Pulling gear-laden sleds on snow-covered park roads in a winter wonderland, we barely contained our enthusiasm. Ice and snow capped Mount Katahdin peered down through barren hardwood trees. Sights and sounds of winter surrounded us: ponds and streams, hidden from view by accumulations of months of frigid weather; frozen trees creaked as they bent away from gusty northwest winds cascading down from lofty peaks. It was difficult to believe we would be hiking on Mount Katahdin’s splendid Hamlin Ridge the following day.
We were a party of seven on Roaring Brook Road in Maine’s penultimate winter paradise, Baxter State Park. New England is rich with winter outdoor opportunities, but for us nothing compares with Baxter. Impressive mountains abundant with opportunities to hike, climb, snowshoe and ski. Planning our March trip had been months in the making and was finally a reality.
The wintry serenity was abruptly interrupted by the gathering din of engines. “Snowmobiles” yelled Bingle, the caboose of our group. We desperately pulled our heavy sleds to the side of the trail to avoid the fast approaching machines. The lead rider stopped, “I’m Ranger Rex Literell, he officiously announced. “Where are you headed?” I explained we had reservations at Roaring Brook Bunkhouse for the next two nights and hoped to do some hiking in the southern end of the park before we continued on our journey. “Don’t forget to sign out on the Register if you hike” yelled Ranger Literell as he roared off. “Seems like a nice young man,” I thought.
After a pleasant night in the toasty bunkhouse heated by an over-sized woodstove, we arose to a beautiful, sunny winter day. Five of us obligatorily signed out to ascend the Chimney Pond Trail to Hamlin Ridge. We enjoyed phenomenal views of the ridge and the Katahdin massif from the shore of frozen, breezy Basin Pond. Traversing the pond, we snowshoed the North Basin Trail through a dense conifer forest to the ridge. The beauty and majesty of Hamlin Ridge and the surrounding alpine environment exceeded our expectations on such a glorious day.
Returning, we encountered Ranger Ridge Ed Rules and his snowmobile ascending the Chimney Pond Trail. “Didn’t I see you guys up on Hamlin Ridge?” Ranger Rules inquired. “Yes sir,” I responded, “It was spectacular.” “This is an egregious violation of the Winter Park Rules, which could result in the expulsion of your entire party,” announced Ranger Rules. “Are you the Trip Leader?” he interrogated. “Yes, but I didn’t know I was breaking any rules, Ranger Rules,” I reluctantly responded. “You and your party went above-tree line without signing out on the Chimney Pond Register. That is sufficient basis to expel you from the park and have you incarcerated at the Piscataquis County Jail in Dover-Foxcroft.” he threatened. Relieved, I pointed out, “Well, that explains it, Ranger Rules. We signed out at Roaring Brook, where we’re staying, and never went to Chimney Pond. I’ve read all the park rules and am sure we haven’t violated any.”
That’s when I learned about the Unwritten Rules. Ranger Rules went on to enlighten us how legendary
Park Shaman, iconic Fizz Fitzherbert, had established a vast array of unwritten rules for the Safety and Convenience of park visitors. “Park visitors are responsible for familiarizing themselves with the unwritten rules, that’s one of the unwritten rules,” Ranger Rules pontificated. “So let me understand Ranger Rules,” I said. “We should have hiked to Chimney Pond, even though we weren’t going there, to sign out to go above-tree line on Hamlin Ridge, even though we didn’t know Hamlin Ridge was designated above-tree line?” “Exactly,” said Ranger Rules.
“Are there any written rules on when, where and if we must sign out and what areas are above-tree line?” I asked. “No,” Ranger Rules responded, “Shaman Fizz felt written rules would be too inflexible to properly enforce, so he bequeathed the unwritten rules to the Rangers to interpret and disseminate.” “I’m gravely sorry for our egregious violation of the rules,” I said contritely. Fortunately for our group, profound remorse was the correct answer and Ranger Rules gave us his blessings, said he would tear up the arrest warrant and accelerated up the path.
The next morning, after signing out of Roaring Brook, we pulled our sleds up the steep, rugged Chimney Pond Trail to picturesque Chimney Pond Campground. Bingle, now the engine in our parade, was greeted by Ranger Litterel. “So you’re one of the scofflaws in the Chase Party. I’ll visit the bunkhouse later this evening and go over the checklist,” he announced. Ranger Litterel arrived shortly after we had fallen asleep. Crawling out of my sleeping bag, I sluggishly explained we planned to hike up Hamlin Ridge and, if the conditions allowed, continue to the summit. “Let’s go over the checklist,” he said. “Do you have helmets, ice axes, climbing harnesses, pitons, wontons, ice anchors and goggles?” he literally inquired. “Yes sir,” I confidently responded, “but Hamlin Ridge is a hike, not a technical climb.” “Do you have crampons, tampons, chemical packs, bivy sacks, sewing kits, long underwear, short underwear, mittens and sun glasses?” Ranger Litterel precisely continued. “Yes,” I answered, “but we’re not climbing Mount Everest, just hiking up Hamlin Ridge.” “Should we take parachutes?” wondered Bingle as he lethargically stumbled past on his way to the outhouse. “What about 171.7 feet of 11.2 millimeter dynamic, climbing rope, do you have that?” asked an undeterred Ranger Litterel. “We didn’t bring any climbing rope,” I said worriedly. “I don’t understand. We’ve hiked to the summit 11 previous times and climbing rope was never required. We just want to hike up the ridge not scale the headwall.” Just then, a much relieved Bingle returned and reminded us he’d brought two 85 foot 10.7 millimeter throw bags in case we had problems with stream crossings. “They’ll pull canoes off rocks in whitewater,” remarked Bingle. “They ought to work on the mountain. “Nope, don’t think so,” Ranger Litterel admonished. “The rope requirement is the latest interpretation of Shaman Fizz’s unwritten rules by Head-Ranger-in-Charge, Nolan Recall. I’ll double check with him by radio at 8:00 sharp tomorrow morning. Be there first thing, ready to go.” That’s great,” I said, “I’m sure Ranger Recall will remember authorizing my last two trips to the summit without ropes.”
At 7:55 A.M., our group, fully loaded, queued up in front of the visitor’s door at the Chimney Pond Ranger Station. Ranger Litterel greeted us with a somber countenance. “Head-Ranger-in-Charge Recall doesn’t recall you or ever authorizing hikes to the summit without ropes,” he firmly declared. Remembering the county jail in Dover-Foxcroft, I tried gentle persuasion, “We never needed ropes when we hiked above-tree line to the summits of North & South Brother, Traveler, Peak of the Ridges, North Traveler and South Turner. Why do we need them for Hamlin Ridge?” I asked doing my best imitation of an overly polite, self-righteous politician. “Fizz determined the rules should be more relaxed in other parts of the park,” he averred. Despondent, I made one more desperate attempt, “On our way here, we met another group headed for Hamlin Ridge. Didn’t look like they had climbing ropes.” “They’re Grandfathers,” he said furtively. “What’s a Grandfather?” I asked. “We aren’t allowed to talk about Grandfathers, you’ll just have to take my word for it,” he whispered.
Recognizing the futility of further efforts, I attempted to salvage the day. “Can we hike over to North Basin without ropes,” I pleaded. “Well, just don’t go above-tree line or you’re out of the park,” he asserted. “We have to cross Blueberry Knoll on our way to North Basin, and it’s treeless,” Bingle interjected, “Do we need ropes on the knoll?” “Stay off the knoll and you’ll be fine,” Ranger Litterel said as he turned and went inside.
Cautiously navigating around Blueberry Knoll, we explored North Basin then descended with our sleds to a more relaxed environment at Roaring Brook. Using Roaring Brook Bunkhouse as a base camp, we enjoyed relaxing days snowshoeing deep into the heart of the park on the Russell Pond and Wassataquoick Trails, had a relaxing ascent of scenic South Turner Mountain and capped off our adventure with a snowy, but relaxing, sled out of the park.
(With the exception of the author, all characters and events described in this story are fictitious. However, the author, a frequent winter traveler in the park, asserts that confusing, contradictory winter rules inconsistently administered and enforced are not fiction. Park authorities were invited to respond to that assertion and Park Director Jensen Bissell stated in a recent letter that the park is “currently working on a revision of our standard operating procedures manual, which includes our winter use rules.” For more information on Baxter State Park and other great New England mountain hike, see our book Mountains for Mortals – New England or visit our website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com.)