By Mike Wilson, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
My son, Tom, and I launched our canoe into the East Branch of the Penobscot River, just below the Matagamon Dam, at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24. This was our third annual trip to the East Branch, and the first time we were starting at the top. We were feeling ready for the rapids and portages to come in those first 11 miles.
Tom likes the East Branch largely because we catch fish there — lots of big bass. I like that because fishing with kids is always more fun when you actually catch fish. We also count on seeing lots of wildlife and almost no people as we explore the quietly stunning landscape. I know Tom likes that, too.
This year, by coincidence, we were the first people to paddle the East Branch after much of the surrounding area was designated by President Barack Obama as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. We were first to run Stair Falls and Bowling Falls. First to portage around Haskell Rock, Pond Pitch, Grand Pitch and the Hulling Machine. We’re also pretty sure we were the first to skinny dip in the new national monument (around 3 p.m. if anyone wants to challenge us).
I’ve been involved with rural economic, conservation and cultural issues in the Maine woods for the past 20 years, and I have run the upper stretch of the East Branch once before and the lower portions several times. What I noticed this year was that the national monument designation hadn’t changed anything, at least not yet. The portages still were grueling. The rapids just challenging enough. The wildlife still was abundant (we recorded 22 different species, including moose, eagles and a luna moth caterpillar). The fish still were biting, and we had that quietly beautiful landscape all to ourselves.
We also still were traveling through a landscape of mixed public and private lands. Two of our portages were on monument lands and two followed traditional portage trails on the privately owned east side of the river. Both nights we camped at traditional sites on private land because that’s where we found the right sites at the right times.
Tom and I didn’t plan our canoe trip on the East Branch because the area had been designated as a national monument. We were there because it’s a great place where people who know how to get around in the Maine woods have been experiencing and learning about nature for generations. It’s a wild place that forces people to pay attention and disconnect from their technology and routine. A place that gives adults a chance to recharge and kids a chance to come of age a bit.
The new national monument will inevitably bring change to this special area. And for those of us who’ve come to love it as it is — wild, remote, uncrowded and uninterpreted — some of that change will be bittersweet.
The national monument will attract more people from across the country and around the world to experience outdoor recreation and renewal in the Maine woods. People who live in the area will have the chance to create new and expanded business and share their love of the place as ambassadors helping visitors understand our tradition of balancing forest management and outdoor recreation.
The federal government will invest in valuable new recreational and interpretive resources, and I believe local landowners and communities will respond to this opportunity by finding new ways to support and benefit from increased visitation.
And, while Tom and I understand our future experiences on the East Branch may be different, I know the region’s economy will get a sorely needed boost, and new visitors will leave richer for their time in the Maine woods.
I can’t measure the ways my son and I have benefited from our trips together on the East Branch, and I’m sure we’ll miss the feeling of being out there alone together, with no other people around and no one to rely on but ourselves.
The powerful experiences we’ve shared there, though, confirm for me that national recognition of the region’s environmental and cultural values is well deserved, and that the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument will make Maine and the United States better places for the generations to come.
Mike Wilson of South Portland is as the senior program director for the Northern Forest Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building economic and community vitality while fostering sound forest stewardship across the Northern Forest of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York.