Friday, July 19, 2019

Exploring a little-known corner of Baxter State Park with the kids

By Briana Bizier

When you already live in Vacationland, where do you go on vacation?

Early last August, my husband and I decided to leave our Sebago Lake comfort zone behind and try a camping vacation in Baxter State Park. Home of Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain, Baxter may not be your first thought for a family camping trip with small children. As their website makes clear, Baxter exists primarily for the preservation of wilderness.

Ian and Sage Bizier at Ledge Falls
“There are no showers,” the state park’s website warns. There is also no electricity or paved roads in
Baxter. All water must be treated before drinking, and there are no stores or restaurants to replenish your ice supply or buy more snacks for the kids.

Like many Mainers, my only previous trip to Baxter was to climb Katahdin. However, with a four-year-old who sometimes begins to whine after five minutes of hiking, climbing to the 5,267 summit of Katahdin was not on our radar for this particular trip.

Instead, we treated this trip as an opportunity to explore some of the lesser-known corners of Maine’s wildest state park. We reserved a lean-to shelter at Nesowadnehunk Field Campground, the most remote car-accessible campground in Baxter. As we headed off on the five-hour drive to reach our campsite, I’ll admit I felt a touch of trepidation. Would a remote wilderness campsite be able to entertain a four-year-old and a seven-year-old? Did we bring enough food? What about enough bug repellent? Were we nuts for even attempting this?

When we arrived at Nesowadnehunk Field, which is on the northern side of Katahdin and an hour’s drive from Baxter’s Togue Pond Gate entrance outside of Millinocket, we found a beautifully maintained campground with both lean-tos and flat areas for tents. The campground sits alongside Nesowadnehunk Steam, where we treated our drinking water using a backcountry water purifier my husband and I got as a wedding present. (Thanks, Uncle Scott!) If you don’t have a water purifier, you can also boil your water for at least a full minute or treat it with iodine tablets. Luckily, four-year-old Ian found the water purifier pump absolutely fascinating, and he was thrilled to sit at the edge of the stream and pump water into water bottles.

We did not find other children on our first night at Nesowadnehunk Field Campground, but our little assistants quickly spotted the next best thing: wild raspberries! While we set up our camping gear in the spacious lean-to, our kids explored the campground and ate wild raspberries straight from the bushes.

As it turns out, Baxter State Park is full of kid-friendly activities. On our first morning, Nesowadnehunk’s incredibly helpful Park Ranger, Greg, gave seven-year-old Sage an activity book to complete in order to become a Junior Ranger. While Ian threw sticks in the fire or begged to play with the water purifier, Sage worked in the activity book, making leaf rubbings, identifying animal tracks, and reading maps of the park. Greg also told us about several ranger programs in the Kidney Pond campground. These sounded fascinating, but after our five hour drive to the campground, we were unable to persuade the kids to get back in the car.

Ian with his mother/author, Briana Bizier
When the day warmed up, we ventured a few minutes down the dirt road to Ledge Falls where
Nesowadnehunk Stream flows over several smoothly-polished granite ledges to create one of the world’s most perfect natural waterslides.

Ranger Greg wisely suggested we use life jackets for the kids, who had never swum in a river before, and he warned us that the rocks are very slippery around the falls. After a few slips ourselves, we decided to slide, not walk, into the water.

Ledge Falls are a perfect place to spend a warm afternoon, or to cool off after a hike. We spent every afternoon of our four-day trip thoroughly examining the upper and lower falls, drifting through the deep pool in the middle, and looking for interesting rocks. If we’d had room in the car for an inner tube or two, I’m sure we could have spent entire days in this beautiful little corner of the park.
Ranger Greg also suggested hiking to the summit of Burnt Mountain, a trail roughly 11 miles north of Nesowadnehunk Field. At 1.2 miles and with a modest elevation gain of 740 feet, this summit was a bit more attainable for the kids than Katahdin. Sage volunteered to be the “trail moose” and leave M&Ms along the trail to encourage her little brother. This worked for the first twenty feet or so, before four-year-old Ian declared he was tired of candy. With frequent stops to drink water, watch frogs, eat granola bars, and tend to various tiny ailments with cartoon character BandAids, we finally made it to the summit of Burnt Mountain in about the same amount of time it might take a fit, young person to summit Katahdin.

While the actual summit of Burnt Mountain is an open, grassy field with concrete pylons marking the remains of what was probably a fire lookout tower, the trail continues for about a hundred feet to an open viewpoint. This view was easily worth the hike. From Burnt Mountain, you can see the miles of open wilderness preserved and protected by Baxter State Park that stretch to the northern flanks Mount Katahdin.

Although we were visiting in early August during several days of beautiful weather, we only saw one other group hiking this mountain. As we stood on the top of Burnt Mountain and watched the woods, with no sign of roads or human habitation, it truly felt like we’d gotten away from it all.

Back at the campsite for our last night in Baxter, Sage completed the Trail Bingo section of her Junior Ranger packet. Ranger Greg dutifully graded her packet, reported she’d only missed one question (Baxter State Park protects 209,501 acres of wilderness, not 400,000), and handed Sage a shiny golden badge. As we walked back to our cozy lean-to, Sage beaming with her new badge proudly pinned to her shirt, another car pulled into the campsite beside ours. Two little boys jumped out of the car and ran to greet Sage and Ian.

Once their parents had unloaded the camping supplies and our children had led their boys across the campsite to show them where to find fresh raspberries, my husband and I wandered over to say hello.
This is just a great place to bring the kids, isn’t it?” the couple said.

We heartily agreed.

If you’re interested in exploring Baxter State Park yourself, you can find information about campsites and make reservations on their website: Because Baxter is managed as a wilderness preserve first and foremost, there are a few special considerations to take into account, such as treating your drinking water and making sure you arrive before the gates are closed at 8:30.

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