Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Baxter Finish - Coe, Brothers, and Fort - August 2, 2014

Route: Marston Trail, Mount Coe Trail, South Brother Spur, herd path to Fort
Peaks: Coe (3795', NEHH), South Brother (3970', NEHH), North Brother (4151', NE67), Fort (3861', NEHH)
Mileage: 13.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 4800'
Book Time: ~10 hours (adjusted because of the Fort herd path)

While it wasn't completely planned out that way, it turned out that the final hike towards completing the New England 100 Highest would end up being in that jewel of the Northeast, Baxter State Park. A long way North, 2 of our group of 4 planned to stay for 4 days in the park, hoping to nab the Knife Edge on Katahdin as well, but I'm getting ahead of myself. The primary goal was to hike the Coe-Brothers-Fort loop on the West side of the park. South Brother, peak #2 on the hike, would be number 100 for me (Coe would be 99), and Fort would bring my friend Pam's total to 99 (needing only East Baldpate after that, how ironic!). Our friends Chris and Trey also joined us, and this hike would also add to their totals, though they had to head home Sunday. As we all had Friday off, we drove up and were set up in the park by sunset on Friday.

Saturday's forecast looked pretty good, with only a 10% chance of showers/thunderstorms, and so off we went to the Marston Trailhead, hitting the trail just before 8. First up we had the fairly mild 1.3-mile warm-up to where the Mount Coe Trail diverged right. Climbing steadily through the woods, the trail soon popped out onto the runout of the slide that the upper portion of the trail climbs, and we also saw that this day was not going to be great for visibility thanks to a very heavy haze. Still, the weather looked fine otherwise, and up the trail we went, soon hitting the slide portion.

Doubletop Mountain from the Marston Trailhead. That's supposed to be an awesome hike too.

Approaching the base of the main slide.

Views up to the long, flat ridge of Mount OJI

The slide itself is not actually all that long, maybe 1/2 mile at the most, and it isn't terribly steep. What it was, however, was covered in wet, slimy ledges, the kind of ledges that are covered in that evil black slime that is insanely slippery. Thankfully there were also dry stretches of the ledges, and we were able to make our way steadily upward. I should amend that statement though, we actually munched our way upward, as the slide had lots of blueberry bushes along it that were starting to ripen. Yum! Aside from a somewhat tricky ledge crossing at the top of the slide just before we re-entered the woods, the slide actually wasn't that bad, and was a ton of fun! A very short climb in the woods later, and we were at the small, rocky summit of Coe with 360-degree views, which must be spectacular on a clear day!

Wet, slimy ledges. Just stick to the dry spots (which got much more plentiful as we climbed)


Looking back towards Mount OJI

Climbing... Mount Doubletop on the back

The gang reaches Mount Coe

The Katahdin massif from Mount Coe, only a few miles away. You can see the chimney portion of the Knife Edge just left of center.

South and North Brother lie ahead

The Klondike, the remote valley between the Brothers range and Katahdin

Mount Coe - #99!
After the requisite snack break, we headed off along the ridge towards South Brother. The trail in here, once it dropped off the summit cone, was pretty mild in footing, and very mossy. Very cool! Nearing the spur to South Brother, we noted a seemingly-random mileage sign along the trail, which must be where the old route of the Marston Trail used to intersect the Mount Coe Trail (it used to go up a slide on South Brother before it was rerouted a few decades ago). Perhaps on a future trip to Baxter I will check out that old route, as the slide covers most of the stretch between the Marston Trail and the ridge, could be a cool trip! The spur to South Brother, while a mere 0.3 miles long, was rather obnoxious, with some tricky boulder and ledge scrambling near the top, but that seems par for the course in Baxter. The views from the flat, open summit, also must be terrific on a clear day. Today, they were quite muted, but still nice and a great place to "finish".

The Mount Coe Trail between Mount Coe and South Brother

Scrambling up boulders with deep holes between up to the summit of South Brother

Woo-freakin-hoo! Peak #100 on the New England 100-Highest!
We took a nice break here, enjoying the day, and the company. Technically I wasn't done yet either, as I still had to get back to the car. But on top of that, we still had 2 peaks to go before we could head down (well, actually 3 peaks since we had to climb North Brother twice). So, with that in mind, and my fore-knowledge that the short 3/4-mile herd path to Fort was not going to offer anything approaching fast travel, we eventually set off. Trey also already had Coe and South Brother, so he was probably chomping at the bit to check off new peaks, even if he was too nice to admit it :) After the seemingly-endless descent off South Brother, we met the Marston Trail and began the ascent to North Brother.

When I did North Brother (and Fort) 2 years ago, this stretch of the trail was rather overgrown, and almost felt like an un-maintained herd path at times. Well, apparently the trail maintainers finally got around to brushing out this section of the trail, but unfortunately it has gotten seriously eroded in the last 2 years. I wonder if the hurricane 2 years ago (Sandy) had something to do with it? Reaching North Brother, I was pleased to see that the often-broken summit sign had been re-attached fairly solidly, and the views were just as I remembered - nice, though of course it was still hazy.

Fort Mountain, just a short "herd path" away.

Fort and the Katahdin massif from North Brother.
Viewed from North Brother, you can see part of the plane that crashed in 1944 just below the right-hand end of the Fort Mountain ridge.
We didn't spend long on North Brother, but immediately started following the herd path off of North Brother (marked by some small cairns), which after a short stretch on ledges enters the scrub. Briefly emerging from the scrub, the herd path swings left briefly, but we actually went straight on a fainter path, which was a terrible line to take. We all got poked, stabbed, and beat up for a short stretch in here, thankfully on the way back we followed the main branch of the herd path which avoided this stretch (the branch that we ignored heading to Fort, as it swung left, away from Fort...). Overall, the 3/4-mile stretch on the herd path took us roughly 1 hour in each direction, and while pretty easily followed the whole way (there are even a few very old paint blazes near Fort along the path), was pretty scratchy and unpleasant. Some day, however, I would like to take the time to visit the plane crash site a little way further down the mountain (part can be seen from North Brother as in the picture above), which is supposed to be mostly a bushwhack, without much of a defined herd path like the path to Fort.

We beat a hasty retreat off of North Brother, as the clouds were building, and some thunderheads were forming as well. We got down the steepest parts of the trail, getting to the remote pond below North Brother, before the rain began. Soon, it was a full-on thunderstorm, and we hiked through the pouring rain for most of the remaining 2-or-so miles down to the trailhead. But we all made it, and it was a fun hike with good friends, punctuated by a finish. Pam also reached #99 on this hike, only one to go!

One of the bumps on Fort Mountain (the left-hand one as viewed from North Brother) from the "center" bump on Fort Mountain. One is the summit, both are about the same height, though the left one appears slightly higher in person. The USGS topos mark the one this picture was taken from, however.

North Brother from Fort Mountain

Yes, this is the herd path between Fort and North Brother. The treadway is easy to see, despite many places being overgrown like this.

Fort Mountain from near North Brother

Reflections on the New England 100 Highest
The New England 100 Highest, for me, was a list I never intended to pursue. While doing the 4000-footers in New Hampshire, I did make the effort to try and bag any that were nearby, and I even thought that I might go to all of the ones that had a trail to them. But I had zero interest in doing the trail-less ones. It didn't appeal to me. I've done a few small bushwhacks here and there other than the ones on this list, and overall I didn't enjoy them. Pushing through thick spruce en-route to a viewless peak, well, that didn't sound like fun to me. Over the years I chipped away at the remaining trailed peaks in New Hampshire, and I even did Mount Nancy (which has a very easy to follow herd path to the summit), but I still didn't see myself going after the roughly one-dozen bushwhacks on the list, especially after doing Fort Mountain (which even has a herd path, though might be best described as "bushwhacking on a herd path").

But in 2013, while working on the 4000-footers in Vermont, I decided to work on the Hundred Highest a bit more in earnest. I can't pin down exactly why the change in thought, but most of the peaks in Vermont were trailed, and I figured that I could handle the one trail-less peak (Menden). That went fabulously well, and over the rest of the summer I chipped away at Vermont, and I made the decision to fully pursue the list and to attempt to finish in the summer of 2014. By and large the bushwhacks turned out to be pretty tame, and often mostly navigated along herd paths. Only Scar Ridge and Elephant Mountain turned out to be true bushwhacks, and Elephant was only because of our missing the start of the normal route on the way up (we had herd paths for most of the descent).

The 6-pack in Maine wasn't an area or set of peaks I would normally go to if they hadn't been on a list, but they did turn out to provide an interesting weekend in the logging country of Maine. Researching the roads and herd paths to successfully reach these peaks proved rewarding in an unforseen manner, even if those peaks weren't purely bushwhacks (actually, I am glad for that, as I likely wouldn't have bothered with the list otherwise, since I still don't particularly enjoy thrashing through thick woods all day).

But for me, the best part of pursuing the New England 100 Highest was traveling to all corners of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont (well, not all corners, but there was a lot of traveling to many different areas). New Hampshire is where I normally hike, but spending 2 summers bouncing all over Maine and Vermont, driving through all the small towns and empty countryside, was a lot of fun. Who knows how much time I spent driving, or how much gas was burned, but it was all worth it, and much of it was spent with various friends, which makes it even better, and less of a grind. While I may technically be "listless" now, I intend to continue exploring New England, as there are many more corners yet to explore.

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