A couple weeks ago, my two brothers-in-law and I had the awesome privilege of taking an overnight cross-country ski trip to Baxter State Park – part of the legendary wilderness in northern Maine. I had been to Baxter a number of times before, but it was always in the summer months when the black flies and mosquitoes dropped with as rapid a pace from the sky as snow does in winter.
Baxter is, indeed, wilderness – especially in winter. They have very limited winter access, with very few people in the Park. But my brother-in-law, Cameron, reserved us a cabin for one night. It was to be a five-mile journey in and, obviously, a five-mile journey back.
Except for a few realities: my other brother-in-law Garrett and I had never cross-country skied before. And we didn’t quite give ourselves too much time in trekking in before nightfall. With limited service and information, it was a challenge finding the trailhead – especially with the gusting wind and pelting snowflakes. But we finally did find it.
For the most part, the trip out was fine – after the initial adjustment period (consisting of about seven tumbles) that would be expected on one’s maiden voyage on cross-country skis. After two hours of skiing, however, and finally reaching the cabin, things got a little sticky. We soon discovered that the door was locked with a padlock, with no prospects of opening it.
This was about two hours before sunset (though, on a snowy and cloudy day, it would get darker before that) and the wind chills brought the temperature down to a cool 15 below zero. We had a decision to make: either we somehow had to figure out a way to get into the cabin, or turn around and take the five-mile trek back to our car, with no time for a meal to re-energize.
After considering our options, Cameron decided to pull out his cell phone to determine whether there was any way of reaching someone. You have to understand this about Baxter State Park, though: typically, as far as my limited experience has ever produced, there is only one place in the Park that one can get cell service: on the top of Mt. Katahdin – 13 miles in the other direction, and 5000 feet higher. Yet, for some reason, Cameron found a place near the cabin where he was able to get three bars of service.
Because of this, he was able to call his wife, who gave him the phone number for the Park Headquarters. The Headquarters (which we had tried to stop in on our way to the Park, but to no avail) was closed. So Cameron then got the number for the Millinocket (the closest town to Baxter) police department, who patched him through to a Park Ranger on duty. After explaining our predicament, the Ranger gave us a few combinations to try, but with no success.
Finally, the Ranger called another Ranger, who was patrolling the park on snowmobile, and he told him our plight. He then told us that the fellow should be at our cabin in 30 minutes to help us. Fortunately, we learned later, the Ranger had been patrolling very close to where we were. Had he not been at that time, it may have been a couple hours before he could have come.
While we waited, all three of us crowded into the near-by outhouse, where it was at least sheltered from the wind. We ran in place to stay warm and talked about what our plan would be if the Ranger didn’t show up in a timely manner. We decided that if he didn’t arrive by 3:30 (30 minutes before sunset) that we would somehow break into the cabin.
Fortunately, about 3:15 he arrived – replete with big, warm gloves, strewn with bear fur, and a blow torch. After trying the combination that the other Ranger gave us, which was also to no avail, he set the blow torch to it, re-tried the combination, and the lock slid right open.
A few hours later, we were sweating in our wood-stove-warmed cabin, enjoying the literature of Henry David Thoreau, David Berlinski, and (much to my chagrin) Patrick F. McManus. The sweet melodies of Maine humorist Tim Sample, echoing from my iPhone, serenaded us to sleep.
Incidentally, we later tried to call our wives back to update them on our safety, but none of us could get any service on any of our phones the few times we tried. AT&T came through for the few minutes that we needed it to.
I don’t want to exaggerate the significance of the event, but neither do I want to downplay it. The truth is, had we been forced to turn around and go back to our car, five miles away, we could have suffered serious injury or loss. Or, had the Ranger not shown up at the right time, we may have also been in serious danger.
With that being said, we were prepared, once we decided to stay, to get into the cabin using any means possible. And the Ranger (as well as the one who came to visit us the next morning) made it very clear that a little property damage would be excusable in exchange for our safety. They were, after all, the ones who were negligent. Apparently, for some reason, they overlooked our reservation and, since we were the first ones to stay there during the winter, they neglected to unlock the cabin for us.
We woke up the next morning to clear, blue skies. It was still windy and cold, however, but I managed to brave the elements and capture a few pictures of Mt. Katahdin (with Togue Pond in the foreground). Man, was it cold as I set up and broke down my tripod!
My only regret is that I intended to take a few sunrise pictures. But when I woke up at sunrise, I thought it was still cloudy. By the time I realized it was, in fact, sunny, the best light had retreated and I was stuck with the conditions in the picture above. Fortunately, during the winter, the sun doesn’t get very high in the sky, so typically one has at least decent lighting for almost the entire day. But I would have loved to have enjoyed beautiful pink, purple, red, or orange hues in the morning sky, had I been able to get out there early enough.
The whole trip reminded me of God’s goodness – both in His works of nature, and His in intervention in the life of man.