A peak experience in Maine

A refreshing breeze on a steamy afternoon swept through the spruces as we clambered up a steep slope and emerged into a “Sound of Music” mountainscape offering expansive views from every compass point.

Below to the west lay Rangeley Lake, a favorite vacation destination; to the southwest, some 60 miles distant, the profile of New Hampshire’s White Mountains appeared faintly among the clouds; a mile and a half north, The Horn and Potato Nubble jutted beyond the Saddleback ridge; and the summits of Redington, Abraham, Sugarloaf and Bigelow extended to the northeastern horizon.

“One of the best peaks in New England,” I remarked, pausing to sip from a water bottle.

Just ahead, a wooden sign marked an intersection with the Appalachian Trail, which weaved among rocks and moss past a shallow pond.

My wife, Lisa, son, Tom, and I were approaching the crest of Maine’s Saddleback Mountain last week, thus resuming a decades-long family tradition. Lisa and I have hiked to the 4,121-foot summit at least once a year for the past 35 years; Tom, who had taken a hiatus while living out West for the past eight years, was picking up where he left off.

We arrived at Saddleback’s summit cairn just as a family from California was departing.

“How far you going?” I asked.

“All the way!” came the reply.

The couple and their four children, ages 6-12, started hiking the 2,170-mile Appalachian Trail in Georgia last February.

“Wow!” I exclaimed, “You guys are real rock stars — literally!”

Everyone seemed in good spirits and great shape, even though there had been a slight misunderstanding by the youngest daughter, who initially believed their long trek had ended a week earlier at the Maine border.

Her mother took the blame for the confusion.

“We told her we were hiking all the way from Georgia to Maine,” she explained. The mother then had to tell her daughter that, after crossing from New Hampshire to Maine, the Appalachian Trail continues another 281 miles, ending at Mount Katahdin’s 5,267-foot summit.

“She took it pretty well,” the mother said.

“Keep up the good work! You have some wonderful hiking ahead of you,” I said.

A few minutes after they tramped away, another group appeared — teenagers on a five-day Outward Bound backpacking trek.

“Awesome!” one shouted, drinking in the view.

No dilly-dallying, though; they still had several hard miles to go before the next campsite, and the next day they would split up and set out on overnight solo hikes.

Watching them trudge off on a sweltering afternoon, I was happy to be carrying a light pack and preparing to head back down for a swim.

Less than a half-mile below the summit we veered off the Appalachian Trail to descend via ski trails — a shorter but steeper route to the base.

The Saddleback Ski Area, opened in 1960, subsequently changed hands several times and shut down in 2015. While its future as a ski area is uncertain, the mountain remains open to hikers.

In 2000, Saddleback’s then-owner agreed to donate 570 acres along the Appalachian Trail corridor to the National Park Service and sell an adjoining 600-acre tract for $4 million as preserved land.

This ensures that future generations will continue to enjoy the splendors of a spectacular summit — whether out for a short day excursion, or as part of a months-long expedition.

We’ll be back.

 

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