Stranded on Dry Land: A Story Told Over 47 Miles in Baxter State Park
Updated: Jul 16
At long last, the trip was happening. Many weeks earlier in the summer, Ryan and I designed a backpacking trip around the concept of hiking the Baxter equivalent of the Dry River Trail in the White Mountain National Forest, which we completed this past June.
Having spent an entire summer in New Hampshire doing nothing but obscure trails over long rolling miles, it only made sense to approach Maine’s second highest peak via the most remote path possible. This, however, would require some base camping to avoid what would otherwise be a 28-mile day. Just like that, the Russell Pond Bunkhouse became our camp for the week.
Day One. The Hike In: Russell Pond Trail to Wassataquoik Stream to Russell Pond Campground
The journey out to Russell got a 1:30pm start from Roaring Brook Campground and I loaded up my 40-pound 65-liter pack while Ryan took on his 45-pound 80-liter pack. We traveled with comfort in mind and had no regrets. My packing list can be found here: https://bit.ly/wheresizzybackpackinglist
Russell Pond Trail begins in a deceiving way, it picks up with a heavily rooted underfoot, elevation gain, and a water crossing that got me stuck for a moment. This was not at all representative of the rest of the trail. Before we completed a mile, the trail began what we knew to be much of the preceding portion of the trail.
Russell Pond Trail gently took us across a nice dirt path that saw occasional rocks or roots, and few water crossings, and it was generally interesting. Plus, we got an excellent outlook towards Katahdin, Knife's Edge, and Hamlin from Whidden Pond, which was just off the trail.
From here, most of our scenery was large rocks until we got to the junction of Wassataquoik Stream Trail. The Wassataquoik Stream Trail provides a slightly longer approach to Russell Pond, but we figured we would prefer to do the long way now than when we returned in the light rain on Thursday.
After a series of wet bog bridges through an otherwise uneventful but beautiful series of woods, we emerged in the grassy terrain just before the Wassataquoik Stream lean-tos. We were planning to stop for fuel and hydration at the lean-to, but Ryan was curious about how far we were so I took out my GPS and saw it was just around the bend and kept moving.
We were nearing a bog bridge and all of a sudden, Ryan put out a hand for me to stop. It was a cow and her calf. Just 2 hours into this trip, I had gotten my wish, I had seen a moose in the wild. She crossed the trail into the woods with her baby and made direct eye contact with us as we waited patiently for her to carry on beyond the vicinity of our route. The striking acknowledgment of each other's presence was something I will remember for a long time.
In a matter of minutes after this interaction, we got to the lean-to and started chatting with the three men on a boy's trip. They showed us the Brook Trout that they had caught at Grand Falls, offered us drinks, and then rated our river crossings from the shore as we carried on to Russell. They were just the first of many lovely people we interacted with on our journey.
I switched into Chacos as we went over two major water crossings and the cool water easing over my hotspots was incredible. Beyond the water, the trail was largely uneventful but included a relocation due to beaver activity and a collection of old relics known as “New City.” Ryan and I later learned that New City was not just a logging camp in the 1920s, but a full-blown community with a post office and a school. Hard to believe looking at it now.
Within 45 minutes of meeting the guys at Wassataquoik Stream lean-to, we’d arrived at Russell and were soon greeted by Ranger Danielle and made ourselves very cozy in our bunkhouse where we cooked up the stir fry we packed in.
Once set up at base camp, it was time to sort out our big objective day but we were missing one big piece- a detailed forecast. To our surprise, the Garmin in-reach didn’t do too bad a job at summoning a forecast and we were shockingly in the clear to summit on Tuesday, which did not look like the case at all when we’d checked Monday morning before losing service.
We took an early bedtime and prepared for a 5:30 wake-up to be on the trail for 6:30 at the latest. At last, we were setting out to complete the hike we’d been talking about for most of the time we have known each other.
Day Two. The Big Day: Hamlin via Northwest Basin Trail and North Peaks Trail
After a dehydrated egg breakfast, we got ourselves packed and started moving at 6:23. With just 0.1 to the split, we began up Northwest Basin Trail shortly thereafter and cruised the first 2 miles at sub-20. They were wooded and absent from stream crossings, which always makes for quick moving. Soon, things got a bit more difficult as we had to step around the mossy rocks of various sizes that make up the base of Fort Mountain's talus slope. Even so, it wasn’t anything that slowed us down too much and it didn’t feel treacherous- our Mt. Nancy and Hancock Notch days back in the granite state had well prepared us for this type of terrain.
Shortly after the terrain varied, at 3.6 miles, we had to do a hell of a fast river crossing that required a transition into Chacos. Ryan got across by keeping one shoe on and one-off, but that was a pro-move if you ask me. We then moved through an area that was pending trail work because the middle of the trail was surrendering to the stream.
With just one wet shoe coming out of that area, we were able to look out to the right for excellent views of the cliffs on Fort and North Brother. I was sure to joke “Oh my gosh, is that El Cap?” every time I saw a cliff for the rest of the day.
Just after the outlook, we started to climb and boy was it wet. Interestingly, the trail took its way up a granite-slabbed cascade that had us walking through inches of water- don’t come down this way if you don’t have to, unless you're a professional waterfall slider.
We ascended steep terrain that was soaked by the streams that came from Lake Cowles and Davis Pond on our way up to the water bodies. Again, with care and the fact that we were ascending on our side, it was not so bad. Especially considering the value of the reward.
At the top of our climb, we found the gorgeous Lake Cowles and our first glimpses of the rich ridges and cliffs within the basin that we had put so much effort into getting ourselves in. As we walked toward Davis Pond, the views opened up more and we were stunned to look at the cliffs of Harvey Ridge. The Davis Pond lean-to also struck me, not only due to its beauty but also because I could not fathom having the core strength to carry my well-over-20% of my body weight pack up what I had just ascended to stay the night there. I will say, this site had the best privy I used all trip. Who would've thought "The New Thunder God's Throne" would be so mighty?
To ascend the ravine, we had to push and pull ourselves over boulders and it was a blast. At this point, we were still well below the tree line and though the scramble was technical, it was not frightening. Eventually, we transitioned to regular steep instead of scrambling which wasn’t so bad either. When we finally broke the tree line, we emerged at a blue-blazed class 2 scramble.
With my relatively new zero-drop shoes, I had a much more enjoyable time than I usually do going up such scrambles. Mr. Rock Climber (Ryan) took a good sixth of the time to do this compared to me. Hey, at least it gave me a personal cheerleader for getting over the tough stuff.
Once we finally got to the ridge, it was just false summit after false summit before we got to Caribou Spring for a quick fill-up and then Hamlin at long last. Hamlin was so much more than I ever imagined- a wide summit with ample rock furniture to sit down and admire the North Basin to the left and the Knife Edge to the right.
The walls of the North Basin were unlike any ravine I’d ever seen before and the Knife Edge was nothing short of straight out of Steve Job’s vision for the landscape Mac OS desktop backgrounds.
Ryan and I spent far longer on this summit than we had ever cared to do anywhere before- not only did we have time on our side, but there was far too much to take in for our usual quick look around. While looking out to the North Basin, I mentioned to Ryan that I had no idea how we would ever beat this trip, particularly because it accidentally landed on our first milestone anniversary. Throughout the day, we reflected on how many places we'd been since that first date on Mount Mansfield in February- deep wilderness, tourist peaks, and bushwhacks alike were all quite familiar to our badass hiking duo.
For our descent, we made our way to the North Peaks trail which we were accurately warned of. Our ranger specifically told us that every rock, even the big ones, will move underfoot. She was correct.
As is, talus slopes and unstable scrambles are my least favorite part of hiking. So it was only fitting that we walked straight into a band of rain while on the unstable rocks. Perceived danger aside though, these two miles from our summit kept us above the ridge and gave us incredible perspectives of Hamlin and Katahdin. Worth my fear factor.
Once we finally dipped below the tree line, we had about 5 miles to go until we were back at camp. Sometime just after we entered the trees, Ryan pulled out his AllTrails to poke fun at how inaccurately it was tracking us. I laughed and pulled out my Gaia to prove it was better than AllTrails, only to find it said the same thing. Uh oh.
We were clearly on a trail, there were cuts in the logs where trail work had occurred, plus there were blazes! We kept moving forwards, hoping we would reconnect, only to later find out we’d never strayed out at all; the trail has always been like that, and GPS apps have never marked it accurately. Odd, but comforting to hear we had not missed a critical turn.
The way down North Peaks below the tree line was rather uneventful and did not warrant any views. Ryan kept us going with full power by telling story after story which never ran out even after so many hours in the woods. It was wet from the rain and curved rather gently until we easily lowered into a ravine that gave us a flat runway back to camp through moose-poop-covered woods. For comparison's sake, this trail reminded me of Downes Brook Trail off of the Kancamagus- even down to the giant river crossing right at the end.
Once we got back to camp, we were happy to see we had done it in 12 hours, including a ridiculous amount of taking in the view breaks. After some mac and cheese and a moment to admire the water and watch a moose play around in Russell Pond, our early bedtime was right there for us.
Day 3. The Easy Day: Wassataquoik Lake Trail to Greens Falls & Wassataquoik Lake
Wednesday got off to an early start so that we could get in an activity before the rain got too crazy; shout-out to Garmin weather service for motivating us to do 9 miles and be back by 1:30.
We got out on Wassataquoik Lake Trail at about 8:30 and cruised down the flat trail that was lined with the best-tasting wild blueberries I’d ever had. The blueberry paradise lasted about 2 miles before we got to the first canoe access point and the underfoot got slightly more textured- still nothing challenging though.
We walked next to Wassataquoik Lake for quite a long time before we were granted an access point down there and it wasn’t until after we’d stopped at the magnificent Greens Falls that we ever got out there.
Another mile beyond Greens, we came out to the Wassataquoik Lake lean-to and asked the 2 gentlemen staying there if they had lake access- thankfully they didn’t hoard their incredible spot and let us out onto their lake access, it was breathtaking.
Back on our way to Russell, we decided to take a left down a path we’d ignored on the way out down to the lake and it was somehow even more stunning than our last view. With the striking cliffs of South Pogy mountain in front of us to provide a backdrop to the clear lake, we were inspired to take a swim. It was easily the best mountain dip I had ever had.
Seconds after we left the lake spur, the sky started to spit down on us- perfect timing. Our last stop on our morning adventure was Deep Pond, where we saw a blue heron and a loon! Interestingly, each pond or lake seemed to have one loon each.
Just seconds after we got inside the bunk house, the skies opened up and didn’t stop for another 24 hours. Though it was rare that it was pouring hard, the problem was that the rain never ceased to drizzle once in an entire day. It was starting to look like our hopes of leaving Russell a day early so that we could grab Katahdin on the way out weren’t going to happen. The early departure we had been hoping for wasn’t even going to be an on-time departure- ranger Greg did not have good news for us.
After scoping out the river crossing, Greg reported to us that the water crossing out was so high that he wouldn’t even have done it in his younger days. We were stranded on dry land.
Day 4. The Rapids: Grand Falls & Bell Pond via Grand Falls Trail
Thursday morning crawled by. Realizing we’d have to figure out a way to cook the pancake batter we brought in absence of oil to ration our food, we seared some of Ryan’s salami to grease the pan and got breakfast started. I hate to say, but our savory meat-pancakes weren’t so bad and it was a handy way to travel a little lighter!
Beyond breakfast and our daily ritual of going down to the water to look for moose, we were sort of cold and bored. We got to playing war, which was the worst card game we ever could’ve thought to play, and split a single granola bar as we didn’t have enough food leftover to pig out considering our extra day out here. Eventually, the rain ceased and we were able to get out for a walk.
Via recommendation from our ranger, who was at the moment saving a trail crew that got stuck in between river crossings overnight, we took to the Grand Falls trail. The Grand Falls were just under 3 miles east of the pond and took us behind Russell and around Bell Pond which was rich with rare birds, cypress trees, beavers, and all sorts of gorgeous wild berries and flowers. Despite catching every drop of water off of these plants along the way and having them scratch up my exposed legs, it was truly beautiful getting out to the Wassataquoik Stream once more.
By the time we reached the junction at Inscription Rock, the immense thundering of the water was extremely intimidating to me- as we ascended the cliff side that makes up the last 0.4 of Grand Falls Trail, my anxiety was at a bit of a high. Looking down into the white-capped waves of the stream was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. The current was moving with purpose and unforgiving speed. So much, so that we mistook the off-put of water for rain.
On our way back, we could still pick out the sound of the falls even as we stood within eyesight of Russell Pond. No wonder we weren’t going to be able to cross the Wassataquoik any time soon.
As we came back to camp, we spoke with the ranger about how we were going to be getting out of here- to which he asked, “Any time constraints?” We sure wish we could’ve said no. Instead, the answer was “Unfortunately we’re both going back to college this weekend and we need to get home.”
With this in mind, coupled with the fact that one of the two other parties, we’d be leaving through the North with already missed flights home, here was the plan. Rather than hiking out back to our cars via Russell Pond Trail or Wassataquoik Stream Trail, we would be heading out through the northern side of the park on Pogy Notch Trail. Pogy Notch is completely flat and mostly dry- except for at the water crossing of Howe Brook, which may be uncrossable. In which case, a boat would meet us at the corner of Lower South Branch Pond at 4 pm and take us back to shore for our shuttle at 5 pm. I guess that’s one way to get a car spot.
Here was the problem though. After we got on the shuttle, it was either 100 miles on the highway or 48 miles on 20-mile-per-hour park roads. Both means of travel would take approximately 2 hours. This would put us back in the car at about 7:15. With a strong need for dinner and then a 5 ½ hour drive ahead of us and no time to waste staying at a motel and leaving Saturday, we foolishly asked what the odds of another hiker bringing us down earlier was- none.
The last thing Greg told us before we parted ways was that a shuttle bus with a 7-person capacity would be coming at 5 along with a ranger who could fit 2. Afterward, Ryan and I thought to ourselves, why would they bother with a ranger? There were only 7 of us to begin with- the couple from lean to 5, the trio from lean to 1, and Ryan and I from the bunkhouse. To this moment, we don’t know why a second car was involved but decided to interpret it in a very optimistic light. Maybe, IF, we were the first ones there, we would get that ranger ride. And maybe, IF, the ranger was there early, we would get out early. Whether or not this was the intended series of events will forever be uncertain- but we knew one thing, we were going to cook those 9.6 miles.
On our way back to our site, we talked to the trio who told us they planned on waking up at 8 am as they were in no rush. We told them we planned the same and went about making dinner.
Day 5. The Escape: Pogy Notch Trail to Journey's End
Morning crept up quickly and our 6:30 alarm got us moving and deflating pads & cooking oatmeal at great speed. We said a sad goodbye to our home for the week and checked the sign out to see that the lean-to 5 couple left at 6:40 am. Immediately afterward, we got stuck behind the lean-to-1 trio on the bog bridge, who stopped to take pictures of the cow a couple of feet away from us.
After getting one picture of our own, we crept around them and hit the Pogy Notch Trail at 8 am sharp. Seemed like both of us had lied about when we were leaving.
The first 3 miles of Pogy Notch were a breeze, we quickly hit the height of land and cruised over our first water crossing, which was earlier described as “potentially problematic,” this gave us massive amounts of hope for being able to avoid the boat later on in our journey.
After our one hour first three miles, we were approaching the lovely Pogy Pond and had stopped for our first snack- this dwindled us down to 3 more 120-calorie snack items between the two of us.
At 4.39 miles, we caught up to the lean-to-5 couple and chatted briefly before going forwards and promising to tell the rangers they’d be there well before 5 pm. Shortly after, we got to a just horrendous section of trail that was under over a foot of water where a beaver pond had spilled over, thank goodness for Chacos.
Beyond the underwater ¼ mile, we were able to move pretty quickly up until mile 7.5 where we ascended the side of a cliff that overlooks Upper South Brand Pond, it was my only area of difficulty all day and would’ve been way easier without a full pack. Before we knew it, at mile 8.5 exactly, we were at the Howe Brook crossing. With a quick change into my water shoes, I got across the water in under 30 seconds.
Though thankful to have been able to complete it so easily, I’m appreciative that a boat had been arranged just in case because I can see how this down-sloped brook could have become uncrossable in some weather events.
With just a mile left, I didn’t even bother to put my Altras back on and stayed in my hiking sandals over bog bridges and flat ground until the finish line. At 12:46, we got to the South Branch Campground and at last, we could take a well-deserved rest and check in with Ranger Gabe.
Gabe was surprised to see us so early and we chatted him up for some time before he sent us on our way and made a loose statement about us getting picked up earlier because we showed up 5 hours too soon- bingo.
To pass the time, Ryan and I finished our very last protein bar and then sprawled out on the dock, where we remained another 2 and a half hours until we decided to go check in with the ranger. I will say though, not a bad spot to be stuck.
When we went back up to the station, the campground ranger was engaged in discussion with the Supervisor Ranger, in our distaste to interrupt them, we busied ourselves reading signs until the next 5 people from Russell came out of the woods. Once they got there, we lost hope of getting out early. It just wouldn’t be fair if we were all there. So, we asked the lean to 5 couple if they had any oil so we could make our other bag of pancakes and pass the time- they didn’t have oil, but they did have a half stick of butter.
Ryan and I quickly took out the WhisperLite stove and got to mixing batter and coating the pan in butter. As I was a second from dropping the first pancake on the pan, the Supervisor Ranger came over to us and asked if we wanted to be the first to leave since we’d already been there for three hours. As tempting as it was to stay and make those pancakes, we knew we wouldn’t be able to do the drive that night if we waited any longer. And just like that, as quick as we’d set up, we deconstructed the stove, returned the butter, and hopped into his truck two hours earlier than expected in pursuit of Roaring Brook Campground.
Though the drive was long, hot, and bumpy, it could not have been in better company. The Ranger Supervisor was full of information and we returned the favor by telling him all about the Whites- namely how we aren’t used to such well-maintained trails or difficult access. All in all, I was really happy it happened this way because we had such an overwhelmingly pleasant experience talking to him. When we got back to Roaring Brook, we asked the ranger for his name, did late introductions, and then he was on his way.
He had told us his name was Russ. But, as soon as he left, Ryan pointed out his name tag as it had said something different. Russ was short for Russell. The irony made it feel like even more of a movie than it already did.
On our way out, we stopped to do two tourist things. We took a picture at the Keep Maine Beautiful Rock and stopped at the gift shop so I could buy myself a moose stuffed animal now that I had gotten over my fear of moose due to some exposure therapy.
I had been conflicted on what to name him from the second we saw a moose on day one of our trip. I ended up settling on Russell the Moose, for more reasons than one.
Thank you to the Baxter Park trail crew, the rangers, and everyone involved that made learning a difficult lesson on water crossings as pain-free as possible. Baxter Park has truly earned a place in my heart as the most beautiful place I have ever seen with my own eyes and I could not be more excited to go back for more.