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CC’s Outdoor Journal; Mount Bigelow blueberries
KINGFIELD- The weather can change drastically at a moments notice here in Maine, but that statement is never more accurate than when you’re in the mountains at higher elevations. Recently, I had the opportunity to adventure overnight on Mount Bigelow with three friends of mine; it was a true adventure with Sheila Morrison, Jackie Dupuis and Mary Jane Dillingham. I couldn’t think of three better women to be with on this particular adventure.
That Saturday morning at the Stratton Brook trailhead we were in tank tops and hiking shorts for our five-mile trek up the Fire Warden’s Trail to Horns Pond Campsite. It was a gorgeous day for a hike.
However, that afternoon as we made it to the campsite the wind began to pick up, the rain began to fall and the temperature was plummeting, quickly, causing us to don our heavier clothes and hunker down inside the tent.
In the weeks leading up to the hike the weather had been a mixed bag of frosty mornings, clear and beautiful days and night time temperatures dipping close to freezing. We did our best to pack for any kind of weather, because we knew it was late in the season and didn’t want to get caught unprepared.
With our weighted packs and excitement of what the day would hold, the four of us set off up the dirt road to connect to the trail that went up out of the other side of a small stream that needed to be forged.
Wanting to know a little about the trail we were planning to hike, I had done some research ahead of time and found out that Mount Bigelow, also known as the Bigelow Range and Bigelow Mountain, is a ridge with several summits. It’s also one of the highest summits in Maine.
I had heard from many thru-hikers that they were anticipating the Bigelows because they had heard so much about the range, but never actually looked into what the draw was.
During my research I found out that the mountain is named after Major Timothy Bigelow who climbed the summit in October of 1775 “for the purpose of observation.” The major was one of Colonel Benedict Arnold’s four division commanders during the 1775 Invasion of Canada.
How neat that we were going to follow along the same path as this historic army. Anyway, their expedition passed along the Dead River on the northern edge of the Bigelow Range, which is now dammed and creates Flagstaff Lake.
As we climbed that day through the forest we would get a glimpse of Sugarloaf and every once in awhile we would catch a view of the other Bigelow peaks; the highest being West Peak at 4,145 feet, Avery Peak at 4,088 feet, the Horns at 3,805 feet, Cranberry Peak at 3,194 feet, and Little Bigelow Mountain at 3,070.
It was a sight unlike any other I had experienced up to that point in my hiking adventures. I am in awe every time I trek up through Grafton, my favorite place to hike, but this was an absolutely stunning view. We could see, what seemed like, forever.
In my handy hiking book, I found that we were actually looking out over the Rangeley-Stratton mountain range, which includes Sugarloaf Mountain, Crocker Mountain, Saddleback Mountain, Mount Abraham, Mount Redington, as well as many others.
It was neat to know that we were on the Appalachian Trail, where thousands of people hike each year coming to and from Katahdin. The area surrounding the range is part of the 10,540-acre Bigelow Preserve, created in 1976.
The trails we were following were amazing and well-maintained. The Appalachian Mountain Club and others who maintain them do a wonderful job keeping the trails from eroding, but keeping a natural presence to them.
With steps of slate and granite to get you through the steeper terrain, a couple rock bridges constructed over mountain streams and even leaving a half uprooted tree in the trail to help prevent washouts, the path was pleasantly maneuverable even with our heavy packs.
Upon reaching the campsite we were amazed at how well laid out it was. There was a caretaker’s shelter near the mountain spring water source, several rock-lined tent sites with covered pails for food storage, two privies located on the side of the clearing overlooking Sugarloaf, two lean-to shelters on the east side of the mountain and a couple of dry sinks for waste water.
After hunkering down out of the freezing wind and rain and rejuvenating ourselves, we went out on an expedition to meet the caretaker, CJ, refill our depleted water bottles and to warm up by exploring the nearby pond and other views.
As we made our way up to the top of a lookout point, we marveled at the size of a chunk of granite in the shape of New Hampshire. It towered over us at about 15-20 feet. It was massive in size.
Another sight that caught our eye was a pile of feathers in the middle of the trail. We thought we had heard something on our way up, but dismissed it as a bird. Well, apparently, there had been a much larger bird, for the feathers looked to be the remains of a Canada Jay. We continued on to the lookout.
At the top was an amazing view of the pond, which we had just come from, a fabulous view of Sugarloaf, and of course, a majestic view of the vast region of mountains. We were all in awe of the creation before us.
With the wind picking back up and the clouds closing in, we decided to head back to camp and get dinner started. On our way down, Mary Jane and I were ahead of Jackie and Sheila and I noticed a “blueberry” in the pile of feathers.
Mary Jane busted out laughing, “Cherri, oh my goodness! That’s not a blueberry, it’s an eyeball!”
Her trained biologist eye knew at first sight what it was. Apparently we had not noticed it on the way up, but now it made for a good story.
As Jackie and Sheila caught up with us, I pointed out the “blueberry”. At first they believed me and were curious why there was only one, but then Mary Jane and I began laughing and revealed the secret. Needless to say, none of us will ever look at blueberries the same again.
That evening we filled our bellies with nice hot prepared meals over a sterno burner and then climbed in the tent, as the wind was whipping and the rain began to fall again. Fortunately we were well-prepared with hats, gloves, warm clothes and sleeping bags, as the temperatures dipped below freezing that night. We woke up to a frost on the ground and CJ’s radio declaring that the morning temperature was 28 degrees.
We made quick order of getting ourselves packed for the adventure of the day, as we needed to move to get warmed up. The four of us had a good laugh when we saw that Mary Jane was filling up on a hot granola and “eyeball” cereal.
Our mission that day was to set out for North Horn and to figure out from there what we wanted to do, as the wind was blowing a gale and we had to be back to the trailhead by 4.
We stopped by CJ’s hut to take a few photos and to leave our heavier packs, as we would be traveling back through there to follow the trail down the mountain. CJ told us we definitely needed to see the view from the North Horn and if we had time, we just had to go to South Horn, which was another 1.3 miles away.
Off we went to the North Horn over the steepest terrain yet. The slate steps made it easier, but it was still straight up for most of the distance. As we warmed up, the layers began to come off and by the time we made it to the clearing of North Horn, we quickly put them all back on.
The wind at the top was blowing so hard we could hardly stand up against it, but the sun shone so brightly, that when we found shelter by the ledge, we were nice and toasty.
Oh my gosh, the views! The mountains just seemed to mirror one another and go on and on. One towering mountain after another. We knew we wouldn’t make it to any other peaks that day so we took our time and basked in the beauty right there on North Horn.
Several photo shoots later and some energizing snacks, we began our descent back to the campsite to gather our things.
We enjoyed talking with CJ and leaving him with some food we knew we wouldn’t need on the way down, filled up our water bottles and off we went.
Now, when I told you our packs were weighted, I meant what I said. We all agreed that if I carried the tent that would fit us all, the rest would distribute my belongings. As it turns out, with even the minimum packing that we did, Sheila and I were still carrying 40 or so pounds, while Jackie and Mary Jane had a good 30 to 35 pounds on their backs.
We all agreed that we would definitely find a lighter tent for our next trip and figure out what caused the packs to be so heavy and leave those items behind.
The four of us then made our way down the mountain, crossing the man-made bridges, using the perfectly-placed steps and forging the beautiful stream that all lead us back to the trailhead.
It was another great adventure that made us anxious to begin planning the next.
With the winter months coming up I know a lot of you dread the cold days, but when you are able to find a winter sport you enjoy, it makes all the difference. I pray, as my friend Mary Jane stated, you find your common bond with winter, and warm yourselves by the activity your body was designed to do.