BAXTER STATE PARK, Maine -- In 1846, when Henry David Thoreau traveled here on foot, he found a wildness that was "savage and awful, though beautiful . . . untamed and forever untameable Nature."
"It was vast," he wrote, "titanic, and such as man never inhabits."
It still is. This deep in Maine's north country, where the most spectacular scenery lies, roads either just stop or veer off in other directions, toward New Brunswick or Quebec. The few exceptions are narrow roads built and maintained by timber companies, some open to the public, some not.
This is a truly wild forest, swooping in all directions to the horizon, shining with rivers, ponds, enormous lakes, undisturbed since Thoreau's time. The inhabitants are a few scattered forest rangers and a mighty host of bears, moose, white-tailed deer, bobcats, beavers, coyotes, otters, muskrats, raccoons, porcupines, snowshoe hares and a hundred species of birds including such rarities as the American bald eagle, found in greater numbers here than anywhere else in the Northeast.
Not to mention mountains. The great Appalachian chain reaches a symphonic climax here, a crescendo of cliffs and peaks building toward Katahdin, highest mountain in Maine and, many think, the most magnificent in the East. Katahdin so dominates this wilderness that, although 100 miles from the coast, its 5,267-foot summit is the first spot in America to catch the sunlight every morning. A brilliant rose hue lights the cliff tops, and falls like a scroll toward the dark base.
Katahdin is part of a group of 46 mountain peaks and surrounding forest saved from timber company control by the late Percival P. Baxter, governor of Maine in the 1920s. Baxter, a wealthy man, began purchasing pieces of wild land after he left office, and gave it to the state along with trust funds and instructions for its preservation.
He said he wished "to provide against commercial exploitation, against hunting, trapping and killing, against lumbering, hotels, advertising, hot dog stands, motor vehicles, horse-drawn vehicles . . . aircraft and the trappings of unpleasant civilization." The park should be used for the public's enjoyment, he said, "but in the right, unspoiled way."
Today Baxter State Park contains 314 square miles. A single gravel road follows its perimeter and a few campgrounds with lean-tos and tent sites are provided, but no recreational vehicles (campers) are allowed and only 600 people at a time can stay in the park overnight. During one week last month, the two of us were among those lucky 600.
We left our car and backpacked 10 miles into the park's interior to a place called Russel Pond, an idyllic body of water about a quarter mile in diameter, with bare boulders rising everywhere to form islands. These same gray-white boulders lined the shore, backed by evergreen forest, backed in turn by mountain peaks and ridges on all sides, and blue sky overhead. All this reflected off the totally still water, where every few seconds a leaping brook trout made a soft "plush," breaking the stone silence and relieving us of the illusion of living in an oil painting. A small squadron of ducks periodically tore hell-for-leather across the pond, low over the water, making no sound.
We awoke next morning to see the pond in misty, silver light, made more dreamlike by the sudden appearance of a moose wading into the cold water to feed on bottom vegetation.
We couldn't have been more impressed if a unicorn had stood neck-deep out there, and in fact the moose seemed more mythological than real -- part deer, part water buffalo, part rabbit, judging by the long, tapered ears. It was hugh, six or seven feet tall, and fed off the bottom like a duck, plunging its head deep underwater so just the curve of its massive back showed. Coming up for air, it shook the water in violent showers from its head and neck, like an enormous dog drying off. Sometimes, for reasons unknown, it made a "ugh-ugh-ugh" sound.
Later we would encounter more moose, on our way down from Katahdin. This one remained our personal favorite, though.
Maine's moose population was nearly wiped out by hunters in the 1930s, but protective legislation has brought them back to an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 in the northern half of the state. This month, for the first time in 45 years, a six-day hunting season was held. Baxter Park remained off-limits, of course.
It's hard to see much sport in killing these complacent animals. As Thoreau observed, moose hunting is "too much like going out by night to some woodside pasture and shooting your neighbor's horses."
We hit the trail early that morning, gathering blue berries in the woods along our way, and stopped for a delicious breakfast of fresh blueberries with cereal and dehydrated milk beside another of the park's many ponds. As we ate and dangled our feet in the water, we contemplated Katahdin, whose white, 2,000-foot cliffs rose dramatically nine miles to our south, dominating the smaller, nearer mountains. Katahdin's name is from an Algonquian word meaning "greatest mountain," and we could see why. Its craggy, sharp peaks fill the sky, like God's own tent poles in a line, with graceful ridges stretched between.
A cliff formation called The Chimney (because it shoots straight up on three sides of a huge basin) was easy to spot from here. So were the more prominent peaks.
There was Pamola Peak (4,902 feet), named for the deity supposedly inhabiting the mountain. Thoreau, in his excellent book "The Maine Woods," tells of meeting a Penobscot Indian who said that anyone climbing Katahdin should plant a bottle of rum on top, for the god. The Indian said he had done this many times, and when he looked again the rum was all gone.
And there to the west of Pamola was Baxter Peak (5,267 feet), highest point in Maine, named of course for Percival P. Baxter, who used to own it. pBetween Baxter and Pamola, across the top of the Chimney cliffs, we saw the Knife Edge, a ragged, mile-long rock ridge less than a yard wide in places, with dizzying drops on both sides.
Hikers have been known to panic on the Knife Edge. Some have tried to clamber down one side or the other by some imagined shortcut to the bottom. Such shortcuts are illusory, the mountain equivalent of mirages in the desert, and people have ended up trapped on ledges. Some have fallen to their deaths. Some have died of exposure. Above tree line here, freezing weather is possible any time of year, and sudden, violent snowstorms aren't uncommon, even in August.
The next morning, bright and early, found us plodding up a trail at the sloping base of that remote mountain. A dense forest of birch, spruce and fir blocked all view of the cliffs and peaks from here. We followed a stream called Roaring Brook for about half a mile, then turned up a steeper section of trail to a place called Lower Basin Pond -- yet another of those clear, pristine little lakes -- where we filled our canteen. The map showed another pond beyond this one, Upper Basin Pond, and another beyond that, Depot Pond, but we couldn't see these. We would only see them later, from high up.
Still farther, we reached a wide area piled thick with boulders that looked as if they'd fallen right from the sky, which in a way they had. This was a moraine, a mass of rocks carried within a glacier during the last Ice Age, which ended about 10,000 years ago, and dropped here when the glacier melted.
It was a reminder that the whole mountain range, and all New England, had been buried at least a mile deep, possibly much deeper, under crushing ice. To grasp the scale of this ice sheet, consider the fact that Long Island, M.Y., is also a moraine, formed exactly as this one was, by rock debris dropped from melting glacial ice.
The cliffs of Katahdin, the scoured-out basins and pointed peaks (which now came into view, as we climbed) and the depressions that formed ponds and lakes -- all were gouged into their present shape by movement of that ice cap.
After climbing a total of about 3 1/2 miles we reached the clearing at the foot of the Chimney cliffs and ate lunch at Chimney Pond, a smooth blue surface that stares 2,000 feet straight up at the Knife Edge and the high peaks.
Not being accomplished climbers we were already very tired but the splendor of the setting was like a tonic, and soon we were ready to push on. It was also here that we understood, fully, the peculiar lure of the mountaintop. The whole environment now seemed oriented toward it: Cliffs rose up to it, rocks tumbled down from it, the very weather seemed to come from it.
We climbed half a mile farther before the trees became stunted and then disappeared altogether. Now the trail was a naked boulder slide where we hauled ourselves up, using hands as much as feet, and where a chilling wind buffeted us, blasting up from the basin below. Above and to our left curved the semicircular Knife Edge. Clouds blew against the cliffs, billowed upward and overflowed the sharp rim like white liquid.
We pulled extra shirts and sweaters from our day packs and bundled up. Seeing Baxter Peak partly obscured by swirling clouds, we remembered the warning posted for climbers at the Chimney Pond ranger cabin: "If the weather changes suddenly, get below tree line and seek shelter!"
Every step was hard labor here. We stopped often to catch our breath, leaning our backs against the mountain as against a wall. Standing in the wind, we looked across ranks of mountains and down at all the ponds we'd passed coming up, and many more besides. For miles, every feature on our topographical map was clearly discernible.
Finally, at the top of the boulder slide, we stood on a sloping tableland, about a mile square -- a rocky surface where only the hardiest alpine grasses and ground-hugging shrubs survived. We met a few other hikers here, coming up other trails, and they all were happy and excited as we were.
The last mile was the best. We puffed happily up the slope, first over a field of stones so loosely piled they tinkled musically underfoot, then up a rising mass of moose-size boulders, where we hopped from rock to rock. Nothing grew here but pale green lichen on the pink rock.
We walked in moving clouds now, and they swatted our faces with moist white arms. We didn't see the very top -- Baxter Peak -- until the final few steps, and when at last we reached it, we found something unexpected. A party was going on. About 20 of us had climbed the mountain that day -- some coming across the Knife Edge, some from our direction, some from elsewhere -- and had converged at the top about the same time.
We joked, ate sandwiches, had little vertigo seizures, swapped trail information, and looked out at the wide world from our perch. They say from here, on a really clear day, you can see the ocean 100 miles away. We couldn't see that far, but as the clouds dispersed we got a nice view of Moosehead Lake 40 miles to the southwest, and Chesuncook Lake, Chamberlain Lake and dozens of lesser ones. To Thoreau, the surrounding forest had looked from here like endless grassy lawns, with the lakes like a "mirror broken into a thousand fragments and wildly scattered over the grass, reflecting the full blaze of the sun." A perfect description.
What celebrations this place must have seen! Among its other distinctions, Baxter Peak is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, a wilderness footpath that starts in Georgia and goes 1,995 miles through 14 states. Marking the spot is a large cone-shaped cairn, or rock-pile marker, of gray and pink stones. Those few hardy souls who hike the trail from its beginning -- a five- or six-month undertaking -- crown their achievement by walking up and touching this cairn.
We'd gladly have stayed much longer here. But our descent would take four or five hours, and Katahdin is no place to be with night approaching, so the party slowly broke up and we trekked down our separate ways. The two of us climbed down in the company of three new friends from the mountaintop. In dimming light we reached a gravel parking lot at the trailhead where we met, again, some other hikers we had seen on the peak. Canadian ale came out of car trunks, and there were toasts all around. And then again we went our separate ways, this time for good.