Starting in 1984, my father, John Christie hiked Avery Peak on Mount Bigelow every Columbus Day weekend.

The first few years he was making this pilgrimage to the mountains of western Maine near Sugarloaf, I didn’t know what he was doing on these long weekends. For the few years after that, I was more concerned with spending the three days out of school playing video games than going outside. Regardless, I can’t remember him actually asking me to come along with him when I was young.

I have hikes like that now, the ones I want all to myself. The outdoors can be so many different things, depending on the day – a party with friends under the sun-soaked sky, a quiet chance to reconnect with a loved one or a silent meditation with just the sound of your steps, your breath and the wind through the trees.

In 2013 my father finally asked if I wanted to hike Bigelow with him. I was out of college by then, tackling New Hampshire’s White Mountains on the weekends. My father either decided I was finally interested or finally ready. We headed to western Maine with our Maine Sunday Telegram Outdoors writer, Deirdre Fleming, and her dog, Bingo. Our plan was the 5-mile Fire Warden’s Trail from Stratton Pond Brook Road in Kingfield – the shortest route to Bigelow’s high peaks from the south.

Fire Warden’s Trail starts fairly easily, passing a couple of campsites along beautiful Stratton Brook Pond before climbing onto a ridge. A bit before the two-mile mark there’s a Maine Appalachian Trail Club hiker sign-in at the junction with the Horns Pond Trail, then after three miles the trail starts to climb steeply. From the Moose Falls Campsite to the Bigelow col, the trail really takes a toll on your legs, rising more than 1,500 feet to meet the AT; after that it’s a quick half-mile scramble to the open summit on Avery Peak.

When Dad, Deirdre, Bingo and I got to the summit, we were treated to a stunning view of absolutely nothing. Maine’s temperamental weather marked our achievement with fog so thick that we could barely see Bingo at the end of his leash.


The next year, Dad and I hiked Bigelow from the northern side, up the 4-mile Safford Brook Trail. This route approaches from a trailhead on East Flagstaff Road, and like the Fire Warden’s trail, the first two miles rise gradually through quiet woods, traveling along Safford Brook until joining the AT. The next two miles go up, up and up, climbing steadily between house-sized boulders and past a jaw-dropping eastern outlook called “Old Man’s Head,” before passing over a couple of false summits to reach Avery Peak.

Instead of fog, this time we got a little bit of snow and some 50 mph winds. While there was a view from the summit, the wind was so fierce that we spent our entire visit ducking behind the stone foundation that remains from the old Fire Warden’s tower.

In 2015, the combination of terrible weather and advancing years forced my Dad to abstain from his annual hike; in 2016, at age 79, he passed away unexpectedly.

That fall, Deirdre and I tried to retrace our steps from three years before up the Fire Warden’s trail in his honor. The weather had other ideas. The temperature must have been in the 60s when we left the trailhead but when we got close to the MATC sign-in, there was snow coating the ground. When we passed Moose Falls, the snow was up to our shins; trying to get up to the col, it was up to our knees. A quarter-mile below the Appalachian Trail junction, we had to turn around for our own safety.

This year, just before Columbus Day, I found myself with a week of unused vacation time. Maine was having an unseasonable warm spell and I also had a new-to-me car, one that I could actually rely on to get me to Carrabassett Valley and back. (As my brother wrote about a few weeks ago, we have notoriously bad luck with cars in my family.) This confluence of events told me it was time to give Avery Peak another shot.

Maine’s temperamental weather played it cool and stuck to all the meteorologists’ predictions: clear skies, no wind, 40s in the valley in the morning and 60s as I stopped for a breather at Moose Falls. The push from Moose Falls to the col was difficult because that’s the way it is; if there’s one thing my father taught me through miles of hiking trails, it’s that anything worth having has got to be earned.


As I climbed out of the col, above the treeline where the signs warn of “fragile Alpine vegetation,” there wasn’t a wisp of fog or a gust of wind. For the first time out of four hikes on Bigelow, I had calm winds and incredibly clear skies. To the north, Flagstaff Lake wrapped around the base of the Bigelow Preserve, scattered with islands like somebody had cast a handful of dice. To the south, Sugarloaf towered over the valley, its trails ready for a fresh coat of snow. To the east, Little Bigelow rose out of the forest like some subterranean creature, permanently frozen as it breached the surface on its way to swim in Flagstaff Lake.

And somewhere up above, my Dad looked down on the nicest Columbus Day weekend Mount Bigelow had seen in years.

Not that there’s ever a bad one, truly. The fog, that first year, was like none I’d ever seen. The wind the next year made us feel like we might fly away. And the snow last year was a hearty hello from the coming winter, a dare for us to get outside and make the most of what it had to offer.

Maybe I had to hike it alone. Like I said, the outdoors can be so many things, depending on the day. Joy. Meditation. Mourning. Sometimes all at once.

I never really understood why my father would hike the same mountain year after year, tracing the same two or three trails to the summit over and over. But now I think I do. Every time you go outdoors it’s the same; but every time, it’s different, too. Every time it gives you exactly what you need.

Jake Christie is a freelance writer living in Portland. Along with his brother, Josh, he writes about great Maine destinations for outdoors enthusiasts. Jake can be reached at:

[email protected]

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