Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Schoodic and Black Mountains in Downeast Maine

Travel in the mountains can be tricky this time of year.  Snow now covers the ground on most of Maine's mountain trails.  However, the coverage isn't very deep.  This makes for treacherous travel.  The snow isn't deep enough most places to cover roots and rocks completely, making trails extremely slippery.  With recent rain and freezes, large patches of exposed ice are also encountered.  With these challenging fringe season conditions, I decided to head to the coastal mountains.  The coastal mountains haven't seen much snow and I expected better hiking conditions than the interior mountain trails.

The J Man suggested hiking Schoodic and Black Mountains a few months ago.  These mountains are located in Downeast Maine in Donnell Pond Public Reserved Land north of Frenchman Bay.  For reference, Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park are on the south side of Frenchman Bay.  From the mountains in Acadia National Park, these two summits are the prominent peaks seen to the north when looking across the bay. With clear skies forecasted Sunday, the J Man and I headed to these mountains for a hike.

Our seven mile trip started at the Schoodic Beach trailhead.  This trailhead sits between the two mountains so either mountain can be climbed first.  We started with the climb to Black Mountain.  The trail climbed immediately along the Black Mountain Cliff Trail.  In less than two miles we reached  the West Peak of Black Mountain.  The summit is wooded and viewless.  After a brief descent into a saddle,we reached the East Peak of Black Mountain after another half mile of hiking.

Gentle trail on Black Mountain's West Peak

The views from the summit surprised me.  Black Mountain, at just under 1100 feet,  is free of trees and offers 360 degrees views.  Numerous ponds and neighboring peaks provide nice scenery.  The most impressive views however are looking to the south and east.  The summits of Acadia National Park stand behind Frenchman Bay's numerous islands.  The Atlantic Ocean disappears into the horizon to the east of Acadia.  You can even see a lighthouse off the coast from the summit.

Atlantic Ocean in distance beyond Tunk Lake

Caribou, Catherine, and Tunk Mountains from Black

Catherine Mountain and Tunk Lake

Looking across Black Mountains summit with Atlantic in distance

Mountains of Acadia National Park

Closer look at Acadia's mountains

Leaving Black Mountain, we lost all of our elevation as we descended to Donnell Pond.  The trail in this section passed through a coniferous forest carpeted in bright green moss.  Upon reaching Donnell Pond, the trail crossed the sandy Schoodic Beach before climbing Schoodic Mountain.

Looking toward Black's West Peak with Schoodic Mountain peeking out behind it

Forest carpeted in moss

After a steep mile of hiking from the beach, we reached the summit of Schoodic Mountain.  Even before reaching the summit, the Atlantic and Acadia's mountains come into view.  Sitting just a few feet lower than Black Mountain, Schoodic Mountain has a rocky summit with 360 views similar to Black Mountain.  The only downfall to Schoodic is that a large communication tower sits on its summit.  Despite the tower, vast views make it easy to linger at the summit.  To the northwest, we could just barely make out Katahdin's snowy summit.  Acadia's mountains and the ocean again provided the most dramatic scenery.  To the southwest, the coastal mountains in Camden, Maine could easily be identified.  After circling the summit to enjoy the scenery in all directions, we returned to trailhead.

Acadia's mountains coming into view

Looking across Schoodic's shoulder toward Acadia

Summit of Schoodic looking toward Acadia

Islands in Frenchman Bay

Black, Caribou, and Tunk Mountains from Schoodic

A few of the many ponds visible from the summits

View north from Schoodic Mountain

I wasn't sure what to expect on this trip.  I wasn't familiar with the area.  The hiking was pleasant and summit views were far reaching.  The scenery, while not quite as dramatic as Acadia National Park, was still quite impressive.  After dozens of trips to Acadia, it was interesting to look at the park from this prospective.  Even though the outing covered seven miles and gained more than 2000 feet, the hike didn't seem too difficult. Black and Schoodic Mountains would be a good alternative to Acadia National Park on a busy summer weekend.

Despite a chilly windchill in the single digits on the summits, we didn't encounter snowy trails.  Only a few heavily shaded sections had a light dusting.  A couple sections of the trail had some thick but avoidable ice. Otherwise the trails were in good condition and the hike was a worthwhile trip.

Icy flow on Schoodic's summit

Click on the link for a map of the trails in the area:  http://www.maine.gov/dacf/parks/docs/maps/donnellpond.pdf

Sunday, December 1, 2013

An Icy Climb of Little Spencer Mountain

Beautiful scenery is not hard to find in the Moosehead Lake region of Maine.  The lake, nearly forty miles in length, is framed by numerous sets of mountains.  While the elevation of the mountains aren't that high, several peaks rise dramatically over 2000 feet above the lake. The mountains of Moosehead  stand as landmarks in the region and can be seen from many vantage points around the area. Many of the mountains offer beautiful hiking opportunies.  From their summits, far flung views capture the beauty of the region.  Little Spencer Mountain is one of these peaks.

Little Spencer Mountain and its big brother Big Spencer Mountain stand side by side on the eastern side of the lake.  Both are over 3000 feet in elevation with Little Spencer standing less than 100 feet lower than Big Spencer. They rise more than 2000 feet from flat terrain with no nearby mountains.  As a result they are visible from most of the Moosehead Lake area.  They are easy to identify from as far away as Katahdin.

Little Spencer on left, Big Spencer on right from Lazy Tom Bog

Little Spencer Mountain is one of the most challenging hikes in the Moosehead Lake area.  The first challenge is getting to the trailhead.  From Greenville, you travel nearly twenty miles to the bustling town of Kokadjo, population: not many, according to the sign as you enter the village.  Then it is another ten or so miles on logging roads to the trailhead.  The logging roads aren't labeled so they can be tricky to follow if you are not familiar with the area.  Because of its remoteness, I don't think Little Spencer sees many people, even in summer.

Little Spencer Mountain rising 2000 feet above the valley

Little Spencer is one of  my favorite hikes in the area.  I went there Saturday because I wanted to get there before snow closed the roads for the season.  The area was still mostly snowless Saturday.  The trail to the summit only travels two miles.  It gains 2000 feet of elevation in that distance and traverses sections of tough terrain. With only one trail to the summit, the hike is only four miles roundtrip, but a very challenging four miles.  Not only does the summit have great views, but there are also far flung views along much of the trail.

From the beginning, there was a dusting of snow on the trail.  This made the already challenging hike even tougher.  Not far from the start, the trail traverses sections of boulders.  Under summer conditions these aren't too difficult, but a coating of snow made the rocks slippery.

Icy cliff

Crossing snowy boulders with cliffs in background

After a couple of boulder strewn sections, the trail reaches its most challenging spot.  The trail climbs through a narrow chimney between two sections of cliffs.  To assist hikers, a fixed rope is in place.  Even with the rope, negotiating the passage can be challenging.  To complicate matters, nearly three inches of rain fell a few days earlier followed by a deep freeze.  This section of trail was nearly all ice.  To make matters worse, the rope was frozen in thick ice at places rendering it useless.  After contemplating passage of the chimney, I tried to bushwack around it.  One side of the chimney is a cliff band.  The other side is nearly as steep but has some trees growing from it.  I tried to ascend with the help of the trees but soon reached icy cliffs and was forced to descend.  Finally, with the help of rope, I managed to shimmy up the chimney, wedging my body against the rocks for friction and carefully finding ice free hand holds.

Looking up the chimney

Close Up of ice in the chimney

The rest of the trail to the summit climbs steeply through fields of boulders and follows closely to bands of cliffs at places when not passing through the forest.  The trail levels before reaching the summit.  Despite gaining 2000 feet, there wasn't much more snow at the summit than the trailhead.
Looking across cliff near summit


Close up of Kineo

The view from the summit is grand.  The trees seemed to have grown since my last visit here so the view isn't quite 360 degrees, but still quite impressive.  The entire expanse of Moosehead Lake can be seen with all of its mountains surrounding it.  To the northeast, Katahdin poked its white summit above the clouds.  To the southwest, the Bigelows are visible.  Despite a temperature of 18 degrees at the summit, the sun was shining and the air was calm, allowing me to linger without getting cold.

Clouds over the Lily Bay Range

Looking toward Moosehead Lake over Spencer Pond

Big Moose Mountain in the distance

Looking toward north end of Moosehead

Low clouds passing by, a few flurries fell 

White Cap Range in distance beyond Roach Pond

Katahdin over shoulder of Big Spencer

Katahdin close up

Big Spencer Mountain

Descending proved much more challenging than the climb.  Numerous short section of icy rock needed to be navigated with caution.  Maneuvering down the chimney required much more concentration than climbing up it.  Roots had enough snow to hide them and make for a slippery surprise.  I did manage to make it back to the trailhead with no falls.

View as I descended the trail

View a little further down trail

Looking down a snowy boulder field that the trail passes over

Looking down chimney during descent

I've been to Little Spencer twice in snowy conditions with little problems.  The ice this weekend was almost too difficult to traverse without technical equipment. Crampons were almost necessary to make it through the chimney.  I almost bailed when I got to the chimney and it took a while to make it through.  Despite the added challenge, I'm glad I made it to the summit because the view never disappoints. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Hiking the White Cap Range- Solitude in the 100 Mile Wilderness

White Cap Mountain is located on the Appalachian Trail in the heart of the 100 Mile Wilderness. Because it's the first time north bound thru hikers get an unobstructed view of Katahdin, it is a memorable mountain to many thru hikers.  The views are quite impressive in all directions. I am also drawn to this mountain since I see it nearly everyday when I drive to my house.  In the winter, its white summit stands out prominently among the other mountains in the area.   

Getting to White Cap is not an easy feat.  Because of its location in the 100 Mile Wilderness, road approaches are somewhat difficult.  The shortest approach to White Cap from the road is via the White Brook Trail.  Depending on road conditions and the vehicle, a round trip hike of 5 miles is possible to the summit and back.  This involves more than 16 miles of travel over increasingly rough dirt roads that can be difficult to follow on a map it you are not familiar with the area. The summit can be reached by the AT from the north on a 6 mile round trip hike but the drive to the trail is even further away from civilization.  From the south on the AT, it is nearly a 12 mile hike to the summit from the nearest road.

I have hiked to White Cap a couple times via the White Brook Trail.  This hike is straightforward but not worth the abuse to my vehicle.  I haven't been to White Cap in about four years and wanted to revisit.  I have not hiked the other summits on the AT in the White Cap Range since my AT thru hike in 1999 and wanted to hike them again as well.  After looking at some maps, I found a loop that would take me over all four summits of the range by connecting the AT with other trails and logging roads.  The route would avoid driving the worst dirt roads. 

My hike would cover more than 20 miles.  If you have read my blog in the past, I enjoy the occasional long day hike, so I was up for the challenge.  To add to the challenge, I was faced with a short November day and the start of winter conditions.  Saturday's forecast sounded promising so I got an early start and headed to the mountains.

I  started my hike near High Bridge about 710AM.  High Bridge is a drive in camping area.  I followed a logging road about two miles to its end at Hay Brook where there are a few campsites.  A short side trip upstream along Hay Brook took me to Hay Brook Falls, a scenic waterfall with a drop of about 30 feet.   After stone-stepping across Hay Brook, the Pleasant River Tote Road begins.  The Pleasant River Tote Road is a relic from logging days and is now a trail.  After .75 miles, the AT is reached.  With the exception of a short detour at Gulf Hagas, I was on the AT for the next 11 miles.  This was also the lowest point of the trip at 700 or so feet in elevation.

Hay Brook Falls

The trail stays relatively low in elevation for a while.  Where the AT section starts, it passes through an area of old growth forest called The Hermitage containing very large pines.  In a little over a mile I arrived at the trail to Gulf Hagas containing numerous waterfalls.  I made a brief detour to Screw Auger Falls, just a short distance from the AT.  The trail meandered with little significant climbing as it followed Gulf Hagas Brook.  As I hike higher and deeper into the mountains, a dusting of snow started to cover the trail.  The trail reached a lean-to where I stopped for a bite to eat.

Screw Auger Falls

Screw Auger Falls upper falls

10-12 foot cascade on Gulf Hagas Brook

Snow starting to cover the trail

After the lean-to, the trail finally started to climb steeply.  Gulf Hagas Mountain is the first mountain climbed in the White Cap Range.  At 2683', Gulf Hagas Mountain is the runt of the range.  Despite its lowly elevation, it is probably the most interesting summit after White Cap.  Some partial views of the surrounding mountains are seen through the trees from the higher reaches of the mountain.

Boggy upper reaches of Gulf Hagas Brook

Gulf Hagas Mtn summit

West Peak coming into view

The AT continued over West Peak and Hay Mountain.  The mountains became progressively higher as I hiked.  Trail crews did an impressive job building stone steps on the steeper sections of trail. The trail never seemed to steep compared to most other mountain ranges on the AT in Maine.  West Peak and Hay Mountain have wooded summits with very few views beyond the thick forest.

Stone stairs climbing West Peak

Hay Mtn summit

After 11 miles on the AT, I reached White Cap.  At 3654', White Cap is the highest mountain in the 100 Mile Wilderness.  It's the highest summit on the AT between Katahdin and the Bigelows, a distance of 180 or so miles.  White Cap's summit has wonderful views.  The southern half of the summit is completely exposed and bare.  Scrub covers the top of the peak while the northern part has another open area.  Looking to the north on  clear day, Katahdin dominates the horizon.  Parts of Moosehead Lake are visible to the west as well as most of the higher peaks in the area including the Spencers, Lily Bay Range, and Big Moose.  To the south, the Barren-Chairback Range dominates the view.  In the distance to the southwest, the Bigelows are easily identifiable.  With a temperature in the mid 20s F and windchills dropping below 0F with gusts, I didn't linger more than 15 minutes at the summit.

White Cap summit, book elevation is 10 foot higher

West Peak and Gulf Hagas Mtn in foreground, Baker Mtn to right, Moosehad Lake just beyond Baker (Click on pic for clearer view)

Bigelow Range is the tall peaks on the horizon in the center (click on pic for clearer view)

Looking south over Big Spruce Mtn.

Saddleback Mtn beyond the shoulder of Little Spruce Mtn

Big and Little Spencer Mtns beyond Roach Ponds

Looking north over West Branch Ponds toward endless lakes

I retraced the AT for a short distance before descending to the valley.  I descended on a discontinued trail that eventually reaches the White Brook Trail.  The trail, which I have used in the past, has become quite overgrown at places.  The trail had occasional old blazes in blue and white.  It must have been an old section of AT at one time.  At one time a fire tower stood on White Cap.  Perhaps this was originally the old trail to access the tower.  I soon reached the White Brook Trail.

Last view descending back down White Cap toward Baker Mtn

Descending discontinued trail in a heavily eroded section

Very overgrown section of discontinued trail.  I was full of snow passing through here.

The White Brook Trail ends at an old logging road.  The logging road was overgrown and a little difficult to follow at a couple of spots.  Eventually the logging road became more prominent before reaching High Bridge near my car in a few miles.  Along the logging road there were some good views looking back at White Cap.

Looking back at White Cap's exposed southern face

I reached my car right around 3PM, almost 8 hours since I started.  The hike was about 21 miles.  For the distance, the hike wasn't extremely difficult.  Several miles of the hike were on logging roads which allowed for quick travel.  While I gained over 3000 feet of elevation, the elevation gain was relatively gradual compared to other Maine mountains.  The cold and snow however added a little challenge to the hike.  With a brisk windchill, I didn't care to linger in one place too long.  The snow, while not more than a dusting, covered most of the trail. Because of the snow, roots and rocks along the trail were more slippery than normal.

Despite seeing several cars in the High Bridge area, I didn't see anyone the entire time.  All of these cars were most likely hunters.  I did see a few deer early on which made uneasy with hunters in the area.  Because of the snow I saw nearly endless tracks.  Most were snowshoe hare or squirrel.  I did see a few cat tracks, most likely bobcat.  Numerous deer, moose, and coyote tracks were seen in the snow along the logging roads.

Although the forecast called for a clear day, most of the trip was under mostly cloudy skies.  A few short snow showers fell along the way.  Because of the clouds, the views from White Cap were a little obscured.  The visibility was decent most directions but unfortunately Katahdin's summit was in the clouds and obscured by snow showers.