How heading into the wilderness can bring you back to yourself.
By Ian Aldrich
Apr 28 2021
Among the payoffs for participants in L.L. Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Programs trip to Baxter State Park: grand summit views from South Branch and Black Cat mountains.Photo Credit : Ian Aldrich
So many times over this past year, when almost nothing seemed as it was before, I have thought about the long weekend I spent in the wilds of Maine, when life slowed down and my only real worry was whether I had what it took to leap into a cold, clear river.
It was along the banks of a winding waterway in Baxter State Park that I faced this challenge. It was a cool Sunday morning in early September 2019, just after daybreak, and I stood at the water’s edge, rubbing and clapping my hands as I tried to overcome my hesitation. And boy, did I need to.
For the past three days I’d been camping and hiking with seven others in the far reaches of one of the biggest uninterrupted stretches of wilderness in the Northeast. We’d scaled a couple of peaks, had lunch atop a waterfall, and sipped whiskey under the stars. But all that outdoor living necessitated a—shall we say—refresher. Which is why on our final day I awoke at dawn and marched to the creek, ready to make the plunge.
Until I wasn’t.
Because the water looked colder than advertised, I instead took a seat on the rocks and remained there in an almost meditative state. In my defense, the setting had something to do with it: A morning mist was rising off the glassy waters, birds were chattering somewhere behind me, and in the near distance the early touches of fall color had descended on the landscape. As it had at other times over the past few days, the world felt not just still, but also remarkably sane.
I know I wasn’t the only one who’d reached that conclusion.
Over the course of the long weekend, our group had toured a slice of Baxter on a guided trip with L.L. Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Programs. In addition to all that moving and sipping, we received a primer on park history via a Baxter historian, gained some valuable campsite know-how, and feasted on food our two trip leaders made from scratch.
It was the kind of trip that was pampering without feeling overly luxurious. “Any objections to peppers and cheese in your eggs?” is the kind of question we might hear at breakfast. Our first dinner included marinated salmon with potatoes, salad, green beans, and heaping plates of hot gingerbread topped with whipped cream
“Well, we like to eat, too,” explained co-leader Diane Barras as she dished out dessert. “And it’s easy to make boring stuff. But it’s fun to do something more interesting.”
We were a small but varied bunch. There were two longtime friends, Kim Gerra and “T” Hanson, now living in different parts of the country, who had continued an annual girls’ weekend together. “We were looking at a couple of different trips,” Hanson explained to the group, then added with a laugh, “But this just seemed like the easiest because everything was being done for us.” There was a middle-aged Maine couple, Fred and Diana Martin, looking to reacquaint themselves with camping. “We used to do a lot of this stuff, but then we had kids, careers, and it became harder to do,” Fred said. As for me, I’d traveled with my buddy Adar, who matched my love for being outdoors during the day with a coolness toward sleeping in a tent at night. There was nothing extreme about any of us.
We were, in other words, the kind of crew the Outdoor Discovery Programs cater to. Like its fellow New England–based outdoors outfitters—Orvis, Eastern Mountain Sports, and others—L.L. Bean long ago began connecting what it sells with the sorts of adventures that inspire people to use its stuff. In 2019, more than 200,000 people participated in one of its classes or trips.
The Baxter journey is one of the Outdoor Discovery Programs’ newest excursions. As with most of the bigger sojourns, it’s led by Registered Maine Guides. Ours were a pair of 30-something women, Barras and Leigh Mastin, both longtime trip leaders who’ve directed Bean programs for several years.
Our trip began early on Friday at the Bean headquarters in Freeport. After the meet-and-greets, we hopped into a cargo van driven by Barras, while Mastin helmed another that was stuffed with camping equipment, cookware, and food. Three hours later we were setting up tents and laying out sleeping bags at our park site.
The strength of these trips is in what you don’t have to wrestle with. Show up on time, pack warm clothes and maybe a book—these are the things you’re responsible for. The rest—equipment, reservations, planning—is taken care of. Even down to the smallest details: When one of us needed an extra pair of shorts, Mastin emerged from the van with a few different options. And no matter how early any of us awoke, there was coffee going.
This all made it easy to take in where we were. Baxter State Park is more than 200,000 acres of wilderness. With its mountains and rivers, some 215 miles of hiking trails, and 10 different campgrounds, we were able to grasp only glimpses of what’s there.
Our first full morning, we broke camp after breakfast and spent the next six hours scaling two small peaks. We moved leisurely, stopping for photos and water as the views got better and better. “That’s beautiful” gave way to “That’s incredible” and then, atop Black Cat, we stood for a moment in silence to take in the upper reaches of Mount Katahdin moving in and out of the clouds. Mastin brought up the rear, hauling a backpack that seemingly matched her weight in extra water, food, clothing, and emergency supplies.
The following day we were back in the woods, scampering along a trail that cut beside a river. We took playful pics on big boulders that jutted into the water. Before heading back, we rested on a series of rocks atop a waterfall, gingerly taking in the sights below and refueling on local cheeses, breads, and crackers.
Could we have done all this if we’d arranged the trip by ourselves? Of course. The hikes weren’t complicated. The waterfall wasn’t some secret destination. But there was something refreshing about camping and exploring with a group of strangers. When you’re thrown together around a campfire or while logging a few hours on a trail, camaraderie builds. There’s a shared experience to draw from. You feel as though you’ve been through something, even if “roughing it” just means finding a polite way of asking for seconds of the gingerbread.
By our second night together, Fred Martin shared what it was like to take care of his dying father. Later, the group convinced my friend Adar to do a practice run of his upcoming TED Talk. After dinners, Kim Gerra would share the precious amount of whiskey she’d brought with the rest of the group.
An Outdoor Discovery Programs trip isn’t boot camp. If I had really wanted to hang at the campsite all four days, I could have. There was time to be alone. To read, to stroll, to just unwind. Which is how I found myself on the edge of that creek one early morning, willing myself into some wickedly frigid water—and finding exactly the right kind of refresher that I needed before making my return to the everyday world.
For information on L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery Programs, go to llbeanoutdoors.com/adventure-trips.