2016-10-31 17:41:16
Explorer: Touring Maine’s Newest — and Largest — Parcel of Federal Land

On an early fall day, with just a hint of red tinting the maples, the view from the summit of Deasey Mountain is spectacular.

To the west stand the rugged, treeless basins and knife-edge spine of Mount Katahdin. Off to the south, you see Wassataquoik Valley in the near distance, the peaks of the 100 Mile Wilderness beyond. To the east and north, more wild Maine woods and hills rolling for miles, to the Canadian border.

It’s a fascinating view, partly because until recently, this mountain and most of the foreground were owned by one person. In August, the entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby donated it to the federal government, and President Obama designated the area the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Now the 87,500-acre monument — adjacent to Baxter State Park — is Maine’s largest parcel of federal land, nearly twice the size of Acadia National Park, and I’ve come to explore.

I started the trip to Deasey by following a rough road to a trailhead inside the monument, then mountain biking along an old logging road that parallels Wassataquoik Stream. A beaver clambered along the bank of a small stream. A bit farther along, hooves clattered on river cobbles, and a cow moose trotted off into the birches.

Eventually, I found a sign for the International Appalachian Trial, or IAT, that extends the concept of the Appalachian Trail (which itself ends at Katahdin) to Canada and beyond. (One indication of the size of the new monument is that it includes 31 miles of the trail, about the distance between Manhattan and Greenwich, Conn.)

The trail crossed the Wassataquoik at a knee-deep ford, meandered through mixed woods and skirted a massive glacial erratic before turning steeply uphill for a mile toward the summit of Deasey.

Hiking out, it seemed I had the place to myself. On 10 miles of trail, I had flushed several grouse, and stepped over moose, coyote and bear scat, but I had not encountered another soul.

In fact, the only person I talked to that day was a man at the trailhead who said he had grown up fishing and hiking in the area. He hated the idea of a park, and said, “I’m just coming to say goodbye to it for the very last time.” It’s not surprising, really: The park and Ms. Quimby have been controversial for years.

Ms. Quimby’s story is by now familiar. A single mom and a back-to-the-lander, she teamed up with the grizzled backwoods beekeeper Burt Shavitz to cook up a line of personal-care products on her woodstove. By the time Clorox bought Burt’s Bees in 2007, Ms. Quimby had made hundreds of millions of dollars.

She used some of that money to buy strategic conservation lands, much of it heavily logged, and sat on the board of an organization that aspired to create a three-million-acre Maine Woods National Park, encircling Baxter State Park.

The park proposal was opposed by the timber industry and locals accustomed to virtually unrestricted access to private timberlands for hunting, fishing, snowmobiling and riding ATVs.

Even though the National Park Service designated the region a national monument, which is less restrictive than a national park, tensions remain. Driving to the monument from Route 11, on a gravel logging road, one passes a sign bolted to a pine tree next to the one-lane wooden bridge over the East Branch of the Penobscot River: “This bridge owner says NATIONAL PARK, NO!”

The monument aims to commemorate the area’s cultural history, including the logging that has transformed Maine’s woods. Over several centuries, timber interests felled trees, dammed rivers and built thousands of miles of roads.

The trees flowed through paper mills that employed thousands in towns like Millinocket. Now many of the mills are empty, their machines auctioned off for scrap metal. Some houses in Millinocket sell for less than $30,000. Now, the town also has a storefront visitors’ center for the monument.

Some elements of the new monument feel perfunctory, like the sketched-in outlines of a park. There is a loop road, for example, leading to a couple of spots with fine views of Kathadin. Like other Maine woods roads, you may spot a moose crossing, or a ruffed grouse picking gravel. And I was pleased to spot a spruce grouse — a darker, less wary, rarer cousin of the ruffed grouse — idling in the road. But it feels like what it is: a repurposed logging road.

There’s also just one car-accessible campsite in the park, and it is really a glorified gravel pit. But it is comfortable, with picnic benches, fire pits, a few sandy tent sites, a new outhouse, and a marshy pond.

I stayed there two nights, and what seemed slapdash in the day revealed its charm at night, when the silence was broken only by the calls of a great horned owl. After moonset, the Milky Way glowed above.

If there’s plenty of room for infrastructure improvements, the National Park Service has the cash to pay for them. In addition to the land, Ms. Quimby donated $20 million for an endowment, and pledged another $20 million in future support.

I also wanted to see the northern end of the monument. There are two ways to get there. You can hike the IAT and continue 20 miles past the Deasey summit, or drive a 40-mile loop through Patten (where the Patten Lumbermen’s Museum doubles as another visitors’ center for the monument) and past Shin Pond. Just before the northern entrance of Baxter State Park, a dirt road heading south features a small sign marking the International Appalachian Trail, but no sign for the monument. A half-mile down the road, there is an information kiosk with a map.

This portion of the monument feels more accessible, with well-marked hiking and skiing trails. Stopping at a picnic site near a beaver flowage, I spotted a tiny snapping turtle, so freshly emerged from its nest that its face was still dusty and its shell covered with sand and dirt. Another trudged along nearby, and another. A procession of nine nascent turtle siblings plodded steadfast and determined to a steep bank, where they tumbled, carapace over teakettle, into the gently flowing water.

That evening, I biked down toward the East Branch seeking a campsite. A mile and a half in, I found something better. Haskell Hut is a bright, spacious log cabin with six bunks, perched on a bluff over a wide, slow reach of the river.

As a loon called from the river and mice scurried unseen, I perused the large topo map on the wall to plan the next day’s adventure. It looked as though it would be fun to bike downriver, then hike to a pond for some trout.

So I set off early, fully caffeinated with a fly rod in my backpack. Here, too, the primary artery is the International Appalachian Trail. Heading south, the trail along the river passes campsites and a lean-to used by hikers and paddlers.

The East Branch makes a popular canoe trip, and portage paths skirt the bigger drops. Some are Class III rapids in big water; others, like the Grand Pitch, are essentially short waterfalls.

Thoreau passed this way in 1857 on one of his Maine trips, in a birch-bark canoe guided by Joe Polis, a Penobscot Indian. Native Americans have traversed this region since long before European settlement, and their history is evident in place names like Katahdin, Matagamon, Penobscot and Wassataquoik.

The trail diminished into a rough two-track before turning uphill and developing into a true trail, overgrown in spots. It was easier walking than riding, passing over and under fallen trees, and slogging through sucking mud. This portion of the trail, too, was devoid of people.

A pileated woodpecker called in the distance. A large raptor flushed in deep woods — perhaps a goshawk? Among a small flock of songbirds, a black-throated blue warbler ate a green caterpillar from a striped maple.

The trail eventually dipped back to the river near a wood-plank suspension bridge leading to Bowlin Camps Lodge, a traditional Maine sporting camp catering primarily to hunters and anglers. By early afternoon, I had found a path to a small, scenic pond.

Someone had left a canoe neatly stowed among the moss and wintergreen near shore, and with the designation of the monument, I figured it now belonged to all Americans, the people’s canoe. Sliding the boat, I could see a trail through the aquatic plants left by a grazing moose.

Another angler had left a fly in the canoe, a well-proportioned brown woolly bugger. Taking it as a sign (and knowing that it is one of the most effective flies on the planet), I tied it on and began casting, but found no evidence of trout.

Still, it was as fine a place as you could be while not catching fish. The rugged mountains of Baxter stood off to the west. Pickerel frogs patrolled the damp fringes, and dragonflies and damselflies darted among the lily pads. A kingfisher flew over the shallows, and out in the center of the pond, a loon and a chick were snorkeling — scanning with their heads underwater — and diving for fish.

In the solitude, I wondered how this may change under National Park Service management. Acadia National Park hosts two million tourists each year. Baxter State Park sees 75,000 visitors annually, and is struggling to meet its “forever wild” management mandate, exemplified by recent criticism over celebrations at the summit of Katahdin. The monument is less dramatic than either of the two, but it will likely attract thousands of visitors.But with just a few parking areas and one car-accessible campsite, it is not yet ready for them.

In managing the monument, the National Park Service aims to protect the geology, biodiversity and recreational opportunities in the area, and minimize the effects of a changing climate. So the next few years will be a challenge, as the agency drafts a plan to accommodate increasing visits while protecting the wildness, the dark skies, the moose and bear and the spruce grouse.

And the brook trout, which I finally found cruising in a little cove. Where one eagerly took the woolly bugger. It was a small brookie, and I reeled it in quickly, admiring the brilliant red-and-blue spots on its olive flanks and the vermiculation on its back, then watched it swim back into the calm, clear waters of the Maine woods.