My family has enjoyed trips to Maine’s North Woods for the past several years, mostly spending time around Moosehead Lake, Mount Kineo, and the Monson area. Recently we heard through NRCM that Roxanne Quimby was opening up sections of the Elliotsville Plantation land, which might one day become a national park and national recreation area. So, I decided a trip was in order.
Given that the trip is about 17 hours from my home in Virginia, I called my oldest son who is in his 3rd year at the University of Virginia, and asked him if he’d like to accompany me over his fall break in mid-October. Sharing a love of the North Woods, he jumped at the idea of a road trip back to Maine! Since this was planned as a tent camping trip, I felt better having him along given that he is an Eagle Scout with years of backcountry camping experience. Plus, I was looking forward to spending time with him doing something we both enjoyed. We agreed the main goal of the trip was to see the Elliotsville Plantation land, and to possibly camp at the Sandbank Campground. So, ahead of the trip, and at the urging of NRCM articles, I exchanged emails with Mark and Susan Adams, managers of the Lunksoos Camps on the EPI land, who provided me with directions to Sandbank Campground…and a good tip: purchase a Delorme Gazetteer, and earmark map 51!
After reserving our first night of camping in Baxter State Park, our trip to the North Woods was “planned.” I left to pick up my son from UVa on a Thursday evening and we drove straight to Camden, Maine, arriving the next day just before noon. Sharing the driving duties, we both reflected on the significant populations we were leaving behind on our trip north. We gladly left Richmond, Washington, DC, Baltimore, Newark, Philadelphia, New York, Hartford, and Boston in our rear view mirror eagerly anticipating the remote, vast quiet of Maine’s North Woods. Arriving in Camden Friday morning, we decided a stop was in order. My son was able to use the free WiFi at the Camden Public Library to hand in homework that he needed to have in by 5:00 p.m. that evening. After submitting his homework, we enjoyed a great lunch at Cappy’s and then a trip up Mt. Battie for an incredible view of Penobscot Bay before getting back in the car to head to Baxter State Park.
We arrived at Baxter just after sunset Friday, set up camp at a wonderful camping spot on Lower South Branch Pond, and settled in for a great night of much needed sleep. Saturday morning we awoke to views that I’ll never forget and will always search out. South Branch Pond sits at the base of Traveler Mountain and our campsite had unobstructed views of this beautiful mountain and its fall foliage. We’d made it! We were in the North Woods once again, hallelujah! After breakfast, my son and I hiked for several hours in Baxter State Park and were absolutely amazed by the beauty and ruggedness of the park. We lunched on a rock outcropping on the Horse Mountain trail with great views of Upper and Lower South Branch Pond below us. Percival did it right, and I hope that Ms. Quimby can use Baxter State Park as a model in some way for what they hope to accomplish with their land.
Later in the afternoon, we left Baxter and began to make our way to the EPI property. Given the road conditions in that area of the North Woods, our drive to the EPI property took longer than we anticipated. As my son and I scanned our Delorme Gazetteer (thanks to the recommendation from the Adams!) to make sure we weren’t lost, we rounded a corner and saw the camping area with privy on our left…whew! Ooh, but we also saw two pick-ups and a camper! At this point, my son and I were an hour or more from Patten/Sherman and who knows where we’d have been able to camp if we decided against Sandbank and opted to drive out. But, we had faith in common goodness, backed up our rental car, and asked the three men who were there if they minded if we pitched our tent somewhere that night. The three vehicles had Maine license plates, and the guys looked very much in their element. My son and I, along with our Virginia-plated rental car, seemed to be the ones out of place. These three guys looked at us sort of sideways, inspected our little rental car filled with gear, noticed we had no blaze orange or camo and couldn’t quite get over that we had come so far simply to hike on some land. Regardless, they were welcoming, and my son and I found a spot away from their camper to pitch our tent for the night.
The next morning, we packed our car and started it up to drive the Katahdin loop located just ½ mile farther up the road, when I noticed that our “low tire pressure” gauge was lit! “Oh sh**,” I thought, “we cannot get a flat tire out here, please!” The hunters had left just ahead of us—hunting the opposite direction of the property—so we were now on our own. After considering our options, we decided to drive to the Loop Road, park the car, and then hike as much as we could for the day before slowly driving back toward “civilization.”
We drove slowly to the Katahdin Loop, parked our car, got out, and gasped huge “Wows” as we soaked in the beauty and thanked the powers that be for letting us be here after our long journey from Virginia. We then noticed the hiking trail sign just opposite the Loop Road and decided to follow it up the ridge. A short walk back, brought us to a nice stream/marshy/bog area where we pump filter-filled our water bottles and then sat on a nice log bench overlooking the bog/marsh to have lunch. As we were enjoying our lunch we were fortunate enough to see a moose cow feeding in the distance. What a treat! This was one of the things that brought us this far north and we both smiled silently as we watched this amazing creature in its element. Thankful yet again for this opportunity…
After lunch, we hiked for about four hours on the EPI land. Along the trail following the ridge, my son and I tried to envision camp sites, hiking trails, or even a nice slow canoe trip a National Park might bring to the area, but what we enjoyed most was that we were alone. No other people were doing what WE were doing, and we really, really liked this. We hiked silently, enjoying the quiet of the woods, breathing the fresh air. We both saw a pheasant in the underbrush and my son was fortunate enough to spot a bull moose in a stand of trees just before leaving. We arrived back at our car, refreshed from a great day on the EPI land, and were relieved to see our tire still holding on. Then slowly, surely, we started to make our way out to Stacyville Road with hopes of getting to Rt. 11 in Millinocket to get some air for our rental car’s tire. I wasn’t sure if we’d make it that far and given our slowed pace, our trip to Gulf Hagas that afternoon was now in jeopardy. As we limped slowly to the Whetstone Falls Bridge on the East Branch of the Penobscot, we decided we’d stop to take a few pictures.
Pulling to the side of the road just over the bridge, we got out, camera in hand, and noticed a father and young boy walking back toward the bridge. They gave us the same awkward look that the hunters had given us the night before, but I decided to say hello and told them we had stopped for some pictures after having spent the day on the EPI land. I explained that we had limped to this particular spot with low tire pressure in one of our tires and were hoping to make it out to get some air. Once the father heard this, he immediately asked, “You need air?” I never thought, “We’ve got an air compressor,” would be such a sweet-sounding sentence, but that day in the North Woods it was indeed sweet music to my ears! Obviously I graciously accepted, and he then set about having his young son, who was maybe 10 or 11, check each tire’s air pressure while he pulled up his truck to unload the compressor. Then as his hunting buddies stopped by to see what was going on, his young son filled up our four tires with much needed air…our own North Woods pit stop! We thanked him, complimented his son on his resourcefulness with an air pressure gauge and compressor, and drove out to Rt. 11 with the “low pressure” warning light lit no longer! On our way out of the area, we were treated with one of the best views we’ve ever had of Katahdin!
How fortunate we were to have come across another kind and courteous Mainer so deep into the North Woods. With tires full of air, we actually made it to Gulf Hagas with just enough daylight for a quick three-hour hike in from the Greenville side of the Gulf. This worked perfectly since it allowed us to see several nice falls—and now we can say we’ve seen Gulf Hagas. Getting back to our car as the sun was dropping below the horizon, we headed the 10 miles into Greenville for our last night of camping at Lily Bay State Park. Arriving after hours, we had to “self-register” ourselves at the Park entrance. While doing this, a young couple from Chicago stopped at the entry gate as well and looked a bit lost as to what to do. They explained that they had a trip planned for months to Acadia, but due to the federal government shut down were now “winging it.” After a 10-day trek from Chicago through Canada they were at a loss for what to do in Maine if Acadia was closed. Having just had my own North Woods adventure, I offered some suggestions and assured them they wouldn’t be disappointed with their time in Maine, even if Acadia was “closed.”
My son and I had a good night’s sleep in Lily Bay SP and woke up to a beautiful misty morning on Moosehead Lake. That morning we had planned on a stop in Greenville at Northwoods Outfitters so that my son could take an Operating Systems exam for UVa. He actually had a take-home exam due Monday evening, so the free WiFi at the Northwoods Outfitters was PERFECT! Settling into the Hard Drive Café with his laptop next to a big picture window with a great view of Moosehead Lake and the region he loves, he began his OS exam. A couple hours into his exam, a big pick-up truck parked outside hauling a trailer with a huge bull moose. Moose season was definitely under way! What a unique experience my son and I were having in Maine. After the exam, we spent a couple of hours in the Greenville/Monson area and then sadly began the trek home to Virginia. The drive home was long, but we both were glad to have made the trip. We talked about trips we wanted to do in the future, maybe more time at Baxter SP or perhaps longer in Gulf Hagas. Who knows, maybe even a trip to a new North Woods national park? We thought of all the other remote and unique places in the North Woods we had yet to visit and made a pact to visit again, and again, and again.
I wish Roxanne Quimby and her son the best of luck in what they are doing. I’m not fortunate enough to have the land holdings they do, but I certainly can appreciate and even admire her desire to conserve it. The North Woods are special in so many ways…I’m a Virginian born and raised, but I find myself drawn to the area for reasons I find difficult to verbalize. The North Woods mean so much to me, and that is why I return each year. It is why I wanted to see what the EPI land looked like. During our trip, I recall an older ranger in Baxter State Park who wasn’t exactly sure what to think of a possible national park next door. He seemed torn when I asked him about it, but after a pause, he simply reflected on what it might mean to the future of Baxter State Park. He explained that he was born and raised in the area, and had been a ranger for a couple of decades and really was just concerned for the health and vitality of Baxter State Park. He loved the wildness and remote quality that Baxter exudes and fosters. I agree and I understand his desire to keep it as it is…for all of us. This is a unique time for the North Woods, and although I’m “from away,” I’m sincerely interested in the future of this beautiful area.
Best of luck to all of Maine as the debate to create a national park and national recreation area in the North Woods continues. Even today there is something profound in the words that Percival Baxter spoke so long ago: “Man is born to die, his works are short-lived, buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes, but Katahdin in all its glory, forever shall remain the Mountain of the people of Maine.”