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Way to Go: Wild Woods

Seeing what Thoreau saw in the rivers and mountains of Maine

by Stephen Gorman

"What a place to live! What a place to die and be buried in!" exclaimed Henry David Thoreau in The Maine Woods after canoeing his way through Allagash and Penobscot river country. "What is most striking is the continuousness of the forest," he wrote. "Except the few burnt lands, the narrow intervals of the rivers, the bare tops of the high mountains and the lakes, the forest is uninterrupted."

At over 10 million acres, the Maine woods encompasses a region some five times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Largely owned by timber companies, these woods and waters remain the biggest uninhabited region in the contiguous 48 states, with only four permanent residents.

The boreal forest is home to eagles, bears, moose, and loons, whose loud and distant call is the voice of the northern wilderness. The canoe, perfected by the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes, is still the ideal vehicle for negotiating the waterways, the natural highways of the region. Classic wilderness canoe journeys include the Allagash Wilderness Waterway (one of the best long-distance canoeing streams in the United States), the St. John River (among the region's most challenging for river runners), the St. Croix (a good place for beginners to learn the ways of whitewater), the east and west branches of the Penobscot, and myriad smaller streams wandering off the main canoe routes like the veins in a leaf.

Hikers-or canoeists turned hikers for a day-will find plenty of trails to peaks overlooking the rivers and lakes. The views from atop Allagash Mountain and Mt. Katahdin are particularly rewarding, like "a mirror broken into a thousand fragments, and wildly scattered over the grass, reflecting the full blaze of the sun." That's how Thoreau put it. But if you're struck speechless by the grandeur, that's okay too.

Nuts & Bolts

How to Prepare
You'll want to head to the North Woods in summer, when temperatures reach the balmy 70s. Mosquitoes and blackflies are fierce through mid-July, however. To protect yourself, don a broad-brimmed hat, long-sleeved cotton or lightweight wool shirt, lightweight cotton or wool pants, and rubber-bottomed, leather-topped boots of the sort made famous by native son L.L. Bean.

For More Information Even though much of the Maine woods is privately owned, public access is a long-standing tradition. The timber-company owners publish detailed maps and can provide information on campgrounds, roads, and trip planning. Some helpful addresses and phone numbers include Great Northern Paper, 1 Katahdin Ave., Millinocket, ME 04462, (207) 723-5131; and North Maine Woods, Inc., P.O. Box 421, Ashland, ME 04732, (207) 435-6213. The Maine Bureau of Parks and Recreation, State House Station 22, Augusta, ME 04333, (207) 289-3821, offers information on public lands, including 201,000-acre Baxter State Park and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. The best maps of the wilderness waterways of Maine are published by DeLorme Mapping, P.O. Box 298, Freeport, ME 04032; (207) 865-4171. For complete descriptions and address listings, read The Sierra Club Guide to the Natural Areas of New England by John Perry and Jane Greverus Perry (Sierra Club Books, 1990).

For Deeper Reading The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau (Penguin Books, 1988); Allagash: Maine's Wild and Scenic River by Dean Bennett (Down East Books, 1994); Nine Mile Bridge by Helen Hamlin (Down East Books, 1973); and Beyond the Beauty Strip by Mitch Lansky (Tilbury House, 1992).

The Politics of Place
When today's canoeists look past the loggers' "cheat 'em strips" flanking their favorite waterways, they're shocked to see clearcuts rolling across Thoreau country. The Maine woods are being felled at an unsustainable rate by a handful of giant out-of-state corporations driven by global markets. Conservationists are calling for permanent protections, a task made more difficult since so much land is privately owned.

A solution seemed to be at hand last year when the Northern Forest Lands Council called for the purchase of additional public lands and ecological reserves in its recommendations to Congress. Millions of acres are currently on the market, but so far little has been acquired, and virtually all of the Maine woods is still susceptible to the ravages of clearcutting and real-estate development.

The most recent proposals include one from a Concord, Massachusetts, group called Restore: The North Woods, advocating the establishment of a 3.2-million-acre Maine Woods National Park. On Capitol Hill, the recently introduced Northern Forest Stewardship Act (S.1163) would be an important first step in acquiring and protecting wildlands in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. The Sierra Club is considering these and other ideas to keep the wild in the Maine woods. To get involved, contact Chris Ballantyne, Northeast Staff Director, Sierra Club, 85 Washington St., Saratoga Springs, NY 12866; (518) 587-9166.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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