"The greatest warriors are those who dangle a human for hours on a string, break sacred water for the profanity of air, then snap fiercely back into pearly molecules that describe fishness" - Joy Harjo
Every few years, I find myself returning to the north Maine woods to exist, even just for a few days, in the shadows of Katahdin and the murmur of the Penobscot. It is this mountain and this river that I seem to owe so much to. They have shaped my life's path more than most anything else.
I was first taken in by these woods and waters while I was working on the trail crew at Baxter State Park. I didn't do much fishing then; instead, I spent my time relentlessly exploring, expending all that 21-year-old energy into rafting down the class 5 rapids of the Crib Works and reaching every peak I could over our three day weekends after working four-tens building rock staircases up Katahdin and clearing twenty miles of blow-downs in a day. My knees never hurt, my skin grew immune to the hordes of black flies, my eyes were always looking beyond each false peak and around each river bend. I didn't take much time to study what I was rafting or hiking - too much to see up ahead.
Now I make a pilgrimage every couple of years not to push myself into deep unknowns, but to revisit certain trails and pools and to find those tiny mysteries that exist right in front of us. And to hopefully land some beautiful landlocked salmon and brook trout. I found myself this year questioning this idea of "revisiting." Has it just become a pattern that I've fallen into that, in some ways, constricts my experience down to a simple reliving instead of living something "new?" Over the week, as I fished my favorite eddies and runs, I realized that a pilgrimage is a different type of "revisiting."
It isn't a reliving, it's a going-back-to-in-order-to-find-something-new. The salmon here in this water revisit it every year as they spawn, yet they are experiencing something completely new. Some may pool up in the same eddy every year, but they are reaching for different caddis during those last nights of June when they flood the air. I may fish this same run I did last year, but when I look up, the clouds clipping across Katahdin have a notion I've never seen before and the salmon that just attacked my emerger takes me for a ride downstream that I'll never forget, his last jump over my head a fine farewell until I come back. A pilgrimage is about honoring the steps already taken while also experiencing and discovering something new.
Note: I wrote this about ten years ago while working on the Baxter State Park Trail Crew and recently stumbled across it. I figured I'd throw it up here as an artifact and because it was from a pretty influential part of my life. Eventually it might be part of a longer piece about trail work and the amazing experiences it provided me. The BSP Crew was my first of three trail crews I signed on to after college. Looking back, I think I learned more from those three years of working in the woods, traveling the country, and sleeping in a tent than I had in college. Those experiences helped shape who I am today and I am forever thankful for them.
For eight days in a row I wake up, slide on my steel toe boots, drink two cups of coffee, slam down a heart-attack sandwich (bagel, thick slab of cheddar, double eggs, and as much bacon as possible) and head out the door towards Katahdin Stream Campground. From there, my crew and I hike up the Hunt Trail, also known as the Appalachian Trail, to work on the Stairway to Heaven. This project, a series of rock staircases starting right above Katahdin Stream Falls, ascends Katahdin for another mile or so towards the glorious peak, the finish, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
Since 1991, the trail crews at Baxter State Park, along with many trail volunteers of all ages, have worked thousands of hours and dedicated buckets of sweat and grit quarrying, hauling, rolling and setting large pieces of granite into the Appalachian Trail. The rock set in the trail becomes an impermeable tread way surface, slowing the erosion of the trail caused by water and usage, creating a beautiful path up the mountain.
There are many steps involved in the process of building the Stairway to Heaven. Our crew splits the work up into different stations, which we rotate through during the week. Because of the size of the project, it works at its most efficient with at least 20 people involved. The Baxter State Park trail crew consists, on average, of 10-15 people, which means that volunteers are an integral part of this project.
The rock is first quarried down in the pit (the “pit” station), which is located in the ravine between Katadhin and Owl Mountains. In the pit, the granite is split into workable, step-size pieces. The larger pieces are drilled with a rock drill, and then split using feathers and wedges. These pieces are then wrapped with chain, hooked onto a snatch-block, which runs on a 500-foot piece of wire rope from one Grip Hoist to another, and lifted 80 feet into the air. Once the load is lifted to its highest point, the crew retrieves the load (the “hand crew” station), pulling it towards the landing zone alongside the Appalachian Trail.
The rigging system our crew uses consists of two grip hoists, one stationed on the side of Katahdin (the “Monster” station), and the other on the side of the Owl (the “Owl” station). These grip hoists, or winches, pull the wire rope tight to lift the load and slowly slacken the wire rope to lower the load. Once all the rock is brought to the work site, individual rocks are rolled down trail to pre-determined areas to be meticulously built into rock staircases.
Some days are long, especially when you’re stuck pulling in the load with your shoulders and arms burning from exhaustion. Some days go quick, wrapping the rock in chain, hooking it up to the system and watching it fly high above and once it’s in the clear, drilling or scoring another large rock. Harvesting and wrapping. Drilling and hammering. Rolling and setting. There is a rhythm, much like hiking, that you can allow yourself to step into.
The entire process, from harvesting rock out of the pit, to moving trail side, to building a staircase out of the material, takes countless hours of hard labor. However, all those hours add up into a beautiful path that, hopefully, will be there for as long as the mountain.
I stumbled upon the name "Raftman's Path" walking the river trail that traverses through the little town I live in. It was named during the days when lumber was a huge commodity in this area. The Susquehanna River was an industrial thoroughfare - bearing down loads of lumber from the northern reaches of Pennsylvania towards the Chesapeake. Marietta was a stopping point, a place for the lumber either to go to the mills lining its banks or shoot further downstream through pig iron smoke. Raftmen would guide the lumber down to the mouth of the Susquehanna into the Chesapeake - an estuary of salt, water, lumber, ore, eel and shad. When their job was done, they would walk the raftman's path back through the Susquehanna Riverlands of Lancaster County towards their homes. The path is now wooded and meanders through some of the only "wild" places left in the county.