Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Mount Katahdin

with 36 comments

I’ve been reading Laura Dassow Walls’s recent biography of Thoreau. Near halfway through comes an account of Thoreau’s 1846 visit to Mount Katahdin, which at 5267 ft. (1605m) is the highest point in the state of Maine: “From Quakish Lake they got their first glimpse of Mount Katahdin*, still twenty miles away, its summit veiled in clouds.”

On June 2nd of this year, driving north on Interstate 95, we took the pullout for a scenic view of the mountain. Unfortunately, as you can see in the photograph, we had the same experience Thoreau originally did, and the summit remained obscured by clouds. Oh well, maybe another time. No clouds obscured my view of some birch trees (Betula papyrifera, I believe) adjacent to the pullout’s parking lot. Given the briskness of the breeze, I used a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second to keep the leaves from blurring yet still let them convey a sense of the wind.

* By a curious coincidence, in the evening on the same day that I updated the draft of this post to include the information about Thoreau, we watched an unrelated documentary I’d taken out of the library. As the introductory credits appeared, we saw that the company that had made the documentary was Katahdin Productions.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 4, 2018 at 4:40 AM

36 Responses

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  1. Lovely images and the biography of Thoreau looks like an excellent read. I hadn’t realised that he died at 44.


    August 4, 2018 at 6:00 AM

    • It is a good biography. By the time I was in high school I’d read Walden and “Civil Disobedience”—my father was a big Thoreau fan—but I knew only a few things about his life. As you point out, he wan’t yet 45 when he died. His slightly older brother, to whom Thoreau was very close, died of tetanus at just 26 a few days after accidentally cutting himself with a razor. So many people died young back then. Sometimes we forget how thankful we should be for modern sanitation and medicine.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 4, 2018 at 6:21 AM

      • Indeed. We are fortunate.


        August 4, 2018 at 6:39 AM

        • Speaking of how things used to be, a minute ago I came across this sentence in an online article: “Few political campaigners and journalists read history.” In recent years I’ve often felt I missed a calling as a historian. Probably nothing gives greater insight into the present than the past.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 4, 2018 at 6:51 AM

          • Perhaps history contains too many inconvenient truths for certain groups of people. For some, especially policitians and political campaigners, history reading could equate to nightmarish horror stories which they would rather not know about. I don’t know as much history as I would like to so I have been fascinated by Rewi Alley’s Autobiography. From this book I have learned a lot about China and China/US relations in the first part of the 20th Century. Of particular interest were the stories of two US generals, Evans Carlson and Joseph Stilwell. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2015-02/27/content_19666529.htm Carlson introduced the Gung-ho term and concept into the Marines. Gung-ho was a cooperative movement and the name was developed by Rewi Alley who was Carlson’s friend. Gung-ho was based on Marxist ideology. Now this has nothing whatever to do with flowers but it is my way of saying how much I agree with you about the importance of the insights provided by history.


            August 4, 2018 at 9:00 AM

            • Nothing to do with flowers, but interesting all the same. I read the Stilwell article and then searched up some information about Evans Carlson and Rewi Alley, who I noticed was from NZ—the connection to why you’re reading his autobiography, I assume. The propensity to do evil is part of human nature, alas. Recognizing that, the founders of the American republic built in safeguards they hoped would prevent any group from getting too much power over another. According to the history I’ve been learning lately, that approach to government has for centuries stood in opposition to an approach assuming the perfectibility of people and trying to bring it about through various utopian movements. What grand topics….

              Steve Schwartzman

              August 4, 2018 at 9:54 AM

              • Grand topics indeed! And to take it back to nature (one of the grandest topics of all) there are some who try to safeguard it and some who try to manipulate it, and supposedly improve it, and some who don’t give a damn. Nature has a lot to put up with.


                August 4, 2018 at 7:45 PM

                • I continue to lose sites in the Austin area where I used to take nature pictures. Yesterday we were out on the prairie to the northeast and I noticed yet another property under construction. What an archive of “this is how it used to be” photographs I have.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  August 4, 2018 at 8:19 PM

                • An invaluable archive, I would say.


                  August 4, 2018 at 10:44 PM

  2. Now that IS one curious coincidence….I could understand if it had been the White Mountains…..Goes along with the other-worldliness of the view!

    Marcia Levy

    August 4, 2018 at 7:20 AM

  3. Wow. This brought back memories of climbing Mt Katahdin via Knife Edge Ridge when I was younger. Even at the summit we couldn’t escape the black flies.


    August 4, 2018 at 7:58 AM

    • Even if we’d been closer to the mountain we wouldn’t have tried to climb it. Thoreau did climb it. And more power to you for climbing to too, especially given the black flies.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 4, 2018 at 8:51 AM

  4. Good morning, Steven,
    Even if the top of the mountain was hidden by the clouds, I still like the photo very much. It would be interesting to compare it to one in which the top is visible, but I could imagine that this one here is the better one – unless you want a more “documentary” type of picture.
    What I like here is the composition, of four nearly horizontal “layers”: the lake in the foreground, then forest, beyond that the mountain, and above all that the clouds.
    Have a wonderful weekend,


    August 4, 2018 at 8:46 AM

    • I appreciate your observation about the layers in the landscape photograph. Though I’d considered showing a different frame that excluded the water, in the end I went for this view because of the way the shoreline zig-zags across the bottom of the picture. And as you said, this view adds another element to the clouds, mountains, and forest.

      Don’t know if I’ll get back there someday to see what the top of the mountain looks like. So many other places are waiting to be seen.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 4, 2018 at 9:01 AM

      • I think the zig-zagging shoreline makes for some breaking-up an otherwise (too) static picture/composition – as does the mountain silhouette.


        August 4, 2018 at 9:48 AM

  5. The image is beautiful. The clouds don’t bother me at all. I will check out the movie.


    August 4, 2018 at 8:47 AM

  6. Coincidences like that are intriguing, aren’t they? I quite like the image of the mountain with its head in the clouds. At school in Tacoma we had a view of Mt. Rainier from our room, and it was fun to see it sometimes disappear in the clouds. I enlarged the photo of the birches and yes, you can really tell that they were in a stiff wind.


    August 4, 2018 at 9:08 AM

    • Thanks for confirming you can sense the wind. Your description of “head in the clouds” could sometimes refer to me.

      Speaking of coincidences, did I ever mention that I was born in Tacoma?

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 4, 2018 at 9:12 AM

      • You were? I had you pegged for a New Yorker. My memories of Tacoma are pleasant, but I think now it is pretty gritty. I blame HWY5.


        August 4, 2018 at 9:16 AM

        • I am in many ways a New Yorker, as that’s where my relatives lived and where I grew up. I happened to be born in Tacoma only because my father was stationed near there in the army during World War II. I have no recollection of that because we went back to New York after the war. Not till 1978 did I revisit Tacoma and see it for the first time as an adult.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 4, 2018 at 10:00 AM

  7. You’re doing so well with coincidences, it would be a good weekend to play a round of “Six Degrees of Separation” 🙂 I love paper birches, we tend to get more river birches around here, but it’s the white ones that help make the more northern woods so beautiful.

    Robert Parker

    August 4, 2018 at 9:22 AM

    • For me as a visitor from a warm region where these trees don’t grow, the white-barked birches were always the ones my eyes went to, though that’s probably true for residents up there as well, what with the white being so appealing.

      Six degrees of separation from Texas got us as far as Pennsylvania. Maine meant another six.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 4, 2018 at 10:38 AM

  8. I first became aware of Mt. Katahdin because of its weather. Together with Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, it has quite a reputation for record-breaking or challenging conditions; when the Weather Underground blogs still were active, it was almost a monthly occurrence for a Mt. Katahdin event to occasion discussion.

    I noticed that Bruce mentioned hiking the well-named Knife Edge Ridge. In the Wiki description of the trails, it says, “The most famous hike to the summit goes along Knife Edge, which traverses the ridge between Pamola Peak and Baxter Peak. The mountain has claimed 23 lives since 1963, mostly from exposure in bad weather and falls from the Knife Edge. For about 3/10 of a mile the trail is 3 feet wide, with a drop off on either side. The Knife Edge is closed during periods of high wind.”

    It certainly looks benign in your photo, even though the clouds hint at a bit of wind. I’m fascinated by the mix of trees, and their different colors.

    Speaking of Thoreau, have you seen this page of commonly misattributed quotations, with Thoreau’s actual words appended? I found it while I was trying to verify the fourth quotation listed, and really enjoyed the collection. Like Twain and Lincoln, Thoreau’s ‘said’ a good number of things he never said.

    I suspect you’ve seen Katahdin Production’s film about Dorothea Lange. It was on PBS’s American Masters series some years ago. I found it after I joined PBS and started exploring the offerings in their Passport program.


    August 4, 2018 at 5:04 PM

    • In various documentaries recently I’ve seen mountains that many people continue to risk, and in some cases lose, their lives climbing. Now here’s one I glimpsed in person, even if from a distance. No Knife Edge for me, thank you. I’m content with the lower-case one that cuts my food. Given how notorious Mt. Washington is for killer weather, I suddenly wondered if any peak bears the name Mount Notorious. None that I could find.

      That Thoreau misattribution~misquotation page is a good find. A couple of the misattributions exemplify something I’ve noticed elsewhere: words given to a historical character in a work of fiction get mistaken for words the person actually said. I can’t recall the specifics now, but I seem to remember there were several instances of that involving American Indian chiefs in popularizing~elogizing works of the 1970s.

      One misquotation on the Thoreau page is a good example of itself: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.” Whoever wrote it did indeed simplify the original from Walden: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. . . . In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 4, 2018 at 5:36 PM

    • Yes, I do believe we watched that Katahdin Productions documentary about Dorothea Lange on PBS, though without any awareness of the company that produced it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 4, 2018 at 6:26 PM

  9. Nice to see your shot, although I am sure you’d prefer a clear look. I’ve been to Baxter several times over the years but haven’t climbed the mountain and can tell you, the above mentioned Knife Edge will never see the likes of me. I’ll be going to visit some friends in Millinocket this fall for another chance at shooting the mountain along with moose.
    For some views from 2010…https://sggphoto.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/10-19-10-some-views-of-mount-katahdin/

    Steve Gingold

    August 5, 2018 at 7:07 PM

    • The colorful trees and sunrise were a big plus. You were fortunate.

      Knife Edge will never see the likes of me, either.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 5, 2018 at 8:29 PM

  10. The obscured view is quite beautiful, as it is.

    Pairodox Farm

    August 6, 2018 at 5:22 AM

  11. Beautiful scenery!!


    August 6, 2018 at 7:47 PM

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