On a hot day in late July 1977, I sweated my way down the main street of Duncannon, Pennsylvania, to the post office. Halfway through my first Appalachian Trail thru-hike, I was hoping for some encouraging mail from home, and maybe a little extra cash.
I opened a letter from my mother and clippings from my hometown newspaper in Bangor fell out. I read the headlines in horror: Baxter State Park was on fire!
On July 17, a lightning strike near Lost Pond, in the remote lowlands between Katahdin Stream Campground and the West Branch of the Penobscot River, ignited a jumble of dead trees. So inaccessible was the fire location that it took six hours to get heavy equipment to the blaze, which was spreading quickly. In the days following, an extensive perimeter of bulldozed firelines was hastily constructed in an attempt to contain the fire and stem any advance toward the slopes of Katahdin.
Hundreds of men and women and a small army of bulldozers, skidders and aircraft fought the conflagration for two weeks before it was brought under control. It took another three weeks of suppression efforts before the fire was finally declared out. Incredibly, there was just one serious injury and no casualties.
The fire had its genesis in a late-November 1974 storm of high winds and heavy snow that toppled trees like matchsticks on a 6,400-acre swath across the southern edge of the park and adjacent lands owned by Great Northern Paper Co.
“The area of blowdown(s) … represented a tangled mass of trees” that created a “potentially explosive source of fuels,” according to a report by Vladek Kolman, a consulting forester.
The next year, Great Northern conducted salvage operations to clean up the mess on their land. Next door, Baxter State Park officials drew up their own plans to reduce the forest fire threat but were stymied by a series of logistical snags and legal battles. Meanwhile, “the majority of the damaged trees died and dried out. The stage was now set for disaster,” read Kolman’s paper. Two years later, the worst occurred.
My heart sank with the news, and again each time I received another letter over the coming weeks. Even after the fire was extinguished, Katahdin remained closed, as did the AT, and it was rumored that both might remain that way for the rest of the season. Southbound thru-hikers were forced to start their journey at Abol Bridge; would I be able to complete my long AT trek? That October, after 2,000 miles, I was relieved to find the path open. Somberly, I walked along the AT toward Katahdin, fresh white paint blazes on blackened trees marking the way.
The 1977 Baxter fire consumed 3,500 acres of forestland overall, 1,900 within the park. Forty years later, the affected park area looks a lot different under a thick green canopy of trees well on their way to maturity. But you can still find plenty of evidence of the fire if you know where to look. Blueberry Ledges Trail, Foss and Knowlton Pond Trail and the Appalachian Trail will lead you right through the heart of the old burn area; all can be accessed from a common trailhead on the Golden Road near Abol Bridge.
Sunlight intolerant hardwoods like grey birch, paper birch and aspen have colonized much of the burn, and you’ll walk through miles of these trees, oftentimes on old fireroads and breaks. Blueberries are another indicator species. Dig around in the duff layer to find charcoal, and look for blackened areas on old stumps and snags. If you’re a natural history sleuth like me, well, you’ll enjoy it immensely and revel in Mother Nature’s ability to recover and thrive.
Be sure to bring a swimsuit and berry container, as there are plenty of opportunities to use both along the way.
For an incredible bird’s-eye view of the 1977 fire area, climb Abol Trail on Katahdin. From your vantage point above treeline, gaze southward to see the definitive boundary between the dark green softwood trees and the lighter colored leaves of the hardwoods. It allows you to trace an undulating line around the entire burn.
It’s quite a sight.