August 10, 2007
Rangers Bruce and Jodi and I are at the Katahdin Stream Ranger station when a woman comes running out of the falling darkness. She's panicking but not yet into full-on hysteria, yelling about something. We get her to calm down, and I recognize her from earlier in the evening. She was one of a nine-person party that went up the Abol Trail that day. The group was really not prepared for a climb as serious as Katahdin and they had split into thirds. She and two other adults turned back, and two sets of kids continued the climb - one had yet to return. This woman is upset because it's nine p.m. and her daughter is still up there.
Jodi asks her if there were any known injuries or medical problems. "Well, my daughter has asthma," she tells us. "Did she bring her inhaler?" asks Jodi. "No," says the woman, "her asthma is sports-induced." I point to the mountain and say, "Ma'm, that's a sport.'" By now she's calming down and says, "She must be lost." Jodi tells her not to worry, that the trail is well marked and that some people just take longer than others. She reassures the woman, who goes back to the parking area to wait. And then she tells Bruce to ready a rescue pack - he's the Hunt Trail expert - and me to hang around in case I'm needed.
These woods above us do have an amazing capacity to swallow people. Take Gus Aldritch. A long-time lover of the park, he climbed up to Chimney Pond with a companion in July of 1974. Aldritch was 86 and wanted to do another climb of Katahdin, and set off for Baxter peak via Hamlin Ridge, an ambitious route for even a young and fit hiker. He was never seen again. An eight-day search ensued with rangers, wardens, and air support all actively combing the woods, but nothing turned up. Some conjectured that Aldritch wanted it that way.
Of course the most famous lost on Katahdin tale comes from Donn Fendler, who, as a twelve-year-old boy, got tired of waiting for the rest of his party on the summit and decided to make his way back to camp on his own. He ended up getting turned around in a thick fog, slipped down an embankment, and was gone for days despite an intense manhunt. He showed up half naked more than a week later many miles from where he was last seen. He made several common mistakes among the lost: setting off on his own, leaving the trail, and wandering rather than sitting still. But the storm that enveloped the mountain that night didn't help.
A similar fog in June of 1944 took an entire military transport plane along with its crew of seven. The four-engine C-54 was traveling from England to Washington, DC, in June and was last heard from near Blissville, New Brunswick. After that point the aircraft, carrying a lone military passenger, a civilian crew of six, and a cargo of mail and supplies, went silent, never again reporting its position. When the plane failed to arrive at its destination, a search was mounted both aerially and on the ground. It was hampered by the same fog that caused the plane to crash, and, as the Associated Press reported, "one of the toughest terrains ever experienced by veteran army woodsman regularly assigned to rescue work. . ." It was a full eight days before anyone reached the wreckage, which was strewn for 250 yards across the top of Fort Mountain, a 3,900-foot peak northwest of Katahdin. (At the time, the AP noted, Fort had only been climbed three times in its history.) There were no survivors. Obviously a plane crash is different than a lost individual, but that unfortunate incident does show how even something very large can go missing in the dense forests around Katahdin.
But these were all very rare cases. The vast majority of Katahdin explorers come back in good time. (Those with poor senses of direction have two allies - one, there is simply a lot of people up there, and two, the trail is very clearly marked.) This is true of our overdue party. Not an hour after we meet the concerned mother, the kids return tired but uninjured. They just got in over their heads.Andy Vietze, a contributing editor to Down East, is a Maine State Park Ranger stationed at Daicey Pond, Baxter State Park.