Caribou Mountain Loop / by Greg Westrich

At eight I dropped the kids off at school and headed down to the coast. Years ago I had hiked the Caribou Mountain Loop in the Donnell Pond Public Reserved Land a couple of times, but never mapped it. That was today's goal. I had to be back at three to meet Emma at the bus stop at three. Subtracting time to drive back and forth, that gave me four hours to hike the 9.5 miles.


The day was perfect: warm sun, cool shade, a breeze to keep the black flies down, and a cotton-candy blue sky. The hardwoods were just starting to leaf out. Like fall in reverse, the tiny, partially open leaves were red or yellow or lime green. They added color to the forest without blocking the views from the rough granite cliffs.


In the past, I'd started this hike by ascending Black Mountain Bald on the Big Chief Trail. Today, I opted to start from the Donnell Pond Trailhead and climb the Black Mountain Cliffs Trail. It's almost a mile longer and involves an extra climb, but I don't think my Honda Fit would make it down the Black Mountain Road to the Big Chief Trailhead.


After climbing onto Black Mountain's summit ridge, I followed the trail through a dry, mossy spruce forest. Very little grew beneath the trees except the moss. Where the trail crossed bare bedrock, gray lichen like balls of steel wool and the single green leaves of foam flowers competed for sunlight. A classic Maine trail: deep forest, rock, a carpet of rusty needles, and emerald moss.


From Black Mountain's unmarked summit, I descended into a steep notch. Wizard Pond was hidden through the trees, visible only as a bright opening off to my right. Many of the hemlocks in this valley are more than 400 years old. The spot was just too inaccessible to be worth logging.


Quickly, I climb out of the forest and onto the bare summit cone of Black Mountain Bald. My horizon opens up and the sun warms my skin. The mountains of Mount Desert Island float in a pool of blue quicksliver like a crenelated mirage. Lakes and inlets surround the mountain, blue pools withing the black and pale green carpet. To the north, the rocky humps of Caribou and Catherine Mountain sit waiting for me. Behind them, Tunk Mountain peeks over their shoulders.


Knowing my time is limited, I guzzle water and follow the large cairns down sinuous granite ledges. The trail drops into the forest and skirt beneath high, broken cliffs. The granite dirty with sere sheets of black lichen, rusty needles, and pale moss.


The trail winds among rocks and boulders along low piney ridges. Everything is covered with needles: the rocks that litter the forest floor, the trail, the hobble bushes just starting to bloom. Off to the right is an expanse of bog. Columns of bone-bleached snags stand ankle-deep in shining blue water.


On my previous hikes through this valley, I flushed a grouse who tried to distract me from her chicks that sat quietly on low branches waiting for me to pass. The same day Moxie, my lab-husky mix who was my hiking partner before the kids were born, found a day-old fawn. She got down in her play stance and barked at it. Instead of playing, the fawn bolted into the woods. It got hung up in the branches of a fallen maple. It hung there bleating like the cross between a kid and a child. I had to carefully lift its trembling ten pound body out of the tree and release it. The fawn bound away, presumably toward its mother.


The trail skirts Rainbow Pond, but all the snags and alders blocked my view of the pond. If I hadn't seen it from the mountain, I wouldn't have known it was there.


I climbed steeply to open ledges on the shoulder of Caribou Mountain. The view told me to stop and linger. Sit and have some lunch. But I needed to keep moving to make it back to Glenburn on time.

The trail crosses a larger ledge near the summit, then descends to another ledge on the western end of the mountain.


From there, the trail switchbacks down off the mountain, passing across then beneath a stair-stepped series of granite faces. The trail bottoms out and begins the long climb back up Black Mountain. I pushed my failing legs to keep climbing. It's only about 700 feet up in a half mile, but feels worse after hiking seven miles.


I top out and close the loop. That leaves 1.8 miles backtrack to the car.


An hour later I was gassing up at Checkout when Emma's bus went by. I'd made my deadline. And boy did my legs know it.