In the before times of January 2020, when “Social Distancing” meant a couple of days on the trail and you could buy toilet paper at any grocery store, long-distance hiker extraordinaire (and newly apprenticed sled-dog driver) Cotton Joe Norman joined a group of mushers from Mahoosuc Guide Services in Newry, Maine for a trip on the IAT in Maine.
Here’s Joe’s tale:
The trucks and dog boxes were packed and ready to go as the caravan of guides, Yukon huskies, gear and clients slowly started to drive north from Newry, Maine to the Matagamon Wilderness Campground just off the IAT and on the banks of the East Branch of the Penobscot River. This was the start of a 3-night hut to hut mushing trip along the East Branch in the new Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument (KWWNM).
The weather was not in our favor as we drove north with rain storms predicted that day, making us wonder how the snow conditions would be in the Monument. With a few road side stops to give the dogs and us a break to relieve ourselves, we finally made it to campground late in the afternoon. After settling into the lodge we had rented, we set the picket lines, made hay beds and got food and water ready for the dogs and then made our own supper and rested for the beginning of the next day adventure.
Because of concerns about the rain and how that would affect the trail for us and cross-country skiers, the trail grooming crew did not break the trail for us the day before. After finishing up breakfast and getting everything packed, we headed to the trail head on a New River Road which is also part of the IAT. The trail crew met us there and started to groom the trail via snowmobile. The trail would not set properly due to it being too late that day with temps right around freezing. This concerned us but we decided to attempt to make it to our first nights stop at Haskell Hut.
Memories started to flood back to me from my previous time up here in the autumn of 2010 when Mother Nature’s Son (John Calhoun) and I hiked this section of the IAT in Maine when it was brand new. We had met at the Maine IAT Annual General Meeting at Lone Pine Campground a few days prior and, after a few chats, decided to meet in Shin Pond Village to hike the IAT from Grand Lake Road to Katahdin. This was the final section of John’s thru hike on the IAT from Crow Head Newfoundland to the summit of Katahdin. Amazing how 10 years later life would bring me back here as an apprentice mushing on this trail with a dogsledding company!
For the most part the mush in went smoothly along the trail to Haskell Hut on this snowy morning. The dogs did well but the freshly groomed trail made it challenging. The previous rain had formed a crust on top the sugary snow and the dog’s feet punched through it while hauling the heavy sleds of gear. Where the groomer had broken up the crust, it also had mixed it into the underlying snow, making an abrasive mix that could be tough on the dog’s feet. We hoped the night freeze would help with the trail conditions.
As we followed the IAT through the KWWNM it was great to know that areas like this are being preserved and open for all non-motorized ways of transportation, like sled dogs!
The frosty East Branch was flowing slowly with chucks of slush and ice rubbing together making a timeless musical melody to those that cared to listen. After reaching the Hut and settling the dogs we decided to snowshoe to Haskell Rock Pitch to see the cascading river winding its way south past the famous Haskell Rock. It had become a beautiful overcast day with a chilly breeze that let you know winter was still the prevailing season despite the rainstorm.
After the daily jobs were done with the dogs, we settled into Haskell Hut with a roaring hot stove going while dinner was being cooked. The gas lights had been taken out of the hut, so we luckily were able to find some small candles to burn while we enjoyed the evening together over dinner, tea and conversations.
The next day Polly and Kevin, the owners of Mahoosuc Guide Services, did a recon of the trail ahead to see if it was in better condition. Over breakfast they reported it too had not set and that to continue the 5 miles to Big Spring Brook Hut would be hard on the dogs. After discussing various options, we decided the most logical of choice was to pack up after breakfast and mush back to the trail head at New River Road since no one wanted any of the amazing dogs to get injured.
Crisp blue skies touched by snowcapped mountain peaks of Baxter State Park loomed over us to the west and a steady chilly northern breeze helped showcase the pure beauty of this northern Maine winter wonderland as we mushed out that afternoon. Even though we were not able to go deeper into the National Monument, the time out there was magical and we’ll appreciate all two legged and four legged beings that were part of this winter experience mushing on the International Appalachian trail.
All the best