Summiting Mount Katahdin by Dog Team
Updated: May 24, 2022
Ascending great summits by dogteam is a long standing tradition in history.
In 1926, Arthur Walden and his team of Chinooks summited New England’s tallest mountain- Mount Washington. Walden was appointed lead musher on the Byrd Antarctic Expedition the following year. A handful of mushers have since repeated the feat, including the most recent dog team ascent of Washington in 2017.
In 1979, the legendary Joe Reddington Sr. and Susan Butcher summited Alaska’s Mount Denali- the tallest mountain on the North American continent- by dogteam. Although this is a national park, a handful of mushers have replicated this ascent as since.
Joe Reddington and Susan Butcher summiting Denali- North America's tallest peak.
Mount Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain, and the first spot in North America to catch beams of light from the rising sun, has never been ascended. While it may not be as tall as Mount Washington, it is steeper. In fact, it is the steepest ascent of all 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Mountain Range Trail.
“It has not been done because it cannot be done.” some have argued. “No dogs have been allowed in that park since Governor Baxter created the park in 1931.”
Katahdin rising into the clouds some 30 miles distant What if I told you that draft animals were used in the park after its inception. What if I told you that many enjoyed the park with their dogs during the early years- including Governor Baxter himself. What if I told you there was a sanctioned and highly publicized dogsled attempt on Mount Katahdin during the park founder’s lifetime and with his knowledge? What if I told you there has been a dog team On the mountain before? “It never happened.” I have been told by those who should know. But it did. Chinooks on the Katahdin In 1951, Maine Guide and world-champion wood cutter, Perry Greene, eight Chinook sled dogs, and seven boy scouts (Yes, you read that right, boy scouts) attempted a winter ascent of Katahdin by dogteam. The day prior, on March 15, 1951, they came within 9 miles of the mountain by way of Togue Pond. There they set up base camp for a push on the mountain the following day. Greene planned to summit the following day by ascending the Roaring Brook Trail to Chimney Pond. From there they would ascend the Saddle Trail.
Perry Greene, his team of Chinooks, and Waldoboro, Maine Boy Scout troop
It is hard for us to fathom in an age when we try to child proof the world, rather than world proof our children, but theirs was not the only winter attempt on the summit by a group of boys that day. Another group of seven boys from the prestigious Phillips-Exeter Academy of New Hampshire had coordinated with Greene’s team to attempt a winter summit of Katahdin on the same day, using the same route. The Exeter team used cross-country skis in their bid for the summit. The plan was for the Exeter party to break trail. Greene’s dog team and party would follow behind with gear and supplies.
On the morning of the ascent- Thursday, March 16, 1951- all went according to plan until the parties came to within 1,000 feet of the summit. With a sudden thunder, a large snowslide carried the Exeter team several hundred feet down the Saddle. Remarkably, all were relatively unscathed with the exception of one Exeter student. Richard Greene, of Leavenworth Washington, was bleeding heavily from several wounds.
The Boy Scouts, under the direction of their scoutmaster, Perry Greene, kept their heads and set about dressing the teen’s wounds. Perry turned his team of Chinook sled dogs around and loaded young Richard and a companion into the sled. He left his boy scouts with the remaining Exeter team to make their way back off the mountain. Perry Greene drove his team back some nine or ten miles to the Togue Pond base camp. With the added weight of two passengers in his sled, Greene’s dog sled broke a runner on the descent of the Saddle Trail, before reaching Chimney Pond. Somehow his dogs managed to pull the entire distance from there to Togue Pond, despite the broken sled. Despite his dog team’s feat of strength, with a broken sled, Greene realized he would have to abandon his bid for the summit of Katahdin- and his years of planning- at least for that season. In August of the same year, Greene noted to a Lewiston Daily Sun reporter that he believed he and his team of sleddogs would have made the summit. He added, however, that he and his scout troop had no regrets. They were just happy that they were there on the scene with scout training, and were able to assist the Exeter Academy teens. By this time, Perry Greene was already in his late 50’s. Although he desired to make another dogsled bid for the summit, he was never able to get the logistics in line before age had taken its toll, on both him and his team of Chinooks.
Perry Greene and his Chinook leader Recently, I was sharing my dream of ascending Katahdin by dogteam with my mentor- retired Maine musher, Yukon Quest veteran and Can Am Crown International Sleddog Race champion, Don Hibbs. Hibbs shared with me that he himself had written a request to Baxter State Park for a dog team summit in the 1980’s and had been denied.
Will Seppala Siberian Sleddogs meet Pamola? Native American's believed the summit of Katahdin (which means greatest mountain) is home to their part man, part moose, part swan, god, Pamola. It has been a dream of mine for over a decade to take Maine's heritage breed of sled dog (a heritage which came to us by the natives peoples of North America) to meet him. Over the past decade, I have requested a special dispensation from the park for a dog sled ascent of Katahdin on two occasions. The first time I was told that no one had ever attempted it, and it could not be done. The last park director, Eben Sypitkowski, was kind enough to consider my proposal. He agreed that a dog team could make the summit via the route I layed out. Eben also referred to my desire as a worthy endeavor, and commended the work I am doing to preserve Maine’s working breed of sled dog. But he too, ultimately denied the request, citing the park rules banning “no pets of any kind.” Recently, my son was honored by Governor Janet Mills on her social media accounts- touting him as a hero for saving his dog team from a rampaging moose. We had the honor of meeting the Governor at dinner during this year’s Can Am Crown Sled Dog Race. During the dinner, I shared with her this vision. Baxter State Park was in the process of looking for a new director. Governor Mills graciously agreed to look over my proposed expedition and to share it with those who would ultimately make the decision.
Maine Governor, Janet Mills, poses for a picture with Caleb Hayes I would, therefore, like to lay out my proposal to the Governor, to the future park director, and to the public here, in the hopes that I will be granted permission from the state. Why do this expedition? Maine has a mushing history second only to Alaska. Polar explorer, Robert Peary, was a Bowdoin graduate and resident of Maine. He captured the glory of “First to the North Pole” for our country by dog team in 1909. That expedition was launched from Peary’s coastal home here in Maine.
Maine resident and polar explorer, Robert Peary and his dogs
Arthur Walden and his Chinooks were an annual fixture in the Maine races in the 1920’s before he was selected to be the lead musher on the Byrd Antarcitc Expedition. His kennel was carried on by Perry Greene here in Maine for decades.
Arthur Walden and Chinook
Famed Alaskan musher, and hero of the Nome Serum Run of 1925 to save the children of Nome, Leonhard Seppala moved to Maine with Togo and his team of Siberians to live and race from Maine. Our endangered heritage breed of Seppala Siberian Sleddogs are descended from those dogs brought to Maine by Seppala one hundred years ago.
Seppala and Togo in Maine
This Katahdin Expedition would serve to further enrich our Maine’s mushing legacy and bring attention to its cultural significance to our state.
How would it be done?
Having myself summited Katahdin 6 times using four different routes, I believe Greene’s use of the Saddle Trail was not the best approach for a dog team. Perhaps that was the only approach available to him in the early 1950’s. I do not know. But there is a safer, albeit longer, route.
I propose a three day expedition. Day one, we would mush to Russel Pond as the base camp. Day two would be the summit attempt, approaching from the north, in a southerly direction, using the longer, and least steep North Peaks Trail. From there we would cross Hamlin and on to Baxter Peak.
Map of Mount Katahdin Trails
I would organize an advance ski/snowshoe party of four that would arrive at Russel Pond the day before us. That team would summit Katahdin the day before us, using the aforementioned route. In this way, there would be some sort of broken trail. Even if it is covered the following day by snowdrift, the traverse of the route the day before would be felt under the lead dog’s feat.
My own team would consist of myself, my team of 4 to 7 Seppala Siberians Sleddogs, and two to three other fit companions.
By whom would this be accomplished?
I am a former cold weather infantry Marine with over twenty years of mushing experience. I completed a solo 285 mile expedition across the northwoods just last winter. As a Biologist who has studied Conservation Management on a graduate level, I am aware of, and sensitive to the ecological concerns of the park. I am a life science teacher for both Middle and High School. I, therefore, feel I am ideally suited to spearhead this expedition.
Jonathan Hayes and his leaders, Frost and Bear
I will not yet speculate on the other party members. But I have received commitments from team prospective members that include mountaineers, guides, and special forces military- all of whom are passionate friends of Baxter Park.
I have heard several objections to this proposed expedition over the past several years. I would like to take a moment to address each of them here.