TrekEast Blog 61 Soaking in the Maine North Woods

Rambles in Maine

Early October, 2011

 "I faced some of the chilliest riding since my Adirondack winter commutes of the past."


8Appropriately, perhaps, TrekEast turned cool and wet in the great Maine Woods, a wet northern forest that often feels more like Alaska than like New England.  I entered Maine in partly sunny weather, on the Appalachian Trail through the Mahoosucs; but by the time I’d reached the Mahoosuc Notch, cold rain was slowing my progress.  Back on a bicycle for a stretch after hiking down to Grafton Notch State Park (see Mahoosucs and Wilson Stream blogs), I faced some of the chilliest riding since my Adirondack winter commutes of the past.  The ride 80 miles north from Dover-Foxcroft to Abol Stream Campground in Baxter Park was mostly in gentle, rural terrain, with not much more than logging trucks to spray me with dirty water,but being saturated made it hard to appreciate the bright autumn leaves.  Seldom has a simple shelter been such a welcome sight as when I pulled into the campground at dusk and the ranger kindly directed me to a lean-to (pictured in summer, right) 8above the stream.  Sometimes on a long camping trip, when the weather turns wet and cold, you keep yourself going by telling yourself the sun must soon return.  Thank goodness it did, in fits and starts, just in time for me to climb Maine’s highest mountain, Katahdin, including its highest peak, Baxter.


The story of Baxter State Park is one of the most inspiring in the annals of wildlands philanthropy.  Others have told the story much better than I could, including my friend Tom Butler in his inspiring book WILDLANDS PHILANTHROPY.  Suffice here to say the foresight and wisdom and generosity of former Maine Governor Percival Baxter (pictured left) protected more than 200,000 acres in the heart of the Maine Woods, all open to the public, most of this as Forever Wild land, about one-seventh of this as sustainably managed timberland.


If America is wise and fortunate enough to someday create a Maine Woods National Park, Baxter Park would likely remain a distinct state park within the larger national reserve.  RESTORE: The North Woods for years has been bravely advocating for a 3.2 million acre National Park & Preserve surrounding Baxter State Park.  Most of the land within the bounds of the proposed park is essentially uninhabited and held by absentee owners (like Plum Creek, which is proposing major resort and other upscale development on its holdings around Moosehead Lake).  The park would give a big boost to gateway communities like Millinocket and Greenville, which are suffering terrible job losses as machines replace people in the timber and pulp industries and manufacturing is moved overseas.  Maine loggers and wood manufacturers have lost their jobs not to environmental regulations, as is sometimes alleged, but to machines here and cheap labor in China (assisted by the North American Free Trade Agreement).  A Maine Woods National Park would allow large-scale restoration of the colorful forest and expansive waterways of northern Maine, attracting hikers and paddlers from far and wide.  The great popularity of Baxter Park gives a hint at what an economic, as well as ecological, asset a Maine Woods National Park would be.


Mt. Katahdin attracts tens of thousands of hikers every year, including the few hundred people who hike the Appalachian Trail end to end, Katahdin being the northern terminus.  Climbing Katahdin for my second time, I was reminded why it is so popular.  It really is one of our country’s great mountains, with views and weather and alpine communities to rival anything east of the Rockies and south of the Torngats.  To show Katahdin’s climatic diversity, I began my 15-mile, five-peak hike (Katahdin has multiple peaks) in shorts.  Once past Thoreau Spring, at about 4500 feet, and above the large gently sloping alpine area known as the Tablelands, I had to pull on my fleece, rain jacket & pants, and gloves.  For the next ten miles, most of it above timberline, I was hiking through snow squalls, some of them of blizzard intensity, and several times lost the trail in the blowing snow. Katahdin is a savage mountain, in all the good senses of ‘savage.’  Respect the mountain and you’ll have a sublime experience.  Arrogantly try to conquer it, and you may get hurt.  I was thankful that the mountain reserved its strongest blasts of wind and snow till after I’d completed the precipitous Knife Edge traverse to Paloma. 


The only wildlife you commonly see in these harsh conditions are plants and lichens, but various boreal and alpine animal species find homes, at least seasonally, in the talus slopes (or “fellfields” as they are tellingly called here), sedge meadows, and alpine heath.  American pipits, several of which birds I saw a couple weeks ago on Mt. Washington, breed here.  Northern bog lemmings (pictured left) live up here year round, sleeping through most of the long winter.  A rare endemic butterfly called the Katahdin arctic fritillary persists here.  Raptors and carnivores hunt or forage the alpine zone when insects or rodents or berries are abundant.  In short, Mt. Katahdin’s peaks and their arctic communities are uncommonly beautiful and worthy of our every conservation effort also for their rare plant communities and endemic animals.


Fortunately, Mt. Katahdin itself is well protected by Baxter State Park.  To protect the grand vistas from its summits, however, and to give a chance for missing species like the wolf, wolverine, and caribou to return, a much larger wild core is needed, and it needs to be well connected to other wild cores.  Again, part of the answer is a big Maine Woods National Park or similar landscape-scale ecological reserve.  Part is protection of the linkages identified by Two Countries One Forest, Wildlife Conservation Society,  The Nature Conservancy, Wildlands Network and others from the Maine North Woods outward. These key linkages go from the Maine North Woods to the Mahoosucs and Boundary Mountains south and west; to the coast southeastward through downeast Maine; north through the Three Borders area, where Maine, New Brunswick, and Quebec are all close together; and to New Brunswick’s Mt Carleton Provincial Park and on to Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula east and north.


As I noted in my last blog, after the outing with friend and guide Roger Merchant, big steps toward regional scale conservation in Maine have been taken, thankfully, but much more needs to be done.  Looking south from Mt Katahdin, one looks over forest purchased and protected by The Nature Conservancy as the Debsconeag Wilderness. To the east of Baxter Park,  some of the land in the Katahdin Lake area has been protected by other wildlands philanthropists, including Roxanne Quimby (see last blog) and Charles Fitzgerald (one of the original proponents of a Maine Woods National Park).  Northwest of Baxter Park is the legendary Allagash Wilderness Waterway, which I’ll be paddling in a few days with Jerry Jenkins and Dave Banks.  The Allagash is just a ribbon of wildness now, a beauty strip sometimes less than a mile wide with industrial logging on both sides.  The Allagash drains into the St. John River, one of the East’s longest free-flowing streams, and another waterway with tremendous wilderness potential. The Nature Conservancy has ownership or conservation easement on much of the St. John above its confluence with the Allagash.  So … many parts of the puzzle are in place.  To me, at least, the finished picture looks a lot like an Alaskan scale park!


Indeed, northern Maine has the potential to be a wild landscape of global importance.  It could be providing habitat for the full range of Northern Appalachian species, even while sequestering carbon on a climate-stabilizing scale.  Obstacles are land ownership patterns, entrenched assumptions, and good-old-boy politics.  Does Maine’s educated citizenry have the strength to shift the paradigm?





For the Wild,




See video


Hi John! I sincerely hope that these entries will be providing the basis for a book. You have a very important story that so desperately needs to be told. At the end of each entry, I find myself yearning to hear more. Safe travels!

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