CARRYING PLACE TOWNSHIP — Each year, members of the Penobscot Indian Nation take a spiritual pilgrimage from Indian Island to Mount Katahdin as a way to honor their heritage and ancestors. The arduous journey – called the Katahdin 100 – takes place along the Penobscot River leading into Labor Day weekend. Some travel by foot, others by canoe.

The 100-mile journey has been followed by the tribe for centuries, said former Penobscot chief Barry Dana, although the modern inception of the Katahdin 100 dates to 1971. Dana, 58, has completed it each year.

But this year Dana will take a different – and far more challenging – route to the 5,267-foot Mount Katahdin, the central and spiritual place in the Penobscot’s aboriginal territory. He will attempt to hike the 314 miles from Mount Washington to Katahdin in eight days, covering 39 miles a day.

Former Penobscot Chief Barry Dana hikes with his wife Lori along a section of the Appalachian Trail. Dana plans to hike from Mount Washington to Mount Katahdin in eight days. Staff photo by Derek Davis

It’s not quite the pace of the world’s fastest trail hikers, called ultra runners, but it comes close. Last year Karl Meltzer of Utah broke the Appalachian Trail speed record, completing the 2,190-mile trail in less than 46 days and averaging 47 miles a day.

Dana is doing so to honor an uncle who died in a plane crash almost a half century ago. Cliff Phillips died in 1969 when the plane he was in crashed into Mount Washington during a snow storm just before Christmas. Phillips, 27, had planned to skydive dressed as Santa Claus over Vermont after he had done so over South Portland. A former U.S. Army paratrooper, he delighted in bringing joy to others, his family said.

“He and I were very close. I think of him all the time,” said Cliff Phillips’ brother, Butch Phillips. “Whenever I go to Katahdin I always carry his memory with me, as I do my wife and my mother. I was touched when I heard (Barry) was going to do this. He usually does the Katahdin 100 for some spiritual reason, as we all do.”

The Katahdin 100 is difficult for anyone. Some walk it in four days, following the roads that parallel the Penobscot River all the way to Katahdin, while others run the course. Some paddle most of the way up the Penobscot River, then run the final 12 miles to the mountain. The intent is to make the pilgrimage as physically challenging as possible. The members of the tribe meet at the base of Mount Katahdin on the Monday of the holiday weekend for a ceremony to honor their tribe.

“The more arduous the journey, the stronger the prayer,” said Phillips, 77, a tribal elder.

Dana’s plan to speed-hike 314 miles is remarkable given that he suffered a heart attack in 2012. He was told by his doctors that sprint competitions were over, but endurance races were a possibility.

“I’m influenced by those (ultra runners),” Dana said. “They’re running 45 to 50 miles a day. I don’t think I can do that. But it motivates me. I want to do what I can. For me with the Katahdin 100 if you finish upright, you didn’t push hard enough. That’s how you open up your spirit.”

Last weekend along the Appalachian Trail to the west of the Kennebec River, Dana hiked with his wife and training partner, Lori Dana. They moved swiftly along a moss-covered, boulder-strewn section of trail. It was wet and steep in places, but they moved with sure-footed light steps. And Dana said he’s never felt stronger.

Since his heart attack, he and Lori have avoided processed foods, grains and gluten, which he believes cause inflammation. They eat a lot of healthy protein: wild moose meat and eggs. They also use medicinal plants. When they hiked last weekend they gathered and chewed on wintergreen leaves to decrease swelling in their joints. Lori Dana will brew these in a tea for her husband’s hike.

She also will join him on as much of the tribute hike as she can. But she’ll help family members support the effort, if needed.

“I’ve only missed two training hikes,” Lori said.

As of last weekend, Dana had no idea where he’d camp on the hike or where the support crew would bring food. All he knew was he has never been more excited for the Katahdin 100.

At the start of the journey his family will meet at the base of Mount Washington for a sunrise ceremony in the Penobscot tradition. A bonfire will be built, native medicine will be put on the fire and prayers will be said.

“This becomes a sacred fire,” said Phillips, who will be there. “When the fire goes down you take the ashes and carry them in remembrance of that ceremony. Barry is going to carry the ashes from that ceremony with him on the trail to honor and memorialize Cliff. Every step will be a prayer in remembrance of Cliff and all our ancestors.”

A traditional ceremony with a sacred fire also will be held the last day of the Katahdin 100. At the base of Mount Katahdin every member of the tribe who is present will share their pilgrimage. The event can last hours and it can be emotional.

“We do it for specific reasons,” Phillips said. “To keep our traditions alive, to heal our tribal people, and pray for the health of our people and the prosperity of the tribe, and to feel pride in who we are as an indigenous people.”

Phillips said it doesn’t matter that Dana will approach Katahdin from a different direction. He will be moving toward the mountain that is their spiritual center, pushing as hard as he can, and doing so in honor of his uncle.

“It just seems right to start the hike at Mount Washington,” Dana said. “It just makes sense.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: FlemingPph

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.