Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Exploring Baxter State Park with Led Zeppelin
My latest camping adventure found me in Baxter State Park this past weekend. For those of you not familiar with Maine geography, Baxter is a huge tract of land in the very center of the state, like a large hole in a donut. Its 200,000+ acres contain some of the most wild, untouched lands in the state, including Maine’s highest mountain, Mount Katahdin. The park got its start back in 1931 through the personal generosity of Maine Governor Percival Baxter. The governor stipulated some pretty strict conditions for the park, including no new roads were to be built, and the existing roads were to remain unpaved and not to be widened. He wanted to ensure it would be “forever wild” in his words. There is no electricity or running water anywhere in the park. Motorcycles, ATVs, and pets are not allowed.
If you want to know more about Baxter State Park, for pete’s sake go to their website here: http://www.baxterstateparkauthority.com/index.htm. It’s certainly not my plan to give you a full tutorial on the park. What I want to do here is fill in some of the blanks with some handy tips I learned while on my trip.
Theme Music: Whenever I go on a road trip, I like to have an artist or genre of music that I listen to predominantly while driving. For example, whenever I head to the coast of Washington County in Maine, I like to listen to the 70s & 80s pop band The Cars. When I am headed to extreme southern Maine, it’s 90s alt-rockers Pearl Jam that get my ears. For this trip, I decided that Led Zeppelin would be my soundtrack. I put together a killer mix CD and was good to go. While it is certainly not a requirement, I suggest that you also choose some theme music for your drive to and from Baxter.
*Led Zeppelin song for Theme Music tip: “Rock and Roll” because, well, Led Zeppelin does.
Speed Limit: Throughout the park, the maximum speed limit is 20 miles per hour. While this sounds excruciatingly slow, it really isn’t. The roads are narrow, winding, and unpaved, and there is no shortage of wildlife, from sassy little red squirrels weighing less than a pound darting out in front of you to huge bull moose weighing nearly as much as some cars doing the same thing. Good reasons to keep the velocity to a minimum. Personally, I found that 20 mph was more than adequate, especially if you are hoping to spot some wildlife or see some of the other spectacular sights. It seems like a waterfall or mountain peak shows up around every corner. Additionally, you never know when you will need to stop suddenly because someone is coming from the other direction, in which case you and they will need to negotiate who will pull to the side so the other can pass. It’s a tight squeeze. Granted, it does take some time to get from point A to point B in the park with a 20 mph speed limit, but if you must take it slow, what better environment in which to do it?
*Led Zeppelin song for Speed Limit tip: “Ramble On”, because just rambling is the best thing to do in your car at Baxter.
Gassing Up: Have a full tank of gas before heading into Baxter State Park. The park is huge, and you are going to want to see a lot of it. You just can’t do that all on foot. There are no gas stations or stores of any kind in the park, so if you are out of gas, you are out of luck. Gas up in Millinocket if using the south entrance to the park or in Patten if using the north entrance. There are plenty of helpful people around, both park staff and fellow visitors, but advanced planning is much easier. (Some fuel for yourself, food, is also something to make sure you plan in advance, because a “quick trip to the store” will be anything but quick in Baxter.)
*Led Zeppelin song for Gassing Up tip: “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”, because that’s what you are going to be saying to your car if it runs out of gas in and you have to walk for help.
Cellphone & Wifi: Cell phone reception is, for all intents and purposes, non-existent in Baxter State Park. If I were you, I wouldn’t count on having any at all. Whatever your plans, don’t make your cell phone an integral part of them, unless you are going to use it as a flashlight when making your way to the latrine. And Wifi in Baxter State Park? Hahahahahahahahahhahaha! No.
*Led Zeppelin song for Cellphone & Wifi tip: “Over the Hills and Far Away”, because that’s where you are, and there isn’t any reception there at all.
Vehicle GPS: I’m not sure why exactly, but GPS signals can be very wacky in Baxter State Park. If you rely on GPS in the park, you will end up parked at the bottom of a lake or in a black bear’s den somewhere. My advice is for you to pack maps made of…wait for it…paper! Yes, paper maps still exist! The Baxter State Park website has some excellent ones that you can print out for use. Do not try to navigate the park without any maps at all, relying on that “instinct” that many of us typical men have (or think we do). It will fail you, just like your GPS will. While using a paper map, I turned my usually-reliable GPS on just for kicks, and at several points it told me that I was currently driving underwater or off road in the deep woods, when I most certainly was not.
*Led Zeppelin song for Vehicle GPS tip: “Communication Breakdown”, because that’s exactly what your GPS will experience in the park.
Radio: One thing that still works well in most parts of Baxter State Park is radio. If you are in the southern part of the park, you can get the station out of Millinocket on 94.9 FM, and in the northern part you can pick up the Houlton station at 100.1 FM. You will need a decent antenna, mind you, and do not forget fresh batteries. Having a radio is vital for getting local weather updates, since Mother Nature can change her mind on a dime in Maine, even in summer, and sometimes that weather can be dangerous. Personally, I am not a fan of being on top of a mountain in the middle of a lightning storm. I also find that listening to a Red Sox broadcast beside a campfire in the woods is a highly relaxing activity, and both the Millinocket station and the Houlton station carry Sox broadcasts. By the way, don’t count on your SiriusXM satellite radio, since a) reception is spotty with all the tall trees and mountains and b) they do not carry local weather, which is really the most important reason to have a radio.
*Led Zeppelin song for Radio tip: “Fool in the Rain”, because that’s what you won’t be with a decent FM radio capable of picking up local weather updates.
Activity Limitations: There are lots of fun things to do in Baxter State park, with hiking, canoeing, and fishing among them. That said, know your limits! Do NOT bite off more than you can chew. Some of the hikes are on long, isolated trails, and help will not be easy to come by, to say the least. The mountains are high, even the smaller ones. As they like to say at the park, “Going up is voluntary, but coming down in mandatory.” Most hikes require planning in terms of your fitness level, the supplies you will need, the weather, and the time you will need to start in order to be back before dark. If you are going canoeing or kayaking, remember that the upstream paddle is much harder than the downstream one. If you are out of shape or inexperienced, stick to a nice calm pond. And again, watch the weather. Remember that park rescues involve a lot of people, equipment, and money.
*Led Zeppelin song for Activity Limitations tip: “Good Times, Bad Times”, because, depending on your degree of planning and common sense, you will have either one or the other at Baxter.
Critters: Baxter State Park is full of amazing animals in their natural habitat. During my brief weekend trip, I saw a somewhat arrogant but nonetheless impressive juvenile moose hanging around on the road, a family of black bear in a big hurry to get somewhere that my car and I were not, and a really cool beaver swimming around a swollen brook and slapping his tail on the water for the better part of a half hour. And I can’t even begin to describe the variety of birds I saw and heard. Remember, you are in their house, so be respectful. Never get too close, do not try to coax them toward you, and do not leave anything out that they can get. Bring your binoculars and cameras, for sure. Unfortunately, I was either too slow or did not have my camera on me for my animal encounters on this trip.
*Led Zeppelin song for Critters tip: “Trampled Under Foot”, because that’s what you’ll be if you get too close to a moose. An alternative song would be “In My Time of Dying”, if you get too close to a black bear mother with cubs.
Bugs: This last one is a biggie. The mosquitoes and blackflies (known as gnats in some parts of the world) are ferocious at Baxter State Park. I am talking biblical plague proportions here, people! A ranger told me that it is not unusual for unprepared visitors to cut their trips to Baxter short because they are just overwhelmed by the mosquitoes and blackflies. I cannot emphasize this enough: you WILL need to have some plan in place for fending them off. Before I made my trip to Baxter, I used to smirk at people who wore those head-to-toe mosquito nets. Now, I might just be in the market for one myself. There is no shortage of insect repellants on the market as well, with varying ingredients from all-natural to borderline nuclear. Personally, I think your best bet is to use something with the ingredient DEET in it, which I’ll admit is a pretty harsh chemical. It works though, and it works as well as anything, though no chemical seems to give complete protection. There are certainly other options, but you will really need at least something. Also, citronella candles and/or torches are helpful around the campsite for helping reduce the numbers of insects, and dressing in long pants and long sleeves can help make matters more tolerable too. Avoid anything that is too perfumey smelling, and realize that mosquitoes and blackflies like the smell of sweat and the carbon dioxide you breathe out. Since you can’t stop moving or breathing, it can be tough to keep the little pests away. On the upside, ticks are not a major concern at Baxter State Park, though you would be wise to do regular check of yourselves and your compatriots anyway. At the very least, it might be the start of something randy, if your compatriot is the right person.
*Led Zeppelin song for Bugs tip: “For Your Life”, because that is what you feel like you are fighting for if you are not prepared to face the bugs.
Baxter State Park is truly a treasure, and everyone who lives in Maine really ought to visit it at least once in their life. If you are from another state or country, Baxter is definitely a place to put on your “to see” list when coming to Maine. The website I cited at the start of this has extensive information on the park, and this ridiculous post fills in a few of the gaps.