By John Holyoke
Bangor Daily News column
On Wednesday evening, Lucas St. Clair — president of Elliotsville Plantation Inc. and the man who led the effort to establish a national monument in northern Maine — sat down to chat with me in front of a packed house at the Bangor Public Library. The event was the BDN’s latest Dirigo Speaks event, in partnership with AARP Maine.
St. Clair provided some updates on the goings-on in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and provided some tips for those who might want to head to the monument and begin checking things out for themselves.
It’s impossible to summarize our hour-long conversation in the space we’ve got here, of course. Instead, here are a few interesting nuggets pulled from our enjoyable conversation.
Friendly room: The event was sold out, and before the presentation, I gauged St. Clair’s interest in getting into heated debates with any possible monument opponents who might show up. He smiled and said he didn’t think it would come to that.
I wasn’t so sure; emotions on the issue have always run high.
Then St. Clair explained the reason for his optimism: The tide is changing, he said, and more people are willing to give the monument a real chance than might have been the case just a year ago. Then he dropped the statistic of the night to prove his point: The federal review of a number of national monuments, including KWW, is ongoing, and an open comment period is underway.
Thus far, St. Clair told me, 6,400 people have taken the time to comment on Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Online comments can be viewed at the U.S. Department of the Interior website.
The number of negative comments: 44, he said.
And as he expected, there was no drama during the presentation.
Say I want to go camping … Because the monument is so new, it’s clearly a work in progress. But how much of a work in progress is it? What if you want to go camping? What should you expect for camping amenities?
“In most of the places labeled with a campsite on the map, you’ll find fire rings, picnic tables, camping, tent platforms and vault toilets — relatively clean, you can sweep them out,” St. Clair said. “There are a handful of places to stay along the loop road, there are four different IAT — International Appalachian Trail — lean-tos that you can [stay in] … And really, what I recommend, is staying in a local campground, in a private campground. Ultimately what we’re trying to do here is having this conserved landscape benefit the local economy. So stay at Shin Pond Village. Stay at Mount Chase. Stay at the New England Outdoor Center. There’s a whole spectrum of places to stay that are very close to the monument, and the nice thing about staying in one of these local places is, you get to meet a local family and you get to learn about their history in the Katahdin region, and their stories. And maybe they’d be more generous about telling you where to go fly fishing.”
Take a hike! Along the same line, with trail work scheduled throughout the summer, I asked St. Clair where folks ought to head to find a good trail that’ll be easy to follow and provide some great views.
“Probably the biggest bang for the buck, off the loop road, I think it’s Mile 10 or 11, there’s a hike up Barnard Mountain,” St. Clair said. “It’s about four miles, round trip, on a deep-track, old logging road, and then it gets into a smaller logging road, then onto a trail that we made.
“It goes through a really cool transition zone from the northern hardwood forest to more of a boreal forest as you go up in elevation. There are these giant erratics, these stones that would maybe fit in this room. One of them is cracked in half and the trail winds through the middle of it. It’s just an incredibly cool thing to see,” he said. “And then when you pop out on top there’s a granite summit and you look down at Katahdin Lake and across at Katahdin. It is the most beautiful view that I’ve seen in Maine.”
As for fishing, you’re on your own. I joked to St. Clair that it’d be great if he’d also tell us fly fishers where we ought to go to wet a line. He laughed, and — good fisherman that he is — refused to divulge any good spots.
After the event, however, a man who said he has fished that land for 30 years approached me and told me I really didn’t need St. Clair’s help.
All the waters in the monument can be productive, he said, if you’re there on the right day.
Story of my life. (I’m always in the right place on the wrong day).
And finally, how do I not get lost? The governor’s refusal to allow the installation of informational signs directing people to the monument has turned into its own punchline, reinforcing the old “You can’t get there from here” Maine myth.
Luckily, it’s easy to discover where you can access the monument itself. And once there, St. Clair said there’s plenty of in-monument signage to guide visitors.
“Every day there’s more signs going up [in the monument],” St. Clair said. “Our staff is working with the park service and they are putting in, I think, about 140 signs in the next couple weeks. We thought it was pretty well labeled, pretty well marked. It turns out we were wrong.”
And while some visitors could have had a hard time finding a person to help them find their way last summer, that’s not going to be the case this year.
“There’s more people around. There’s rangers that are working there. There’s volunteers in the park. There’s more signage happening all the time,” he said. “We’re getting better. The trick is thinking about it as an adventure. It is disappointing to not have signs on the freeway and signs in the towns guiding people to get there. And I’m very confident that at some point in the not-so-distant future we will have signs and it’ll be OK.
“But for the time-being, make an adventure [of] it, fill your tank with gas, and enjoy,” he joked. “It’s a lot of fun.”