existent cell service. No electricity, except what generators provide at the rangers’ offices. No running water, potable water, flush toilets or showers. No garbage cans. Carry it in, carry it out.

No RVs, Jet Skis, motorboats, motor scooters or ATVs.

Entry gate at Baxter State Park.

Entry gate at Baxter State Park.

It takes forever to get there, no matter where you live. Once you’re inside — and don’t try to bring the dog or an extra person — it’s another long drive at 10 mph on rocky dirt roads to the campground.

A neighbor told my parents before our family went for the first time in the early 1970s, “It’s a pain to get there, but once you’re there? Shangri-la!”

Sister Liz at Baxter in 1976.

Sister Liz at Baxter in 1976. She’s older, but the park hasn’t changed a bit.

Shangri-la wasn’t a real place. It was a made-up paradise where everything was beautiful and harmonious. Baxter is better than Shangri-la, because it’s real. Pure, clear water; sunlight filtering through endless, endless trees; not one mountain, but dozens. Want numbers instead of feelings? More than 40 ridges and peaks, including Katahdin, of course, and 215 miles of hiking trails.

The biggest traffic issue we ever encountered at Baxter was the time a moose stood in front of our car for half an hour, ignoring our honking, yelling and arm-waving.

Brother Bill at Baxter State Park in 1976.

Brother Bill at Baxter State Park in 1976.

The whole process from getting the right campsite to getting to that campsite is hard. It should be hard, because if something so fantastic was easy it would be a sin.

What’s easy is being there.

No matter what’s going on in the world that day, most of the conversation on reservation day while campers wait for their number to be called revolves around Baxter: favorite campgrounds, the pros and cons of what month to go, moose encounters, which hikes are the best.

At Baxter State Park expect to do really boring things like hanging out around the campfire as the setting sun reflects off Mount Katahdin.

At Baxter State Park expect to do really boring things like hanging out around the campfire as the setting sun reflects off Mount Katahdin.

Nearly five hours after I arrived Wednesday my number was called.

“Well?” those waiting outside the outer office asked as I came out.

I waved the receipt. “I got it!”

It’s now 1 degree outside, but it just doesn’t feel that cold anymore.

Mount Katahdin sunrise from our cabin on Daicey Pond. Just saying.

Mount Katahdin sunrise from our cabin on Daicey Pond. Just saying.

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. The second in the series, No News is Bad News, came out in June. Follow her on Twitter @mmilliken47, on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, and sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com.

EVENT: Maureen will be speaking about Maine, mysteries, writing, her new book No News is Bad News and anything else that strikes her fancy at 6 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 10, at the Maine Lakes Resource Center in Belgrade Lakes, Maine. Sign up for free tickets at www.centralmaine.com/authortalks/

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Notes from a Cranky Editor all by herself, as well Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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