The Great North Woods is a different world and solving its economic problems is complicated.
By Alan Caron
Portland Press Herald op-ed
My wife, Kristina, and I headed north last week for five days on the Allagash River, which is one of the crown jewels of Maine’s Great North Woods. It runs due north toward Canada, revealing itself for over 60 miles through a constantly changing series of riffles and small lakes, abounding with eagles, moose, loons and mother mergansers pulling strings of fast-paddling miniatures versions of themselves behind them.
The Allagash represents, in many ways, the best of Maine. The river, which is wholly owned and protected by the state, remains today much as it was when Henry David Thoreau paddled its length, and later described it to the rest of America.
The kind of simple beauty that you find at places like the Allagash easily transports you to the past. It can be at once quiet and still noisy with the ghosts of muscular Native Americans hunting and fishing, with French trappers, poets and pioneers, nature lovers and sportsmen, all who’ve come to drink of its wild past.
To experience the Allagash, we drove 350 miles to a campground in St. Francis, just beyond Fort Kent. Then we were driven for three hours through the woods, on a network of logging roads, as we chatted with our host, Norm L’Italien, of Pelletier Campgrounds.
Norm’s been in the area for his whole life, except for when he was in the service. He could have settled somewhere else after that, but the northern border with Canada was home. There’s a lot of pride among the people of the North Woods, and a stubborn determination to make a go of it in any way they can.
Not too long ago, many of the locals had better jobs in the mills or in the woods. But machines and the global economy have been slowly taking those jobs away, leaving them to scramble to find new ways to survive. Norm’s answer was to build a business around canoe rentals, supporting the Maine version of safaris into our deepest jungles.
Norm seemed to know all there was to know about the Great North Woods, after driving those back roads for close to 30 years. That day, he had eight others driving for him, all headed in different directions. That probably made him among the largest employers in St. Francis, at least for a few months.
There is a world of difference between southern Maine and the world that Norm lives in. To get there you travel through the different areas and economic eras of Maine. In great stretches of northern, western and eastern Maine, the towns have gotten quieter. Too many houses are in disrepair. Whole communities seem to be uncertainly wandering toward an unknown future.
While there is spirit and determination in these areas, there is also wariness about what comes next, and whether it will mean more jobs and more children leaving for other places.
“We do OK,” Norm said, without much conviction, but it was clear that he didn’t expect things to turn around anytime soon.
The advantages of the area are its beauty and its sturdy stock. The people of these areas are, in many cases, the descendants of the pioneering settlers who arrived 200 or 300 years ago to build a future. They were what we would now call independent small-business people and entrepreneurs, running the predominant small business of the day, family farms.
The land was cheap because the winters were long and cold. They survived through constant hard work and resourcefulness. Along the way, they built communities and roads, schools and churches, many of which are still there.
Today the families are smaller. Farm machinery can do the work that a hundred used to do. Great mechanical cutting machines have replaced men in the woods with saws. And the question of what comes next is unanswered.
People who love Maine owe it to themselves to spend some time in the various areas of this state that aren’t like Portland or the coast. That’s a good way to learn how complicated it is to bring these areas back to life and to lift the hopes of the people who live there.
In these rural and remote parts of Maine, you find not just the beauty of the area but also the sadness that hugs the ground like a morning fog awaiting the sun’s rays. And you find that it is almost impossible, when you’re in these places, to resist developing a deep affection for both the places and the people who live there.
Alan Caron is a partner in the Caron and Egan consulting group, which is active in growing Maine’s next economy.