We had all sorts of ideas of what we’d do for our family’s 20th anniversary camping and hiking in Baxter State Park. We planned to make special T-shirts and cook special meals. But life got busy — as it tends to do — and most of those things fell through.
Nevertheless, the annual Baxter trip is always special, just as it is. That’s why so many of us have stuck with the tradition, returning to the park each year to cook and camp and hike and fish. And though we dropped the ball on the T-shirts, a few campers had some surprises up their sleeves to celebrate the trips 20th consecutive year.
Dinosaurs, for instance, made a special appearance to delight children and park rangers alike. But that story comes later. First, let me explain the scope of the annual trip.
I call it a family trip because it was started by my uncle and aunt, Bruce and Kerry Jordan, 20 years ago. Along with a few friends, they rented a campsite in Baxter and hiked Katahdin with their children. Then they just kept returning.
Over the years, the trip has grown. I started attending the trip with my mom when I was 16 years old. We hiked Katahdin that year, climbing to Baxter Peak and crossing the perilous Knife Edge. I was instantly hooked to the hiking and the overall experience of sleeping in the dark Maine woods surrounded by family and friends.
A group of 39 people attended the milestone trip this August. Split among three campsites in Nesowadnehunk Field, I had aunts and uncles, cousins and inlaws, and many friends. My husband was there. So was my mom. And for the first time, my 5-year-old niece Willa joined her family in the park.
As campers filtered into camp on Aug. 11, they claimed tent spots, helped one another straighten poles and drive in tent stakes, then dove into the lawn games KanJam and cornhole.
The campground ranger, stationed at a cabin nearby, stopped by to warn us about our noise level. Nesowadnehunk Field is a tranquil place, full of curious snowshoe hares and other wildlife. It was her job to make sure it stayed that way.
Throughout the weekend, as usual, our large group of family and friends would split up during the daytime, embarking on various adventures throughout the park. Some fished Nesowadnehunk Stream, while others lounged about camp, reading and dozing in the sun. A number of campers rented canoes from the park for $1 an hour and explored nearby ponds. And about a half of the group hiked.
I usually go on the most challenging hike the group plans each year, and most of the time, that’s a hike up Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain at 5,267 feet above sea level. But this year, I bowed out of the daylong trek for a shorter climb up Sentinel Mountain. The day was cloudy, and I didn’t want to hike all the way up Katahdin if there would be no views at the top. Plus, opting for the easier hike would give me more time to spend with my niece, who arrived that afternoon.
(For a story and short video on the Sentinel Mountain hike, click HERE.)
The clouds — and even a bit of rain — stuck with us throughout the morning. Joined by four other hikers, including my husband, Derek, we successfully climbed Sentinel and returned by lunchtime.
I like to think the sun broke through the clouds just for my niece, who arrived in Baxter State Park around noon. As usual, she greeted me with an enthusiastic scream, sprinted to me, jumped into my arms and kissed my face.
“I’m pretty dirty,” I said apologetically. “I just got done hiking. I stink!”
“I don’t care,” Willa replied, then sniffed my hair audibly. “You smell good.”
I just laughed. She was likely smelling the cedarwood and cinnamon from my all-natural insect repellent.
Encouraged by the unexpected sun, we changed into our bathing suits and headed to the nearby Ledge Falls, also known as “The Ledges,” where rushing water has smoothed the granite bedrock into natural water slides on Nesowadnehunk Stream. Holding hands, Willa and I waded into a shallow pool on the edge of the stream and watched my husband, Derek, dive into the frothing water upstream and ride the current down the smoothed rock.
“I want to slide!” Willa exclaimed, to my surprise.
Tumbling around and over boulders upstream, the Nesowadnehunk is always a sight to behold at that particular spot. I thought my little niece would be intimidated by the scene, as many people are, regardless of their age. I wasn’t prepared for her request. Helping her to shore, we walked over the sun-warmed granite to where our group had laid out their towels to lounge in the sun. I consulted with my family and decided the water was low enough and the current gentle enough for Willa to go down the slides if she sat on Uncle Derek’s lap with me there to assist. And of course Willa was wearing a secure life vest, one that covers her whole torso and has a strap between her legs. She also wore little water shoes.
Still in awe of her bravery, I stepped into the churning water above the slides and followed Derek and Willa as the water carried them down over the granite. As expected, Willa screamed and flailed her arms and legs. At the bottom of the slide, she wrapped her arms around my neck, laughing and shivering as we struggled out of the pull of the current, then begged us to take her down the slides again.
It was great to see my niece eager to experience the wildness of Baxter State Park, but I had to keep a close eye on her. At such a young age, she often doesn’t register danger where she should.
“No running on the rocks,” I yelled after her as she hurried back to the top of the slides. The granite that lines the edges of The Ledges, so perfect for picnicking and sunbathing, can be extremely slippery. I’ve seen people fall down more than once.
We spent a couple hours at the Ledges, then headed back to Nesowadnehunk Field for an evening of relaxation and dice games, campfires and s’mores. In a Dutch oven, one camper cooked a peppermint angel food cake in honor of the trip’s 20th anniversary. And another camper had composed a song about our group’s many adventures in the park, which she performed with the help of her fellow campers.
I, too, had prepared something special for the occasion.
Months ago, I came across a video online of two people dressed in dinosaur costumes engaged in a snowball fight, and I couldn’t get over how funny it was, so I found the costume on Amazon and purchased two — one for me and one for my husband. But we’d been so busy that summer that we hadn’t had any time to goof around in the costumes — until our trip to Baxter.
After dinner, Derek and I snuck into our tent, unearthed the costumes from my duffle bag and put them on. But it wasn’t so simple. First, as a dinosaur, I struggled for about a minute to zip the tent door shut. Then one of the two fans that keep the giant costume inflated fell out of my pocket, unplugged and disappeared. I found it in my tail.
By then, we’d been spotted through the trees and tents, and Derek was urging me to fix whatever I’d broken and get a move on.
In the end, we had everyone laughing. I fixed my suit and gave Willa a hug with my stubby dinosaur arms. We then waddled down the gravel campground road to visit the other two group campsites, where we ran into the park ranger. We promised we’d keep the roaring to a minimum, and she may have smiled.