maine woods national park

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Last week I took a trip into the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument, a new addition to the National Parks system directly east of Baxter State Park. The Monument was designated in August, after years of effort by Elliotsville Plantation (the former owners of the land, a foundation set up by the philanthropist and former owner of Burt’s Bees to advocate for a National Park in the area) to donate the land to the National Park Service. There was, and to some degree still is, vehement opposition to the Monument from a loud and increasingly small part of the population in the region, but the local attitude now mostly seems to range from fully in support to indifferent, which is just fine by me.

Haskell Deadwater on the Penobscot River, with Bald Mountain rising in the distance.

I had been into Katahdin Woods & Waters twice in the past few years before it was a National Monument, but only for short day-trips. Now that it’s officially part of the National Parks, I wanted to do a longer trip into the wilderness before the wider world started showing up in larger numbers. So for my goal of finding some quiet time in the deep woods, the trip was a wild success. I saw only a handful of people on the first day, but only one person (my friend Tom) during the three days after that.

Haskell Pitch on the Penobscot River.

Aside from the fine solitude in the Monument, how was the rest of the visit? While the Monument doesn’t have quite the wow-factor that Baxter does in many cases, it has plenty to offer.

On their own, KWW’s trails and campsite are pleasant in a low-key way. The trails I saw were mostly old logging roads, groomed so that Tom (on his fat-bike) and I (on my cross-country skis) could cover plenty of ground. There are several lean-tos and tent sites in the Monument, many of them on the shores of the Penobscot River, accessible by foot, bike, or canoe, and I figure they are quite nice, and fairly easy to get to. There are also two cabins, complete with wood stoves and bunks. I stayed in one of the cabins for this trip, which, of course, is the most popular option in winter.

Wood stove in Big Spring Brook Hut.

The Monument has a few fine viewpoints, although I only made it to one on this trip— a low mountain called The Lookout, with a nice view of the southern half of the Monument and some of the peaks in Baxter. You’ve probably heard from some of the naysayers that the only attraction in the Monument is a view of Katahdin, but you can just call them grumpy spoilsports. There’s plenty of beauty to be found on trails along wild rivers and ponds, and through deep northern forests. Some people will always complain about the Monument because of their own political leanings, and they’ll probably never enjoy it. That’s their loss, but I won’t waste my time trying to convince them otherwise.

From The Lookout, over the southern half of the Monument.

Another aspect of the Monument experience that I need to mention is staying at a Maine sporting camp. There are several lodges and sporting camps near the Monument, which are an old Maine tradition for hunters, anglers, snowmobilers, and other outdoor recreationists. Think of them as semi-rustic hotels, generally small and family-run operations, with family-style meals and tons of local knowledge to mine. I stayed at Mt Chase Lodge for a night on either end of this trip, and it really added to the whole experience.

One of the primary arguments for the Monument has always been that it would boost the local economy by bringing visitors to the area to spend money, so I see staying at one of the lodges as a concrete way of showing my support for public lands in general, and KWW specifically. And what do you know, since the Monument designation, there has been an increase in sporting camp visitors, real estate sales, and new investment in the area. Imagine that.

Tom leaving Big Spring Brook on his fatbike after a cozy night by the wood stove.

So, one other point.

Our governor, who is known for many of his boneheaded statements over the past six years, is also known for being consistently opposed to just about everything related to public lands and conservation. I’ve talked about this before, so I don’t want to rehash too much. He’s always been opposed to the Monument, despite the fact that the majority of the people in Maine support it. He even took it upon himself to ask the president to revoke the Monument status, even though it’s unclear that that’s even possible, none of Maine’s congressional delegation supports that, and even local politicians who were opposed are now more interested in moving forward with the Monument.

The governor loves to claim that the Monument will hurt local businesses, and that “it’s nothing but a cut-over woodlot” (meaning it was logged recently and the forest is mostly new growth). It’s easy enough to see that local businesses haven’t been hurt, although they weren’t exactly in a strong place for the decades before the Monument. As for the wood-lot claim, the governor seems ignorant of the fact that another famous park was also mostly clear-cut before being bought by a wealthy philanthropist and given to the people of Maine: Baxter State Park. The most valuable part of the Monument, as I see it, is the fact that the forest within it will be preserved for future generations. Without one very forward-looking individual, Baxter State Park wouldn’t be what it is today. Give it a hundred years, and it will be just as wild as Baxter’s deep forests. In the meantime, it will still be a perfectly pleasant place to spend some time in the deep forests of northern Maine.

The view of Katahdin and the Travelers from Patten.

The view of Katahdin and the Travelers from Patten.

Last weekend I took a trip far into the north woods, almost to the Matagamon Gate of Baxter State Park. Rather than entering Baxter, though, this trip went into the adjacent, and less well-known, Elliotsville Plantation trails along the Penobscot River. You may have heard of Elliotsville by other names in recent years– particularly in reference to a Maine Woods National Park. For this trip, I joined a group from the Natural Resources Council of Maine to cross-country ski several miles into the northern portion of the Katahdin Woods & Waters park and see what the area had to offer.

Saddling up at the parking lot, just beneath Horse Mountain.

Saddling up at the parking lot, just beneath Horse Mountain.

The drive into Matagamon highlighted the reasons that this area would be ripe for increased tourism. Along the road to Patten, we were treated to stunning views of the entire range of ice-crusted mountains in Baxter Park, from Katahdin all the way to the Travelers. As we neared the gate, the Traveler Range loomed high above. We passed dozens of snowmobile trails and several businesses that catered to snow travelers. They seemed plenty busy on this cold, clear winter day, but the group of skiers added several customers to their ranks.

Starting the trip, skiing toward Bald Mountain.

Starting the trip, skiing toward Bald Mountain.

It was a fairly late start from the northern trailhead, but skiing along groomed trails directly beneath Billfish and Bald Mountains made for speedy travel. The trails were originally logging roads, and are now modeled after Acadia’s carriage roads in terms of recreational opportunities (biking, horseback riding, and walking in summer, skiing and snowshoeing in winter), so the views are a little different from what you’d be used to in Baxter State Park. Rather than high mountain views, we looked up at the mountains from old clear cuts, and at the river from campsites along the banks.

A section of trail alongside the East Branch of Penobscot River.

A section of trail alongside the East Branch of Penobscot River.

Looking up at Bald Mountain and the Traveler from a frozen marsh.

Looking up at Bald Mountain and the Traveler from a frozen marsh.

Some of the oppositional commentary I’ve heard about the National Park idea has focused on the fact that the most spectacular scenery in the region is already in Baxter, but those ideas seem curmudgeonly and stubborn once you’ve had the opportunity to lose yourself in your thoughts in the deep woods here. I, for one, would love to walk the length of the Katahdin Woods, then paddle back along the Penobscot for a woods and waters version of a loop. I can imagine thousands of other visitors benefiting from the same kind of experience. For the long-distance hiker, there’s also the possibility of a sixty-mile loop, combining the International Appalachian Trail in Katahdin Woods & Waters, and several trails in Baxter. This would take some advanced logistics and planning, but would make for a lovely week in the woods.

Haskell Hut, a welcome sight for weary legs.

Haskell Hut, a welcome sight for weary legs.

Warming up in the recently renovated hut.

Warming up in the recently renovated hut.

The trek ended at Haskell Hut, one of several campsites within the park. This was a renovated logging camp at the edge of a deadwaters on the river, complete with bunks, wood stove, and a fine view over the marsh. I imagine that in the summer and spring, this place would be prime for watching birds and other wildlife. For winter, it’s a great spot to stop in and warm up before heading back to Matagamon.

Haskell Rock in the Penobscot.

Haskell Rock in the Penobscot.

Looking upstream from Haskell Rock, toward Billfish Mountain.

Looking upstream from Haskell Rock, toward Billfish Mountain.

The ski out was just as pleasant as the ski in, with more views of the Travelers and Bald Mountain, and the sun dipping low to the horizon as we neared the cars. The day’s miles had extended a little further than planned, which made for either the longest or second longest day of cross country skiing I’ve ever done. The gentle grades of the old logging roads, and the freshly groomed trails certainly helped, but I still needed a few days of rest after this one. I am still a little exhausted, but it was worth every second of aching muscles to be out there.

Heading out in the afternoon, under the looming Traveler.

Heading out in the afternoon, under the looming Traveler.