Foot and Paddle: On Snowshoes in the Kennebec Highlands
Wind sculpture, Vienna Mountain. (Doug Dunlap)As March draws near, when the woods and fields hold a winter’s fill of snow, and the duration of daylight grows day by day, I take to the Kennebec Highlands on snowshoes, seeking the high ground. As is my custom, I am on trail at an early hour, joined by an old friend. The air is bracing, the forest quiet.These hills, of the Kennebec Highlands, interspersed with swift streams and small ponds, represent the highest ground between the mid-coast and the high peaks and foothills of Western Maine. Views from open ridges and hilltop summits are outstanding. Southward lies the great spread of the Belgrade Lake chain. In the far north rise the Western Maine high peaks from the Saddleback Range to Mt. Abraham, Sugarloaf, and the Bigelow Range. Closer north-lying landmarks such as Bald Mountain near Weld, Mt. Blue, the Strong mountains, and the New Vineyard mountains are all in view. On a cloudless day there is a good chance of seeing Mt. Washington and the Presidential Range in New Hampshire, in the far west.Our destination is Vienna Mountain, a nearly 1.5- mile east-west, open ridge in the heart of the Highlands. The elongated top is a wild blueberry barren; hence its openness. The blueberry fields themselves are private property, nearly encircled by the Kennebec Highlands Public Lands Unit. As is commonly a Maine tradition, public access is permitted to hikers, with the usual understandings to respect the land, and pick up after oneself.A Rainbow in WinterOur starting point is the Cross Road, off the Kimball Pond Road in Vienna. This road is plowed for one hundred yards to reach a private home. After that the route is snow covered for the remainder of the 2.5 – mile trek to the high ground.I will enjoy many a striking view before this day is over, but I am struck by one memorable sight before the hike even begins. Read on!Cross Road trail to North Vienna Mountain. (Doug Dunlap)As I park my truck with care in order not to block the road, I glance toward the sun, still low on the horizon and…a slice of rainbow! In winter! The rising sun catches the edge of a high thin cloud. For a moment, the colors of the spectrum – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet – brighten the morning sky. Such a sight! In decades of time in the outdoors I had never before seen a rainbow at this time of year. A promising start to the day!On TrailUnder way, we move readily over an old woods road topped by fresh snow cover, and lined by rock maple, white birch, beech, and fir. In 0.2 miles we reach an intersection with a well-traveled snowmobile trail, marked by a prominent directional sign. A left turn leads towards Kimball Pond. Our direction is right, towards Vienna Mountain. We are now in the Kennebec Highlands Public Land Unit, and on the North Vienna Mountain Trail, although there is no signage to that effect on this day. (See map information, at the end of this article.)Beaver Pond. (Doug Dunlap)There are animal tracks aplenty on either side of the trail: snowshoe hare, white-footed field mouse; red fox; red squirrel. We come to a beaver pond formed on the outlet stream from Boody Pond, which lies northward and out of sight. Coyote tracks lead across our trail, extend to the snow-covered top of the beaver lodge, and off to far woods. I try to recreate the story. In winters past I have seen evidence of coyote tracking beaver, and attempting to break into a beaver lodge. It seems to be an ambitious project on the part of the coyote, one I have yet to see succeed. This coyote has poked around the lodge, pawed at the snow cover, marked the spot, but not gained entrance.As I look about, I am treated to quite a different discovery. Low sun casts long shadows across the pond from standing dead fir and cedar, from both 30’ high trunks and ragged stumps. Stark beauty; utter quiet. If a person is in search of peace of mind in the outdoors, here lies a scene to inspire that. Yet one more observation: despite recent overnight temperatures in the single digits, running water flows from an outlet stream, cutting across the woods road that serves as our path. We give the flow wide berth, as have snowmobilers before us. This discovery serves as a reminder to be vigilant in winter when near inlet and outlet streams.Our hike continues, the old road cutting through mixed hardwood and softwood forest on either side. An 80’ hemlock and an equally high white pine stand as remnants of an older growth forest, likely harvested some 20 years ago. Often such relics display an imperfection – crotched, twisted, crooked – that spared them. Perhaps a lesson there against the risks of seeking perfection? They tower over younger white birch and rock maple. Sun brightens the parchment leaves of beech trees, still clinging this late in winter – a distinctive amber glow in contrast to the surrounding snow cover, and the leafless branches of other nearby hrdwoods.We cross the outlet stream from Kidder Pond, over a bridge. This and the earlier passed Boody Pond stream combine downstream to form Mill Stream, which flows through Vienna Village and into Flying Pond. Two snowmobilers pass, the only other people we will see this day. We exchange waves. Our route up to this point has been over fairly level or gently ground, but after one hour of trekking we begin steady ascent, as we draw near to the top ridge of Vienna Mountain. A Maine Public Lands sign marks the boundary between the Highlands Unit, and the private land of the blueberry barrens. We clamber onto open ground, well buried in snow, and punctuated by clusters of boulders on the highest points.Clouds build in the western sky, Vienna Mountain. (Photo by Doug Dunlap)Mountaintop ViewsScene shift! Broad snowfields sweep upwards to a bright treeless expanse of white. Bright snow cover meets winter sky on the near horizon. Massive cloud clusters, shades of black, gray, and purple; even lavender and salmon-pink, race across the sharp blue backdrop, driven by high elevation winds. This is the cloud-racing view I seek on the heights of the Saddleback and Bigelow Ranges, or on the Katahdin Tableland. Yet, here we are, making our way through the snow, where Franklin County meets Kennebec County, at an elevation of barely 1000’.The clouds are of a stop-in-my tracks beauty, billowing, breaking apart, re-forming, changing hues, in a great non-stop procession sweeping across the field of view. With what might I compare such scenes? The winter landscape paintings by the Dutch masters? (Do an online search to see what I mean.)As we move higher on the ridge, earth-side views open to us. To the north rise the high peaks, of northern Franklin County, Saddleback, Mt. Abraham, and their neighbors, topping 4000’ elevation. Closer stand Mt. Blue, the Franklin County foothills, and nearby Highlands hilltops: Round Top, McGaffey Mountain, Sanders Hill, Snow squalls move from northwest to southeast, hiding distant peaks from view, sweep on, and the views return.Boundary sign, Kennebec Highlands Public Lands. (Doug Dunlap)No Mt. Washington view today. In that westerly direction dark clouds build hiding the horizon, and the mass of mountains that lie on either side of the Maine-New Hampshire border. Beyond the east end of Vienna Mountain lie the Belgrade Lakes – Great Pond and Long Pond prominent. Here, too, snow squalls race across the hills, and over the lakes. The wind picks up where we stand. Cold! Time to move toward the shelter of a grove of hardwood trees that bisects the ridge, pull another warm layer of clothing from our packs, and enjoy some water and food.After that break we explore the eastern reach of Vienna Mountain. On this blustery-turning winter day I think forward to the coming summer, when teams of blueberry rakers will work this ridge, gathering the wild blue berries for which Maine is famous. The weather will be quite different, the sky of a remarkable beauty with a different light, the hardwoods along the base of the ridge so many shades of green, waving in warmer winds.We gain a view of tower-topped York Hill in New Sharon, and of French Mountain and nearby hills at the eastern extent of the Highlands, in Rome. By our feet, the wind has sculptured the accumulated as it whips about the ridge, shaping snow dunes on open ground, and scouring great hollows in the lee of summit boulders. In this set-apart place we are treated to wild beauty, great, and small.At turn-around time, we leave the broad expanse of Vienna Mountain, return to the woods, head back along the snowmobile trail to the Cross Road and the trailhead. There is far more ground to explore here than what we have covered this day. I will be back! For those of us who live in Franklin County, the urge to go for a hike tends to lead one northward. This day in the Kennebec Highlands reminds me that there is fine wild country to be explored, here, a few miles to the south.I hope to see you on trail in the Highlands in the coming months!A map of Kennebec Highlands trails is available from the “7 Lakes Alliance”:www.7lakesalliance.org.Sky above Vienna Mountain. (Doug Dunlap)Foot and Paddle TipsIn the market for snowshoes? Look for a pair with bindings that may be adjusted readily in the field. Practice indoors the use of the bindings such that the method becomes familiar. The fit should be snug at both the heel and over the top of the foot. Snowshoe rentals are available at many ski areas in Franklin County, and some retail shops, and offer a way to test different types of bindings, and various lengths of snowshoes. Inquire locally to find a rental location.My snowshoeing daypack has space for a down jacket, wind pants, and a wind shell. I may start a hike wearing all of these, and have a space to pack them away if I warm up. Conversely, I may start without wearing some of these items, and pull them out of the pack when I encounter cold or windy conditions at high elevations.Beech leaves in late winter. (Doug Dunlap)My standard dress calls for a wool base layer next to my skin (including wool socks), a fleece jacket, and a wind shell. Wool gloves under mitts, a balaclava (head covering and neck warmer combined), a separate neck warmer, a wool cap, and sunglasses complete the picture. For particularly cold conditions, I pack an extra fleece layer., or a wind-resistant down coat.Snowshoe poles offer stability on uneven terrain, and lead to an efficient, upright stance on level or gently sloping ground. Adjustable trekking poles with snow baskets are a good choice. Fixed length alpine ski poles may work as well, with my preferred length at mid-section height for my hands when the pole is in the snow.Water bottle freezing? I place my water bottle in a heavy wool sock, and pack it inside my daypack on very cold days. To avoid dehydration I drink water once every 60-90 minutes, even in winter, when cold temperatures may suppress the urge to drink. Water breaks are a good time to eat a wholesome snack to maintain energy level. I opt for fruit, nuts, a bagel, or a homemade energy bar. On cold days I pack hot soup in an insulated container, and for a welcome snack.