Mount Katahdin rises from the wildest part of the Maine wilderness, and to those who climb to its peak it inspires awe and a sense of mysticism. At its pinnacle, Katahdin is only the 22nd highest in America, but National Geographic named it the country’s second best summit hike. Not because of its height or difficulty, but because it’s “the most inspiring peak in all of eastern North America.”
After Henry David Thoreau scaled Katahdin in 1846, he wrote, “Nature here was something savage and awful, though beautiful. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandshelled globe…. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever.”
The tableland above Katahdin’s treeline has a tundra climate, with patches of moss and lichens and small shrubs covering barren rock. A rare insect, the Katahdin arctic butterfly, lives above the mountain’s treeline and nowhere else.
Katahdin anchors Baxter State Park, 200,000 acres, or about 300 square miles of mountains, lakes, streams, ponds, waterfalls and forest. The mountain ends the Appalachian Trail. It also has a potato, two U.S. Navy destroyers, a piano sonata and a sheep named after it.
Here are seven more fun facts about Katahdin.
1. To call it Mount Katahdin is redundant.
Kathadin means “Greatest Mountain” in the Penobscot Language. So calling it Mount Katahdin is like calling it Mount Great Mountain.
For the Penobscot, Katahdin represents the beginning of life and enlightenment. They believed an evil spirit named Pamola lived on the summit. If they climbed to the top, Pamola would kill or eat them.
2. The Katahdin Arctic Butterfly was the first invertebrate placed on the Endangered Species List.
It’s endangered because of rising temperatures. And because people like to collect it.
On Aug. 1, 1995, U.S. District Court Judge James Ware sentenced two people convicted of poaching the Katahdin Arctic Butterfly from Baxter State Park. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had gone after the poachers for three years. But as early as 1939, the park’s manager expressed concern about “the extent and rate of amateur and scientific collection on Katahdin.”
The Peterson Field Guide to Butterflies in 1951 included a photo of the Katahdin tableland with specifications for reaching the “famous collecting ground.” (That changed for the better.)
In the 1990s, government investigators caught the poachers with 2,375 butterflies, 13 (including the Katahdin Arctic Butterfly) protected by the Endangered Species Act. They uncovered a network of collectors ranging from Mexico, Germany, the Czech and Slovak Republic, Canada, France, Spain, Italy, Australia, Japan, Brazil and the UK and many U.S. states.
The poachers faced a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for violating the U.S. Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The judge’s most severe sentence, however, amounted to five months in prison, a $3,000 fine and five months in a halfway house.
The endangered American pipit and the threatened northern bog lemming also live on Katahdin.
3. When a 12-year-old boy got lost – and found – on Katahdin in 1939, his story became a children’s classic.
Donn Fendler of Rye, N.Y., went camping with his family on the mountain in July of 1939. It can still get cold in Maine even in July, and especially on top of a mountain. Fendler got separated from his family as they neared the peak and it was, in his words, “cold and shivery.”
The hunt for the missing boy turned into front page news across the United States. Hundreds of volunteers helped look for him. He survived for nine days eating berries, praying and refusing to give up, he said.
Finally he came to a hunting camp 35 miles from the place he’d gotten separated from his family. He’d lost 16 pounds, lost most of his clothing and suffered dehydration. Insect bites covered his body.
He said he remembered his lesson from Boy Scouts: Follow streams downhill and cover yourself at night. He used a burlap sack.
President Franklin Roosevelt gave him the Army & Navy Legion of Valor for outstanding youth hero of 1939.
IN 1976, Fendler then wrote a book, Lost On A Mountain In Maine, which became a children’s classic.
On July 25, 2014, the 75th anniversary of the day Fendler was finally found, Maine celebrated “Donn Fendler Day.” He was 87 years old.
Fendler lived for a couple more years, dying in 2016 in Bangor, Maine.
4. Preserving Katahdin’s wildness became an obsession for the heir to a canning fortune.
James Phinney Baxter, a pioneer in the canning industry, founded the Portland Packing Company and served as mayor of Portland for six terms.. His son, Percival Baxter. inherited the bulk of the family wealth even though he had seven siblings.
He also inherited his father’s political legacy. Percival won election to the state House and then Senate. Along the way he developed a passion for wilderness conservation. He grew obsessed with preserving Katahdin.
When Gov. Frederick Hale Parkhurst died, Baxter, then Maine Senate president, took his place as governor. But it wasn’t until he was out of office that he began using his own money to buy Katahdin and the surrounding land from the paper companies. He spent 30 years doing it.
Baxter fought against turning his land into a national park because he thought the federal government would spoil it with touristy concessions. He wanted Katahdin and its environs to remain forever wild. He dreamt of a park with no roads, no snowmobiles and no hunting. Baxter lost on all three counts, but he did manage to keep the park out of the hands of state and federal governments. The Baxter State Park Authority owns and operates Baxter State Park.
The park has no gas stations, no stores, no electricity and no paved roads. Headquarters is in Millinocket.
“Man is born to die, his work short lived; buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes, but Katahdin, in all its glory, shall forever remain the mountain of the people of Maine,” wrote Baxter. “Throughout the ages it will stand as an inspiration to the men and women of the state.”
5. Bambi (the cartoon) lived in the Katahdin region.
When Walt Disney told his artists to model Bambi on a California mule deer, animator Jake Day insisted the real Bambi had to come from Maine.
Maurice ‘Jake’ Day, a Damariscotta, Maine, native, was one of Disney’s earliest and best known animators and an avid outdoorsman. When Disney said he wanted that mule deer, Day would have none of it. He said Bambi had to be a white-tailed deer from Maine.
So Disney sent him to Maine with his camera, his backpack and a friend. They spent months shooting more than thousand photos of Bambi country in the Mount Katahdin region.
Disney had given Jake Day a list of things he wanted photographed. The list included hazel nuts, marsh grass, oak leaves, pine cones, birch bark, low-bush and high-bush blueberries, red maple and speckled alder trees.
Jake Day shot trees glittering with ice, snowy beaver dams and trees charred by fire. He photographed the details of the forest floor: the lichen, leaves, ferns, pools, rotting logs, pitcher plants, autumn leaves, a bear cub’s footprints in the mud.
He helped arrange for two four-month-old Maine fawns to model Bambi and his sweetheart Faline. The fawns took a four-day train ride from Maine to Hollywood.
The public first saw the film in Portland, Maine. Jake Day got sick of California and moved back home to Maine, where he climbed Katahdin at the age of 75. He also designed the Baxter State Park logo.
Katahdin is not for the foolish or the faint of heart.
More than 60 people are known to have died on Katahdin since 1933. Every year the Park Authority reports an average of 40 rescues a year, which amounts to one in every 2,000 hikers. To avoid more loss of life, the park closes on October 15 and whenever it snows.
A book about those fatalities, Death on Katahdin, was released in 2018.
In 1950, an 18-year-old camper was mistaken for a bear and shot to death; the shooter received a penalty of a $700 fine.
A cargo plane crew died in 1944 when their aircraft crashed into the side of Katahdin during poor weather conditions. Lightning struck three hikers and seven drowned. Between 1992 and 2014, two of the 19 fatalities on Katahdin resulted from suicide. The most common cause of death, though, is heart attack.
And two years after the book’s publication, two people died on Katahdin on consecutive days.
With thanks to: Butterfly Poaching for Profit in Baxter State Park, Maine, by Jean Hoekwater for Northeastern Naturalist, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1997). Images: View from Katahdin peak Famartin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64403691