April 9, 2024

Iconic Locations: The Katahdin Sign

What long-distance AT hiker hasn’t dreamed of reaching that sign on the summit of Katahdin at the end of their hike? Today, we are headed to the top of the mountain to explore the history of the iconic sign.

What long-distance AT hiker hasn’t dreamed of reaching that sign on the summit of Katahdin at the end of their hike? Today, we are headed to the top of the mountain to explore the history of the iconic sign. 


MILLS KELLY: McAfee Knob may be the most visited and most photographed location on the Appalachian Trail, but for thru-hikers, nowhere is more iconic than the old wooden sign on the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine at the trail’s northern terminus. 

KELLY: Welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly and I’m your host. Today we bring you the final Iconic Locations episode in our show and we saved the best for last. 

LESTER KENWAY: I made the summit sign for Katahdin three times and delivered it three times.

KENWAY: It's about 42 inches wide. It's about 38 inches tall. And the first line of lettering is the word Katahdin and the rest of it hasn't changed much. If you look at a picture Have the first sign that may I admire and he put up there in 1933. We pretty much copied it and added a few mileage is one thing that's extraordinary about it is it only points in what direction there's no milages anywhere else.

KELLY: You just heard the voice of Lester Kenway, who began his career as a volunteer on the Appalachian Trail more than 50 years ago. He was describing the sign on the summit of Mount Katahdin, which is the northern terminus of the AT. For northbound thru-hikers, this is the sign they dream of day after day as they hike over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine. And for day or section hikers, getting to the top of Mount Katahdin from a nearby trailhead is not easy, as the elevation gain is around 4,000 feet. 

KELLY: During those five decades of volunteering, Lester has accumulated quite an AT resume, which helps to explain why he is a member of the Appalachian Trail Museum’s Hall of Fame. 

KENWAY: My first trip, working on the trail, was in 1972, with my school outing club. And a couple of years later, I was elected to the Board of Directors of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. And I served as a director, and then a district manager. And I was president for 13 years. And concurrently, I was the chair of the trail crew committee for about 30 years. And that was the crews that went out and did rehabilitation and restructuring on damaged parts of the trail. And my most recent project, and my last project was raising funds to build what we call the Maine Trail Center. And I would mention that concurrently, I worked for Baxter State Park where Katahdin is. So I worked on the trail there. 

KELLY: It is safe to say, Lester really knows the trails throughout this region of Maine. And while most hikers only summit Katahdin once. Lester has a lot

KENWAY: The trip from Chimney Pond campground to the summit is 2600 feet of vertical and I would confess that when I worked at the park I did that trip over 200 times.

KELLY: What long distance AT hiker hasn’t dreamed of reaching that sign on the summit of Kathdin at the end of their hike. For northbound long distance hikers, either thru hikers or section hikers, that sign on the summit of the mountain represents the end of their long and often difficult effort. 

KELLY: I asked Lester how he became responsible for making the iconic sign and to describe the process of building a new one.

KENWAY: One of my volunteer jobs with the club was that I was the design coordinator. The big push in that was that the club relocated almost half of the trail in Maine to prepare for the acquisition program with the National Park Service. So 157 miles of trail was moved, all the campsites had to be recreated. All the signs had to be done. And we needed to replace the summit sign in 1989 and I just volunteered to do it. I knew what the sign looked like. And I pretty much copied it and updated it and created a paper pattern, so I could reproduce.

KENWAY: I make them out of white pine, which is a good material to work with, I take two or three pieces of pine and then I glue them bedsteads to make a panel. And then I sand it until it's leveled out. And I covered the wood with carbon paper, and then put the paper pattern over it and trace the letters which transfers letters to the wood. I use a router to cut the letters. I sand it again and stain it and then paint the letters in. 

KENWAY: The sign itself probably weighs about 25 pounds. And I used to put on a pack frame and carry that up the sawhorse as we call it, the frame that holds the sign is made up of cedar four by four timbers is like 10 or 12 of them and carried up individually we assemble it on site we make.

KELLY: Something most hikers don’t know, though, is that the sawhorse style sign that Lester hauled up the mountain three times wasn’t what the sign always looked like. In fact, the original version of the sign on the summit was pretty simple. It was installed by legendary ATC chairman Myron Avery and several of his friends on the summit in 1933, four years before the AT was completed from Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia to Mount Katahdin. 

KENWAY: It was a single piece of wood, maybe 20 inches wide and eight inches high stencil with black letters. I don't know how long it lasted. There was a period of time in the 1950s and 60s, where the Appalachian Mountain Club would send a crew to help with the trails on Katahdin. And they placed AMC style signs. There was still some in place when I started working there in 1978.  The the sign changed in the 1960s. Club volunteer Steve Clark led the effort. And that sign was put up in the 60s. And it was replaced in 1977 and 89 and 99 and 2009. And all those are very similar.

KELLY: We have a photograph of that original sign in our show notes so you can see just how simple it was. What I didn’t know, until we spoke with Lester, is that the placemen  t of that sign by Avery and his buddies has an interesting history of its own.

KENWAY: Governor Baxter acquired the Katahdin area in 1931 in the park really wasn't formed. It wasn't they didn't have a presence. 

KENWAY: Avery and a group of people who was called the expedition of 1933. And the purpose was to scout the route of the trail and they started at Katahdin. And they've located a route for the trail to Bigelow Mountain, which is lower 200 miles. And they simply went up there. It plant aside and said, This is the with no authorization of any kind. 

KELLY: That story gives you a sense for just how informal things were on the AT in the 1930s when the trail was being built. It’s not that way any longer.  

KENWAY: The park initiated a policy where the park would be the only entity that puts signs up. And the Maine Appalachian Trail Club doesn't do that anymore. But when they replace it, they get a National Guard helicopter to bring it up.

KELLY: I’m sure the leadership of Baxter State Park had good reasons for this change, but for me, having a helicopter bring in new versions of the sign is just not as much fun as thinking about Lester and his friends humping the sign up from Chimney Pond campground once a decade.

KELLY: For northbound long distance hikers, reaching the Katahdin sign is a very emotional moment. To give you a sense of what that moment can be like, we talked with 2022 thru hiker Wendy Boller. If you met Wendy on the trail, you would know her as Serendipity. 

WENDY BOLLER:  Well, there was so much going into before I saw this that I'd seen the sign so many times, and videos and pictures, and in my mind. And so coming up to the sign, I was filled with so many emotions. And also I was so in the moment as well that I all the emotions weren't available as well. I was so focused on just, you know, trying to be in the moment  and enjoy the experience on this last day of the hike. There were so many people up there. There are a lot of people there, and one of the things that I really took in was just how friendly and supportive and polite everyone was being and letting each other have a chance at the sign and having their moment at the sign.

BOLLER: When it was my moment. I was with my family, and we all took turns, and some of us, including myself, had, you know, kind of thought out, too. And ahead plan. What are we gonna do when we get there? What what pose do we want to have at the sign? And it was raining and cloudy. more cloudy without rain when we got there, so we had those photos where I stood on top of the sign and lifted my arms in triumph. And then we were enjoying just being at the top. The clouds cleared and the sun came in, and so we had a second opportunity at the sign. So I looks like I summited on two different days because I have the stock in photo. And the you know, sunlight photo.

KELLY: As important as the sign on the summit is to AT hikers, the mountain itself is much more important to the Penobscot people of Maine.

KELLY: For 11,000 years before it became the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Mount Katahdin has been a holy place of the Penobscot Nation, who named it Katahdin, which literally means “the greatest mountain.” For the Penobscot Nation, Katahdin represents the place where life and enlightenment begin and they did not summit the mountain, because the summit was ruled by the spirit being Pamola who would devour them if they trespassed on the summit. 

KELLY: Since Mount Katahdin is still an important spiritual place for the Penobscot People today, AT hikers must be respectful of the summit and follow the rules set down by the trustees of Baxter State Park. I wish I could say that hikers are always respectful. Most are, but sadly, some aren’t. In an earlier episode of our show, we discussed how the bad behavior of a small number of hikers about a decade ago, almost led to the terminus of the AT being moved off the summit.

KELLY: That iconic sign on the summit that everyone wants to be photographed with has a tough life. The weather on the summit, especially in the winter, is pretty rough. According to Lester, though, the weather is not the greatest threat.

KENWAY: The greatest damage is people carving in it. They take a knife and carve their initials or other messages on the sign. And another source of wear is when people climb the mountain in the wintertime. The sign is completely encased in rime ice. And if they want to take a picture next to the sign they have to scrape it all off with an ice axe. When we replaced the site in 2009 we published on the internet an invitation to come help us replace it. So somebody went up there and sawed a quarter off the side.

KELLY: What did Lester do with that damaged sign? He donated it to the Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove Furnace, Pennsylvania. So if you want to see the Katahdin sign up close and personal, you can either climb from Chimney Pond campground in Baxter State Park, or you can visit the museum. You don’t even have to climb any steps to get into the museum, so it’s just a little bit less strenuous. But you can’t stand on it and throw your arms in the air in a victory pose while a friend takes your picture.

KELLY: Trust me, museum directors don’t like it when people stand on their fragile displays. So if you want that picture, you’ll just have to climb the mountain.

KELLY: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Today’s episode was produced by me. Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske are the executive producers. 

KELLY: We want to offer a special thanks to Lester Kenway and Wendy (Serendipity) Boller for sharing their stories of the Katahdin sign with us.  

KELLY: We also want to thank the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany, for making it possible for us to use their recording space for this episode. 

KELLY: Original music for our show is performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia, and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia. 

KELLY: We’re able to bring you this show through the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and many individual donors like you. 

KELLY: If you enjoy The Green Tunnel Podcast, we have some more great shows for you at R2 Studios. Take a minute and check them out at R2Studios.org.

Wendy "Serendipity" Boller

Wendy Boller, known on the trail as Serendipity, tru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2022.

Lester Kenway

Lester Kenway has been volunteering with the Maine Appalachian Trial Club for over five decades and is a member of the Appalachian Trail Museum’s Hall of Fame. He was elected to the Board of Directors of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, served as a director, district manager, vice president, and was president for 13 years. Concurrently, he was the chair of the trail crew committee for about 30 years. He also oversaw the fundraising efforts to build the Maine Trail Center in Skowhegan, Maine. Lester also worked for Baxter State Park.