Fall’s Peak: Solo Backpacking in Baxter State Park

We always love Wendy Weiger’s photojournals! Here are some beautiful photographs and reflections from her latest expedition into Baxter State Park: 

In early September, I discovered Wassataquoik Lake, a wild and intensely beautiful stretch of water that lies between Wassataquoik and South Pogy Mountains, north of the Katahdin massif, in the heart of Baxter State Park. It’s roughly a nine-mile hike from the nearest parking lot, at Roaring Brook. Because there are only two lean-tos, one at each end of the lake, campers are guaranteed solitude. I decided to return for the final days of Baxter’s fall season. This past summer was a challenging one, with multiple deaths in my church community, including an especially dear friend who had become “surrogate family” after my mother’s passing last year. I’m also in a transitional period in my life’s work, as I move toward completion of my revised book manuscript and consider future directions. I felt I needed a few days of quiet contemplation. From long experience, I know that when I go alone into the woods with my heart full of questions and I listen carefully for answers, I am never disappointed. And so I hoisted my pack and set off for Wassataquoik Lake…


An iconic view of Mount Katahdin rising above the West Branch of the Penobscot River, taken from Abol Bridge on the Golden Road (a gravel logging road). Thoreau camped in this vicinity before his 1846 ascent of the mountain. 


Swamp maples growing at the edge of a wetland along the Golden Road, near the southern gate to Baxter State Park.


After leaving my car at Roaring Brook, I headed north via the Wassataquoik Stream Trail. I took this photo at the point where hikers ford the stream. I was delighted that peak foliage ran a week later than usual this year; when I made my camping reservations, I expected that I would miss the fall’s brightest colors. What a blessing, in this case, to be proven wrong!


I spent my first night in a lean-to at Russell Pond. I slept well after my hike in, though the yipping and yowling of a pack of coyotes pierced my slumber sometime in the middle of the night. I set my alarm to wake up early…one of my favorite things about Russell is the sunrise view. (7:05 AM October 13)


The view evolved as the sun rose higher, clouds flowed across the sky, and mist swirled over the pond surface. (7:31 AM October 13)


After a pleasant morning at Russell Pond, paddling around the pond and visiting with the resident ranger and his wife, I set off along the Wassataquoik Lake Trail. I stopped for a late lunch at Deep Pond. A gentle rain began to fall, and in the gray light, a lone maple stood out like a flame against a background of dark green conifers. On the far shore of the pond, a cow moose appeared (too distant to photograph), then she wandered back into the cover of the forest. An odd sound came repeatedly from her direction, something I had never heard before…it’s hard to describe, but it was a relatively high-pitched (at least for a moose) nasal-sounding utterance lasting a couple of seconds. Was it related to the ongoing rut, part of the “language of love” between bulls and cows?



The rain enhanced the colors of fallen leaves along the trail.


It was dusk when I arrived at my lean-to at the western end of Wassataquoik Lake. As I paused along the shore, a beaver swam by, expressing his annoyance at my intrusion with a loud slap of his tail on the water. The weather remained showery, so I made a cozy nest for myself in the lean-to, then settled down to enjoy a dinner of (canned) chicken, (stovetop) stuffing, and (instant) lemon pudding…not bad for backpacking fare! In the cool weather of fall, I’m willing to haul a bit more weight so that I can be comfortable at night…a warmer sleeping bag, more substantial food, a little saw for firewood. I didn’t weigh my pack…the truth is I thought it might be better if I didn’t know the number…but I’m guessing it was about 45 pounds when I started (the return trip was a bit lighter because I’d eaten most of the food).


I went down to “my” shore early the next morning to watch the progression of dawn colors. (6:50 AM October 14)


The lean-to made a wonderful home-in-the-woods for three nights. There was a nice fire ring with convenient benches; a canoe was parked on the shore just below (the little closet on the side of the lean-to holds life vests); the lake provided an excellent water source, though it had to be purified (beavers carry parasites that can infect humans); there was plenty of downed dry wood for fires in the surrounding forest. And there was indeed solitude. On my last night in the lean-to, I was the only human on Wassataquoik Lake (on the previous two nights, there was just one other solo camper at the other end of the lake, about 2 miles away). At Russell Pond, about 4 miles distant, there were three people (judging from hiking registers on my way out). And that was it.

12022610_1042734572425468_5250354368663409002_o The view of trees and lake from inside my lean-to.


The view got even better when I stepped outside. (The mountain across Wassataquoik Lake is South Pogy.)


The short path from the lean-to down to the lake shore showed plenty of color.


The view to the northwest from “my” shore. A trail climbs the nubble of rock in the center of the photo; I followed it up to a spectacular view (to be shown later—so stay tuned!).


The trail to the viewpoint led through yellow woods. 


Just a mile from my lean-to, I reached this rocky ledge. Wassataquoik Lake stretches out below, with South Pogy Mountain to the left and Wassataquoik Mountain to the right.


Green Falls was an easy hike of less than a mile down the lake from my lean-to.


For much of my stay, it was too windy for me to solo paddle the tandem canoe (I might have managed it with a double-bladed paddle, if one had been available). But when the wind slowed down, I shuttled across Wassataquoik Lake to gather firewood; there was a point across from my lean-to where the canopy formed by living trees sheltered a treasure trove of downed dry wood. I was rewarded with this view in the short term, and in the longer term, I enjoyed a warm bright campfire in the crisp darkness of a mid-October evening. 


After three nights at Wassataquoik Lake, it was time to hike the eleven-plus miles back to my car at Roaring Brook. I paused at the southeastern tip of the lake for a final view (Wassataquoik Mountain is on the left, South Pogy Mountain on the right).


When I got back to Russell Pond, I found the tamaracks were turning golden. Tamaracks—deciduous conifers—provide a final phase of autumn color after the maples and birches have lost most of their leaves. 


During my time in the park, strong gusty winds stripped leaves off the trees, covering trails with a colorful carpet for my return journey.


Nature’s extravagance amazes me…producing such beauty to be trampled underfoot.


As I had done on my hike in four days earlier, I forded Wassataquoik Stream on my way back out. The cold water reached above my knees; it was a chilly business on a showery day with the air temperature probably in the upper forties. The gray light evoked a mood that felt a bit melancholy, but at the same time very peaceful…a sense that nature was gently moving into the dormancy of winter…and as it turned out, the first snow of the season fell that night.


As I neared Roaring Brook, my car, and my return to conventional reality, dusk fell. I stopped at the Whidden Ponds for a view of the Katahdin massif. There was a faint sliver—just a whisper—of a waxing crescent moon above Pamola (so faint that it’s only visible if this photo is enlarged). When I got back to the Roaring Brook ranger station, the building was dark; the fall camping season was over. I was likely the last human to visit Wassataquoik Lake for several months. Perhaps some hardy winter traveler will snowshoe in from Russell Pond in January or February. But for now, the lake belongs solely to the moose and coyote, the chickadee and raven, the beaver in his shoreline lodge, the brook trout and Arctic char that swim in its cold depths. I know I will think of Wassataquoik Lake often, wishing I could be there to witness the daily progress of the seasons.


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