Two weeks ago, we made a last-dash run over to REI and finished packing the car, and by 7:30 the next morning we were headed north up to Baxter State Park for a few days of camping. Our goals were some hiking, some swimming, and some stargazing — meteor shower gazing, to be more specific. We also hoped to see a moose or two. Mainly though, we just wanted to unplug from the stress of jobs and wedding planning and everything else going on.
Incidentally, before we left I downloaded all 12 episodes of the Serial podcast, which neither of us had ever gotten around to listening to. It’s riveting, to say the least – we listened to it the entire trip up there, then well into the evening while it poured outside the tent, and then into the next day’s adventures. Like a good book, it was impossible to put down. (On the downside, I will always associate this vacation with a murder trial.)
Also, not so incidentally, for the past nine months or so I’ve been working with a personal trainer, in part so I could get strong enough to do a longer, more challenging hike with Erik on this trip. Alas, as my luck would have it, a few days before we left my knee started hurting. I have no idea why, I must have tweaked it somehow. I probably shouldn’t have hiked at all, but we found a few easy / short hikes and I kept up with the ibuprofen and the ice from one of our coolers (and waded into the freezing cold South Branch Pond). Alas, by the time we left of Saturday I was limping, unable to put any weight on my leg at all (shout out to the nice lady from Michigan at the Gardiner rest stop who told me about her husband’s torn meniscus….). So I’ll always associate this vacation with a swollen, painful knee. (Saw doctor, had xray, diagnosed with a bad sprain and fluid in my knee, ordered to stay off it for a week and keep it elevated with ice.)
But really, we had a good time! We stayed at South Branch campground, in the northern part of the park, which was much busier this time of year (we were there last May). The bugs weren’t bad at all, and while it got chilly at night this is the first camping trip where I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night with my teeth chattering. We drove the entire length of the Tote road and back (a one lane dirt road that runs along the western perimeter of the park), which at 10-20 miles/hour takes a couple of hours each way. We stopped at a place called Ledge Falls, where E body-surfed down a natural rock slide (more prepared campers had inner tubes). I opted to stick my knee in the cold water in lieu of an ice pack.
Later we left the park and drove into Millinocket to buy ibuprofen, a knee brace, and some Icy/Hot patches for my knee. On the way back, up through the Tote road through the park, it was after dark, we were the only ones on the road, and we were listening to the New York Philharmonic on NPR. I can’t even explain what that was like — driving through dense forestland on a narrow dirt road, with the music it was like being in a movie. At least, until the first moose appeared in the middle of the road. Five minutes later we came upon another one trotting down the middle of the road, his antlers glinting in the light of our high beams. I tried to take pictures, both with my camera and my iphone…the camera got nothing, and the iphone got a blur. (E says this is how those Sasquatch rumors start.) But hey, we saw moose!
Big Agnes, our spiffy new tent
Aside from the moose, we also had big plans to watch the Perseid meteor shower from South Branch pond. Erik even bought a couple of floating chairs for us to use, thinking that it would be awesome to float out into the middle of the pond and watch the stars from there. I was skeptical as to whether this would be the sort of thing the rangers would let us do, but as it turned out it was too damned cold to get in the pond at night anyway. We missed the peak due to rain, but the following night we walked down to the pond at about 11 pm and saw quite a few meteors. There is NO light pollution up there, and so we were able to see many more stars than usual, plus the Milky Way.
South Branch Pond
We were going to hike Traveler, but the knee situation ruled that out. The first night we hiked up the Ledges trail, not far from our campground. This was a short but tricky hike – going up was fine, but there were some rocks to navigate at the top and going down was a bit steep. We were greeted at the summit by a flock of chickadees, who we suspect are probably used to hikers dropping crumbs from their summit snacks. Alas, we were empty handed.
View from Ledges trail at South Branch
We later hiked the South Branch Falls trail – this is where it started to really go south with my knee. Most of the trail is flat, but the last section is steep down to the river, and then there are all sorts of boulders to be traversed to actually get down to the water. The ranger told us it was a great swimming spot but neither one of us could really figure out a spot to swim in. Instead, we hiked back to the campground and got in the pond. Even in August that pond was FREEZING cold.
South Branch Falls
We also took a short hike around the pond – I think it was the Pogy Notch trail, which is flat but boggy, so there are these balance-beam type board structures you have to walk over. Again, not the best decision I ever made…by the time we got back I was limping again. *sigh* And yet, after a week of lying around on the couch with my knee elevated on ice, trying to work from home in a more-or-less prone position… I hate to say it, but I’d do it again. Baxter is a good 7 hour drive for us, and it’s pretty much a once a year trip. I’d hate to have spent our few precious days there lying around in the tent. Also? Baxter is definitely beautiful to see, but it also needs to be experienced to the best of your ability** — whether it’s standing on top of a peak or in the middle of a forest or waist-deep in a freezing cold lake. I am really disappointed we didn’t get a longer hike in, but hopefully in a few weeks my knee will be better and we can try something a little closer to home.
**Because of my bum knee, I searched our info and trail maps for handicap accessible info at the park. As you might imagine, a wilderness area isn’t exactly the most disability-friendly place, but the park is trying to be more accommodating. See here for more info.