Two or three years after the Allagash trip I was back in northern Maine, this time for a father-son backpack trip in Baxter State Park. We planned to climax the trip by climbing Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain. Though the climb failed, Katahdin gave us our most memorable campfire.
Our guide was Alton (Beaver) Wardwell, Christian Service Brigade leader for the Stockholm-New Sweden Baptist churches. He also led the Allagash trip. Tall, rangy, in his 50s, I admired his spirit and woodsman skills.
Baxter State Park is 200,000 acres of mostly-unspoiled forest, ponds, and trails. Moose and other animals abound. Imposing Mount Katahdin, the park’s centerpiece, is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Thoreau explored the region and wrote about it, referring often to Katahdin.
Our hikers came from several New England communities. They rendezvoused the afternoon before the trip and set up camp by a small a cabin where the Brigade battalion met. Upstairs was Cap Matt’s room: a bed, a chair, and a rustic-curtained window. The boys hoped someday Cap Matt might sleep there, and I did. My long-running column in Venture, Brigade’s magazine for boys, made me something of a folk hero to some kids.
Campsites were assigned for each night in Baxter Park, controlling the number of groups to preserve the sense of wilderness and determing the length of each day’s trek. We headed for our first campsite Monday morning, a dozen men and boys. The oldest hiker was George, my 70-year-old tent mate. He had climbed the highest point in many states and looked forward to tackling Katahdin with his grandson. The youngest hiker was a red-haired, freckled lad of ten or eleven. His father, a small man, had never backpacked. We hadn’t gone far before both were hurting.
We enjoyed great weather and well-marked trails. The red-haired kid and his dad soon cheered up. My tent mate hiked with his grandson; I usually hiked with seminary classmate Bob Dishinger, now pastor at the New Sweden church. Bob had a philosophical turn of mind.
At one point our conversation turned to longevity. “If we keep fit in mind and body, there is no reason we can’t live to 100.” I proposed we get together on our 100th birthdays and reminisce, but Bob copped out. A few years after the hike, he died shoveling snow.
Daily Bible input followed a simple pattern: one brief Bible passage per day. During morning briefing, we explored the day’s passage asking, what does it teach? No preaching; just a simple search for meaning. You don’t dawdle over theology when you have miles to go before you sleep.
After lunch, dads and sons spent a brief time together, reflecting on the question, what does today’s passage say to us? You put yourself in the story or passage. I taught a prayer technique I called Pray Back. Phrase by phrase you talk through the passage with God.
At evening campfires, we encouraged campers to share personal discovery from the passage and adventures of the day. Sometimes I told a story.
We reached our third campsite late in early evening; just time for a quick supper and the campfire. The skies were clear and we decided to sleep under the stars. Campers unrolled sleeping bags in random fashion. I picked a spot among them.
It was a beautiful, star-filled night. A half-moon reflected off the small lake bordering our camp. The campers had covered several miles, and silence soon settled over out camp. I settled in and slept. Well into the night, something woke me. I eased up on an elbow. At the edge of campsite stood a huge, dark form—a bull moose with a full rack. He eyed our camp then headed for the lake, picking his way among the sleeping campers. I watched him wade into the lake and drink. A page from God’s other book.
We reached our final campsite in good time. We would spend two nights there. Clouds thickened as we set up camp. In the morning we would climb mile-high Katahdin. At the evening campfire, Beaver Wardwell briefed us on the climb and told a sobering story.
Some years before, he was leading a group up Katahdin when his hikers came upon a tragedy. A lad from another party had taken a risk and fell to his death. Beaver volunteered to retrieve the body. Improvising a litter, he took his three biggest boys and followed a difficult route to the body. The lesson: stay close to your leader.
I had focused devotional times throughout the trip on the first part of John 15. We had reached verse 7: “If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” We reflected on that around the evening campfire and again the next morning. Then we organized to climb Katahdin.
The shortest route would take us through a steep jumble of huge rocks to a plateau. From there the going would be easier. Ahead lay the Knife Edge, a safe though scary trail to the top. Beaver led, kids followed like squirrels, and those of us more years and proportions to match worked harder.
My tent mate struggled, his 70 years showing. For his safety, we counseled him to return to camp, a deep disappointment, but safety is always paramount. As we climbed, the temperature dropped, bringing the cloud cover lower. We reached the plateau in dense fog. We could no longer see the peak. Beaver called us together. “Doesn’t look good, boys” he said.
Within minutes, a whiteout enveloped us, forcing us to abandon the climb. Visibility shrunk to a few feet. Admonishing the campers to stay close together, Beaver guided us along the plateau trail toward a safer return route. I brought up the rear. The whiteout made hiking slow and difficult. We dropped below the whiteout and worked our way safely to our campsite.
A trip’s final evening is always special. Campers have bonded. The park provided ample firewood and we huddled in jackets around the blaze, sharing thoughts on the trip and the hike through the whiteout, a first-time experience. We sang and said John 15:7 together. The red-haired man sat close to his son.
The fire was burning low when the lad spoke. “Cap, you’ve been teaching us about pray-back, talking the Bible back to God? Well, today I found out it works!”
“It got really hard to see and I was really scared. I stuck as close to my dad as I could, but I had to slow down and I got off the trial. I could hear the guys getting father and farther away. I didn’t want to yell. I wasn’t sure which way to go. Then I remembered what you said about talking the Bible back to God.”
“I prayed, “God, you said if I remain in you—well, I believe in Jesus. Then you said, and my words remain in you. Here they are, Lord; I know the verse by heart. You said, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. God, get me off this mountain!”
He paused and grinned. “And he did!”