In the more than three decades that my family has spent summers on Moosehead Lake in northern Maine, in a cabin at the edge of one of the wildest regions east of the Mississippi River, we had never owned a trail book.
We didn’t need one. We stuck to our favorite hikes — one, really.
Mount Kineo rises like the nose of a humpback whale from the middle of Moosehead, a mountain peninsula carved by glaciers. When I was a girl, my parents, siblings, and I paid homage to it several times each summer.
We posed for photographs with visiting friends or family on outcroppings overlooking the spit of land below, the site of the grand Kineo House, a playground for the rich and famous who traveled to the region by train in the early 20th century. Time and again, we climbed the tower at the mountain’s peak to take in views of the sprawling lake. Later, we would cool off with a swim on Kineo’s north side, where sheer flint cliffs rise hundreds of feet above the lake’s surface.
At just under 1,800 feet in elevation, Mount Kineo is a hill compared with some of the greats nearby — Mount Kathadin looms at a storied 5,268 feet just to the northeast — but Kineo is a marvel. In those years, it felt like ours.
Five years ago, though, my sister and I went looking for new trails. Our parents had divorced, with shared custody of the “camp,” and many of our longstanding family traditions grew sharp edges. We bought a copy of “North Woods Walks” from the sporting goods store in Greenville, the largest town on the lake. Author and Maine guide Christopher Keene had signed the front cover, “Happy trails!”
We began ticking off one or two new hikes during summer weekends on the lake, starting with those closest to home. One circled a pristine pond just west of Greenville and emerged from the woods less than a half mile from the cabin, though we had never known the trail was there. Another took us up the backside of the mountain where we had learned to snow ski as tots, giving us new perspective on a familiar peak.
Last August, with just a morning to spare for hiking, we tried a short, 1-mile trail up Burnt Jacket Mountain on the east side of the lake. Keene promised an easy but worthwhile climb up this “little tiny hill” close to town, with a path crossing through a stand of old oaks and few, but lovely, views. “It’s no Mount Kineo,” he wrote.
The trail was hard to find, down a dirt road, and a bit overgrown at the start. But it climbed through beautiful dense forest and opened up near the top into a clearing filled with bushes of ripening raspberries. The real treat, though, was at the peak. Large trees partly obscured views of the lake. But there, in a plastic jar stashed under a pile of rocks, were three pocket-sized composition notebooks. For a decade, hikers have been climbing this path and leaving notes in these books, blazing a way to this spot line by line, their words like stone cairns marking the path.
Some wrote with the depth that time in the woods brings.
“He who takes most time, sees most,” the original entry reads. The author appeared a year later, explaining that his family had climbed Burnt Jacket for generations. On this day, he had come to spread his grandmother’s ashes.
Others write with young, simple joy. “I just saw a grasshopper,” said Sarah, who signed her name with a smiley face last summer.
Then, there are the regulars. Whole seasons pass, it seems, in which only Marge and Sandy’s names appear in the register. Sometimes they come with friends and sometimes alone. Always their messages are short and perfunctory, describing trail conditions and time to the peak.
On June 10, 2002, they wrote, “Monday. 35 min., 20 sec. Beautiful day! Nice breeze.” Two days later, it was “wet, cool, drizzle.” Nine years on: “Still muddy in spots.”
This summer, my sister and I didn’t try a new trail. We returned to Burnt Jacket, along with our brother and sister-in-law. At the mountaintop, there were our penciled-in thoughts from the prior year.
“First time here,” my boyfriend had written then. And, in a nod to a Massachusetts summer of great whites and beach closures, “No sign of sharks. It’s a good day.”
In the year that had passed, Marge and Sandy had hiked Burnt Jacket at least six times, with much of summer left to go. By miles trod and notes jotted, this was their place.
I imagine the pair as keepers of the jar, collecting it late in fall and stashing it high on a shelf, out of the harsh Maine winter. In spring they must replace it soon after the weather breaks, worried about those who get there sooner and find no notebooks, and with an eagerness to extend the invitation to other hikers, a sense of duty in recognition that this place is cherished.
My siblings and I sat at the top of Burnt Jacket, taking turns to write in the blank pages at the back of book No. 3. On this quiet hill, stone on stone, we were marking a new tradition.