Should you turn around?
There is no set depth for when mud is considered ‘too deep’. When a fresh clearcut terminates kilometers of fast-travel fire-road, you long for a sign that says ‘easy way out’. Desire for assurance, plus avoidance of repeating the cost we’ve already sunk: what’s behind is known, and it ain’t pretty. Could things get better just around the corner? Forward movement, always teasing. Blind as it may be.
None of these thoughts are on the radar. It’s a cheerful morning. Ira Glass is on the radio and the bike rack loaded, two important parts of setting the mood for the few hour cruise north on the 95 towards Baxter State park, home of Mt. Katahdin. It’s early September and the colours of a New England fall are just beginning to surface.
The plan is to circle Maine’s tallest peak, looping back through Woods and Waters National Monument. A quest involving the rolling foothills butting up against the prominent granite outlier, and hopefully not too many mosquitos. The weapon: Salsa Fargo. Ammo? Burritos con salsa and chipotle cashew sauce – a lot of it.
The overcast skies slowly lift and wheels locomote. The device goes to airplane mode and a subtle relief flys in. How far do we need to go to let ourselves of the hook?
Northbound, pavement transitions to hardpack gravel. At this point, there’s only one road for the next 50 miles. Fifty gradually undulating, smooth, and beautiful miles. It’s a weekday, there is not traffic. The old forestry road hugs the river, sounds of rushing water between heartbeats fills the ears.
The morning sun teases the fresh rain into mist, leaving a few rays to contrast the grey. All of it is a reminder of how the sensory experience changes on two wheels.
Three hours pass, or maybe it’s been four? The park roadway runs out, signalled by the waving ranger at the north gate. A few miles down the road, a left, right, and another left, coax the bull moose with sweet nothings to clear the path ahead. All that felt like a lot of adventure – it’s time to find camp.
Woods and Waters National Monument was designated a preserve in 2016 (Thanks Obama), so infrastructure and a sense of officialness is lacking. But without the typical parks improvements, you find a place less touched. As the route connects with the penobscot river, spectacular camping awaits.
The sound of the rushing rapids successfully fends off the bears for the night. A wish, or hope, is all you really have from the incredibly exposed, yet surprisingly secure feeling from inside a small pup tent.
Oatmeal’s greatest lift? Sliced almonds and a hit of maple syrup. Natural sweetness compounds on the surroundings. Some things shouldn’t be refined. In the background, a thought flows in: this same water will pass the car in a few hours, and wheels roll downstream from here. Or so they should.
High on maple syrup bliss, it’s time to get rolling. Some of the route’s best riding awaits.
And some of the worst.
After blowing past a key intersection, noticing the overgrowth, and a few hundred windswept trees blocking the old jeep track, the thought arises that this might not be the right way. The pace for the morning is now a quarter-rate of yesterdays gallop. The rain starts to fall. Emotions a plenty, joy is not one of them.
Remarkably, the frequency of downed trees beins to lift. Confirmation bias tickled: turning around would have been foolish. The rain begins to fall a little heavier. At least there’s no more carrying the bike.
Active logging has just begun on this section just outside of the monument boundary. On a map, it appears as the logical route. impassable blockade of fallen trees, ultra-rough bushwacking through fresh upturned soil. Should have taken that turn.
Where theres heavy logging machinery, there are roads. The mud is deep, but the truck tracks point to a way out. Re-entering the park boundary, the brace for more “adventure”, slowly fades. Winding down, letting go, there’s still some ground to cover.
The rain has halted. It’s turned into a windless, sunny day. and this path leads straight to the safe haven of the car. Remembering the watermelon stashed within, the pace quickens.
Park in Millinocket townsite, call local PD to confirm it is okay to leave vehicle overnight.
This loop is a fantastic way to get into bikepacking. Plenty of camping to add days and shorten the riding distances, or ride it out-and-back to stick to the nicely graded (and downhill on the return!) park road. If you’re riding it in two days, ensure you can cover a distance like this without a loaded bike.
Water? Plenty, bring filter. I’m 100% sold on this water filter for Bikepacking.
My setup? Ski straps and dry sacs. Nothing fancy needed for this one.
Parting Note: A Salsa Fargo isn’t a budget bike, and isn’t necessary for this trip. A used or entry level mountain bike/gravel with 2” tires is more than adequate.