Baxter State Park (ME)

Baxter is wild. Rugged. Uncompromising. It is a state park in name, but it’s nothing like any other state park I have set foot in. It has no electricity. No running water. Not a single road is paved, and many are rough and brutal to your car. You have to sign a log at the beginning of every trail, and sign back out when you finish your hike, because the rangers need to keep track of you. Same with your car, every car that enters is given a pass, and every car that leaves has to return the pass. Mount Katahdin, which is the centerpiece of the park, doesn’t sound so imposing on paper. In fact the peak isn’t as high as some of the mountains in Georgia. But make no mistake, hiking this mountain requires skill, adventure, and a fair amount of conditioning as well. One of the trails to the summit has claimed 23 lives due to falls, probably because it is only 3 feet wide for almost half a mile with a steep drop on BOTH sides.

But, of course, we didn’t hike this trail. We hiked several areas, but we kept it pretty easy, although as we soon found out, an easy hike in Baxter is not the same as an easy hike in Georgia. For us, our greatest nemesis was a tiny little insect, simply named the “black fly.”

We headed out of Bar Harbor pretty early, knowing that this would be the last segment of the trip before we made the turn back towards Georgia. I had heard about Baxter State Park before, but just in passing. I knew about Mount Katahdin simply because of my interest in the Appalachian Trail (it is the northern terminus of the trail, some 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia). Plus, there is a very high concentration of moose in the area, and we really wanted to see a moose while in Maine. So we headed north, through Bangor and then up I-95 towards the Canadian border. Things quickly turned into a vast wilderness, with interstate exits sometimes 10 or more miles apart. There was nothing but trees and an occasional mountain, with very few homes and even fewer businesses. There were moose crossing signs everywhere, and the thought of living up here in the winter, when many feet of snow could fall and further isolate you from civilization, was kind of hard to fathom. We exited to Medway and headed towards Millinocket, which is unofficially the southern gateway into Baxter. After passing through town, we headed another 10 miles into the wilderness to stay at Moose Inn and Campground, which is the last campground with electricity (however no cell service) before entering Baxter. No RVs, campers, travel trailers, or even motorcycles are allowed in Baxter.

Our campground was kind of a risk. I use the fantastic Allstays app for almost all of the places we camp, because of the reviews. This campground had no reviews, but when I called they said we could fit and it was conveniently located so close to the park, I figured it was worth the risk. When we arrived, things were pretty tight. We had to unhook the CR-V so I could turn Marty around just to get down the driveway to the campground. I checked in, and then saw the spot we would be camping in. It was pretty small, with trees blocking the approach. It took a while to get into the site, then I had to level Marty so that we wouldn’t feel like we were sleeping on a hillside. Finally, I went to plug in only to find that the electrical outlet for our site was nothing more than a 20 amp household outlet. It looked like something you would see on the wall in your bedroom where you charge your phone at night. Certainly not something that could supply the power for our air conditioners, our fridge, our hot water heater, and all of the other things on board. The campground maintenance person had no idea about the difference between 20A and 30A (the bare essential needed for RV camping) which was certainly red flag number one. The spot occupied by the RV next to us did have a 30A outlet, but of course they were plugged into it. The campground guy told me it would be fine, but I had a sneaking suspicion it wouldn’t be. But we were already there and there are no other campgrounds nearby, so I plugged in to that small outlet and we turned on the A/C. It made a lot of strange sounds but did come on, so at least we could keep cool (some unseasonably hot weather had descended upon Maine, putting temps around 90 and making A/C more of a necessity than normal). And yes, I do realize that we are camping with far more amenities than your average person in a tent, but when you are paying for these things then you expect to have them when you arrive.

We decided to go on in to Baxter since it was only 2:00 in the afternoon, so we hopped in the car and headed 8 miles into the park. What we found was amazingly primitive, which made it really special but also a bit unnerving because it isn’t what we are used to when we go hiking. We signed in to the park, paid our entrance fee, and set off down the road to an “easy” hike that would take us 1.2 miles up to waterfall. There is absolutely zero cell service in the park, and we made two mistakes here on our first day: 1) we didn’t bring enough water because we had no idea there was no running water anywhere in the park and 2) we didn’t bring bug spray with us. We parked and hopped on the Katahdin Stream segment of the Appalachian Trail. It ascends the entire way to the waterfall, and although it wasn’t terribly steep, there were times when it was nothing but big rocks, which aren’t the best when hiking with a 3-year-old. There are also many places where we had to hold or carry the boys to ensure they didn’t fall down a steep slope or into rushing water. Again, compared to the trails we typically hike in Georgia, these were more extreme. This 1.2 mile hike took us over an hour! The waterfall was really pretty, and the stream was absolutely crystal clear. As clear as a stream could possibly be, and I have little doubt that I could have just drank the water right out of it without getting sick (but I decided not to risk it). For most of the hike we didn’t see another soul, but when we got to the stream we saw several hikers that were looking pretty rough. They were soaked in sweat, extremely dirty, and guzzling water out of the stream using purifying systems on their water bottles (note to self: this would be nice to have). Later on I found out that this trail leads up to Mount Katahdin, which is a solid 7-10 hour hike depending on your ability. So these hikers were coming back down and you could tell they were pretty spent.

We hiked back down to the parking lot (much easier and faster) and piled in the car to head back to Marty. Except, at this point it was 6:30 which is prime viewing time for moose. And there is another area of the park where moose like to congregate. So we figured we should check it out to increase our chances of spotting one during our time here (we met a hiker the following day who lives in Maine and says she sees about one per year, so you certainly aren’t guaranteed to spot one when you come up here). We got back to the check-in station, got our moose pass (for this particular area of the park they only give our 5 passes at a time to limit traffic), and headed to the next trail. We thought it was just down the road, but in fact it was about 8 miles down a rutted, washboarded road that you could only do 20 mph on. Finally we arrived at Sandy Stream, and we started our next hike out to the pond. It was about 1/2 mile and pretty easy, and we got to an overlook at the pond. Walking out, the sun was starting to set and out in the middle of the pond we saw a huge, magnificent moose that was splashing around and cooling itself in the summer heat. It was incredible, and a moment I will remember forever. I took a ton of photos, and also a lot of video. At the time I was being absolutely swarmed by flies, but I tried to ignore them and photograph one of the largest and most impressive animals in the United States.

Later on, I found out that I was being swarmed by black flies. Now I have heard of black flies before, but I always thought they were just the typical black-colored flies that are a nuisance when they buzz around your face and land on your head. Oh no. These things are far, far worse than any mosquito you have ever seen. They land on your skin (typically under your clothes, in your hair, or behind your ears) and then bite you. But here is the really terrible part: you don’t know it. They literally numb your skin with the bite so you don’t feel it, then inject a powerful anticoagulant into the wound so it won’t clot, and gnaw the top layer of your skin off with their teeth. You will start to bleed, and they drink it. It sounds like something out of a horror movie, but it is exactly what happened. Earlier Val had remarked that I had blood running from behind my ear and I thought I must have scratched myself. By the time we got back to the car from photographing the moose, I was covered in bites and so was Hayes. For some reason they didn’t like Val too much, and Brooks escaped with only a few bites. That’s ok though, the bites will heal but seeing the moose was well worth it.

We finally got back to Marty at 8:30, exhausted, dehydrated, and with a bit less blood in our bodies. It was way too late to cook dinner, but fortunately the place we were staying had a pretty good restaurant/bar and the kitchen was still open. I ordered three large cheeseburgers to go and brought them back to Marty. The cheeseburger and beer were very, very good and went down quickly! We went to bed late and slept quite well.

The next morning we slept in and lounged around for a bit in the morning. I watched the sea plane across the street take off and land several times, and the RV next to us headed out so we had the campground mostly to ourselves. I plugged Marty in to the 30A outlet that was now available after the departure of our neighbor, and thought things were good to go, but they weren’t. Our main (large) A/C would run for about 5 minutes and then slowly shut off, making a rather unpleasant sound in the process. Thirty amps should be more than enough to power it, so I started to worry that we had damaged it by running it on the 20A outlet the day before. Just to be sure there wasn’t some weirdness, I swapped it back to the 20A outlet and it wouldn’t even turn on anymore. Fortunately the inn had Wifi, so I Googled the problem and saw that it could be due to low voltage. I unplugged everything, started up our generator (which is big and can power pretty much everything on the RV at the same time) and turned on the big A/C again. It started up right away and ran perfectly without cutting off at all. So the problem was with the wiring at the campground, it couldn’t handle the load for whatever reason, even though it was adequate the previous day. To address the problem we ran the bedroom A/C which uses a lot less amperage and then ran a fan to circulate the air throughout Marty and keep things relatively cool.

Although the previous day in Baxter was quite the adventure, we decided we wanted to do some more hiking. This time we were prepared. We made a bunch of sandwiches, loaded up with water, and brought all of our bug spray. Once again we hiked a segment of the Appalachian Trail, this time to Little Niagara and Big Niagara Falls. The trail wasn’t quite as tough, although it still took us the better part of an hour to go a little over a mile. We bathed in bug spray to keep the flies and mosquitos away and it worked, for the most part. The falls were beautiful and we took our time, stopping for the boys to throw rocks as well as eat our lunch. When we got back to the car it was pretty hot outside, so we decided we were done with our hiking and headed back to Marty, which took almost an hour even though we were only 16 miles away. Yes, this is far from your typical state park.

Settling back in, Val and I decided that with the power issues (running air conditioning with inadequate voltage can cause damage, and we didn’t want to cough up $700 for a new A/C) as well as the blood thirsty flies, we would get back on the road a day early. Baxter was incredible and unflinching, and I totally understand the allure for the many hikers that pass through there every year. But we hiked some trails, saw a moose, escaped without serious injury, and decided it was time to head on down the road. Our next stop: back to Portland and the coast of Maine.

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