When I joined the outdoor photographer Jerry Monkman and one of his neighbors for a two-day backcountry ski into Katahdin Woods and Waters (KWW) National Monument in February 2017, I didn’t know what to expect. President Obama had created the monument just months earlier, on August 24, 2016, and the National Park Service hadn’t yet had time to do much with its newest property. There’s no visitor center or onsite staff, no signs on the highway, and online information is sparse. There are, however, trails, campsites, and two huts spread across the monument’s 87,500 acres—and access to all of them is free.
The long drive from Portsmouth, N.H., took us up the Maine Turnpike, past the town of Millinocket, and onto a series of progressively smaller roads, the last one a freshly plowed stretch of dirt culminating at the trailhead. Four-wheel drive was a must. As we pulled into the parking area, a group of cross-country skiers was coming off the trail. These were the last people we’d see for hours.
We loaded our packs, filled a sled with extra gear, and pushed off onto Messer Pond–Orin Falls Road. I grew up cross-country skiing, but my backcountry experience is limited. I didn’t know what sort of terrain we’d face in the shadow of rugged Katahdin. So the first surprise of the trip was the ease with which we made our way toward Haskell Hut, our destination for the night.
Although the mountains of adjacent Baxter State Park rose on the horizon, we experienced only gently rolling hills along the broad, well-groomed trail. When we finally turned off the road, nearly 5 miles later, we glided through several inches of fresh powder on the short, winding descent to the hut. There, on a small rise above the East Branch of the Penobscot River, we stoked a fire in the woodstove and got some pasta cooking on the propane stove. Aside from the occasional brisk walk to the nearby outhouse, we settled in for the night.
While the National Park Service develops a long-term management plan for KWW, both Haskell and its fellow hut, Big Spring Brook, as well as the national monument’s trails and campsites, are overseen by Elliotsville Plantation, the organization that donated the land and a $20 million endowment to the federal government in August 2016 to establish KWW.
I took my turn pulling the sled the following morning. With the extra weight, the gentle hills felt mountainous, and the soft snow that had fallen while we slept was more a burden than a blessing. But our riverside route yielded fresh highlights, and I stopped to catch my breath at each. Whitewater rapids churned over boulders below one crest in the trail. Bird tracks created a mysterious pattern in another spot. When the trail retreated from the water, we settled into a rhythm and glided our way south.
Another 5-mile day brought us to a narrow, quivering bridge suspended across the East Branch and into Bowlin Camps, a private sporting camp located just outside the federal property. The staff had already started a fire in our cabin. We immediately collapsed into chairs and pulled out some snacks. A fierce-looking stuffed bobcat looked down at us from above, a reminder that hunting is one of the primary forms of recreation in this area. No hunting is allowed on the largest KWW parcel, the area west of the East Branch that we had just skied across, but it is allowed on four smaller parcels located on the river’s east side.
Over breakfast the next morning, the camp’s owner said we were the first cross-country skiers he’d hosted. Bowlin’s biggest business in winter comes from snowmobilers. I felt lucky to have been such an early visitor to this corner of the national monument, and based on my experience, I would encourage other skiers to follow in our tracks.
Katahdin Woods and Waters was in the news a lot in the months after our trip. In April 2017, the White House included it in an executive order listing 27 national monuments to be reviewed by the Department of the Interior. In August 2017, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke formally recommended shrinking four national monuments. Although KWW wasn’t among that group, it’s unclear whether Zinke’s report recommended other changes to the management of the property.
Amidst this uncertainty, access to KWW remains unaffected for now. Paddlers and anglers can explore the East Branch of the Penobscot River, 27 miles of which run through the property. Hikers can cover a segment of the International Appalachian Trail and sleep in riverside shelters. Skiers and snowshoers can spend days on the trails and nights in the monument’s two woodstove-heated cabins. Tourists can follow the loop road for a dramatic view of Katahdin. For more inspiration, check out the slideshow, above, of images from my two-day trip then start planning your own adventure.