By Alexandra Conover Bennett, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
Several decades ago, as a young Registered Maine Guide, one of the first canoe trips I led was along the rolling waters of the East Branch of the Penobscot River just east of Baxter State Park. Nowadays, the river and surrounding land is within the Katahdin Woods and Waters Recreation Area, which the landowner, Elliotsville Plantation Inc., wants to donate to the nation as a national park and recreation area.
This summer, after many years of guiding elsewhere, I returned with clients in tow. To my delight, I found an unchanged landscape still vibrant with the sounds of pristine water pounding over rock, birds warbling from dawn to dusk, deer and moose feeding in the calm oxbows, fish darting as dark shadows from deep bankside pools, eagles perched in prominent pines and mossy tent sites so quiet I could hear the blood coursing through my veins. How rare to return to a place of our youth to find the feeling, smells, sounds and sights just as we remembered.
As most of us know, New England’s original woodlands and pristine waterways have long since been transformed into farmlands, tree plantations, housing developments, commercial buildings, streets, highways, hydroelectric impoundments and so on. In remarkable contrast, the land surrounding the East Branch — home to the Wabanaki for thousands of years — though repeatedly cut during the last two centuries, has remained largely undeveloped.
Presently, due to the changing ownership of these lands and the goals and values of a new owner, Elliotsville Plantation Inc., we now find haul roads being reclaimed by alders and birch, patrolled by shy, resident lynx; remnants of rotted wooden dams and pulp bark being swept away by spring freshets, allowing the native brookies to thrive in the now cold, oxygenated waters. And thanks to the stunning natural beauty of this part of Maine, you can bask in lush silver-maple intervales where numerous medicinal herbs and turtles thrive. The steep, mountainside forests sweep dramatically upward to rocky, east-facing summits, gleaming in the rising sun. And on clear nights the forest path is illuminated by brilliant starlight piercing the dense forest canopy just as it did when Wabanaki families, Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt and countless others through the centuries walked this very land.
Why do I care about wild places with free-flowing waters, diverse woodlands, few roads and abundant animal life? The practical reason is that, since 1978, I have made my living as a year-round recreational guide by bringing people to experience the thriving wildness within legendary, protected river corridors such as the West Branch, Moose, St. Croix, St. John and Allagash. These areas are precious and rare as diamonds in our world today. My guests have made comments that resonate with me, and this is the strongest reason I chose to be a wilderness guide: because wild areas bring us alive, teach us and connect us with something far greater than ourselves.
Most Maine Guides have guided people from as far away as California, France, Australia and Japan all seeking what their homelands have lost — large, connected, undeveloped lands for wild animals, game and humans; places where they can find free-flowing rivers, unpolluted water, dark skies and clean air. It’s hard to believe when you live right here, but Maine’s North Woods contain precisely what most of the world is presently missing.
However, we have the distinct potential to lose it and the associated economic benefits without visionary, community-based support and action. I am excited, engaged and honored to join the activities and efforts to help bring about our newest National Park and National Recreation Area.
In order for that to happen, we need Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins to show leadership and introduce the legislation necessary to accept this amazing gift offered by Elliotsville Plantation Inc., which, along with the land, includes the offer of a first-of-its-kind $40 million endowment for park operations.
Just as we have greatly benefited from the vision of people before us who have honored and protected wild places, I hope that future generations traveling in the East Branch Penobscot region will be able to turn to their children and say, “Why, this is exactly as it was when I was young!”
Alexandra Conover Bennett has over 30 years of experience leading professional canoe and snowshoeing trips in Maine and Canada.