Surrounded by high mountain walls and blanketed in thick evergreens, the Northwest Katahdin Basin is one of the wildest places in Baxter State Park. Tucked into the basin floor at 2,936 feet is one of the park’s most coveted backcountry campsites, a simple lean-to in the woods above the sparkling tarn known as Davis Pond.
Due to its remote location, Davis Pond is not an easy place to get to. It’s actually a two day trip due to park rules that require backpackers to spend the night before at Chimney Pond or somewhere in the Russell Pond area. And what’s more, you’re limited to just one night at Davis Pond per visit, which only adds to the allure.
This hiker has hiked countless miles throughout Baxter State Park over the years, but never in Davis Pond. So when a text came in from my intrepid friend Willow telling me she’d scored a reservation there in early August – and that I’d like to join her and her friend Dolores for a backpacking party – well, I didn’t. couldn’t answer “yes!” fast enough.
The plan was to make it a loop hike, meandering from Roaring Brook to Russell Pond the first day, then running to Davis Pond the next morning. On the last day we would make the strenuous ascent of the Katahdin Massif to Chimney Pond and out.
Located in the heart of the park, Russell Pond is the perfect wilderness roadside. There’s plenty to explore within easy reach, such as Caverly Lookout, Grand Falls and Six Ponds, but on a beautiful summer day the most enjoyable endeavor is to grab a rental canoe, paddle lazily around the pond and drink in the sublime mountain views.
Wassataquoik Creek drains the Klondike, a vast spruce and fir bog at an elevation of about 3,000 feet hemmed in by high peaks. From Russell Pond, the trail follows these turbulent waters before crossing and climbing to the North West Basin. Emerging from the trees of Cowles Lake, the view of the immense glacial cirque is impressive.
From Cowles Lake, it’s a short walk to Davis Pond, where our trio spent a glorious afternoon and evening in the resplendent solitude of this most spectacular setting. There were sight seeing, sun to soak up, bodies to dip in cold water, books to read, good conversation and laughter galore. Oh, and the black flies to swat, of course.
In 1902, an intrepid team of scientists led by University of Maine biologist Leroy Harvey explored the rugged Northwest Basin. Harvey later named Davis Pond and Lake Cowles after Bradley Davis and Henry Cowles, both University of Chicago botanists who had accompanied him on the expedition to these ecologically rich surroundings.
The toil of the steep 1,500-foot ascent from Davis Pond to the Northwest Plateau is easily forgotten once you’ve broken free from the treeline and reached the vast Tablelands. Spanning nearly 3 square miles and encompassing the windswept heights of Pamola, Chimney, South, Baxter, Hamlin, and Howe Peaks, the Katahdin Alpine Zone is the largest in Maine.
We hosed down at Caribou Spring and hiked in the sweltering morning calm to the top of Hamlin Peak, drinking in the huge 360-degree panorama of high-altitude wilderness with every step. Through the sweep of the saddle, we could see a group of hikers on Baxter Peak, a mile high, but our mountaintop perch was only populated by the three of us.
The saddle and chainrings are forever linked in this trekker’s mind to Donn Fendler, who in 1939, at the age of 12, got lost in the clouds while descending Katahdin. Fendler fell twice on the Saddle Trail but chose to avoid the route due to its fearsome reputation. The boy wandered the woods for nine days before being found, and his story of survival is one for the ages.
Leaving Fendler’s historic footsteps behind us, our descent via Hamlin Ridge was uneventful, but with the Great Basin and Knife Edge in view most of the way, stunningly beautiful. In the early afternoon we were celebrating Governor Baxter and his beautiful wilderness park with cold drinks at Roaring Brook and were already planning a return trip.
Start planning your own backpacking adventure with the Baxter Bucket List at baxterstatepark.org.
Mount Desert Island’s Carey Kish is an award-winning member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. His latest book, “Beer Hiking New England,” will be out next spring. Follow Carey’s adventures on Facebook and Instagram @careykish
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