by Lou Ureneck
Boston Globe op-ed
I made my first trip to Maine’s north woods when I was 15. It was a late November deer-hunting trip in the autumn of 1965. I didn’t shoot a deer, but the immensity and wildness of the place left an impression on me that has lasted a lifetime. I returned later in life, as a young man, to hunt grouse in the nearby old apple orchards of Penobscot and Aroostook counties.
Those carefree days afield in the October sun with my Brittany spaniel are among my most pleasant memories. I think of one image in particular: I’m standing in an abandoned Aroostook potato field on a bright morning and to the west sparkles sacred Katahdin, snow-capped and majestic against the blue sky.
It was easy to understand the Penobscot Indian’s reverence for the peak, now the terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
There’s big and good news coming out of Katahdin country. President Obama has accepted a gift to the federal government of 87,500 acres of land east of Baxter State Park and designated it as a national monument. Most of the land is contiguous to Baxter State Park, itself a treasure of blue-sequin ponds and rolling hills thickly carpeted with spruce and fir trees.
The land, now designated as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, was the gift of Roxanne Quimby who made a fortune as co-founder of Burt’s Bees, which manufactures natural lip balms and soaps. (She was born in Lexington, and her company’s philanthropic arm made the gift.)
Quimby has had a troubled relationship with her neighbors in northern Maine, a hardscrabble group who hunt, fish, and snowmobile for recreation. Many have made their livelihoods from the soil and forest. She originally wanted her gift designated as a national park, but that proposal ran into opposition from skeptical residents, the Maine Legislature, and the region’s US congressman.
Her gift is generous, for sure, but she unfortunately has planted within it the seeds of resentment. As many northern Mainers feared, the deed that she has transferred to the government restricts hunting to a small section of the lands, those east of the East Branch of Penobscot River, and snowmobiling also will be tightly regulated.
The land up there is vast, and these activities are sustainable and non-damaging. Hunting, in particular, has been a way of life in Maine for generations. Around Millinocket, Patten, and the many small towns in the area, the opening Saturday of the deer season has long been a holiday that begins with big breakfasts in local churches and grange halls.
There was no good reason for her to restrict the hunting except her personal animus toward it. As they would say up there in Maine, “Well, she’s from Massachusetts…”
Nonetheless, the protection of these lands against development is a reason to celebrate. The region is home to 75 species of birds. Its ponds and streams are nurseries for wild eastern brook trout, a fragile species that can’t tolerate pollution. It is also home to the Canada lynx, an endangered symbol of the northern wilderness. Moose abound, as do marten, fisher, beaver, and bears.
Of bears I have another memory tied up with this special place. In the late 1970s, I dropped down on to the East Branch of the Penobscot in a floatplane with a Maine biologist who was checking on bears wearing radio collars. He found a big female inside her den, fast asleep. He tranquilized her, pulled her out, and took her measurements. She was returned safe and sound, probably remembering the entire episode as a bad dream.
As he worked, I watched the strong and swift black river flow around granite boulders, and I looked up into the late fall sky, through the treetops of the hemlock and birch. I drank in the evergreen-scented air, and thought to myself, “Is there a more glorious place on earth than this?”
Lou Ureneck is author of Cabin. He teaches journalism at Boston University.