Hunting For Abandoned Locomotives in the North Maine Woods
Into the forgotten wilderness, hunting ghosts of industry past.
Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.
Someone told me there were trains up here. Massive steam locomotives from the days when men couldn’t pull timber from these forests fast enough. They’d been parked decades ago, left to rust into the earth they’d been built to conquer, their rails bent and ties rotten. I’d seen photos of the things, their flanks flaking in the mottled forest sun, red and orange and brown. Unnatural against the living green all around them.
The big engines aren’t tourist destinations. You won’t find them in any pamphlet and there are no signs to point you to them. The companies that own the North Maine Woods aren’t keen on having hikers tromp through their working forest. If you ask the gatekeepers at any of the area’s checkpoints, you’ll get a raised eyebrow and some reluctant directions—if you’re lucky.
There were no GPS coordinates. Just the name of a stream, then, “first right that is a road.” That last bit is important: This is a place fractured with half-cut logging trails and overgrown two-track paths off into the wilderness. Some are mapped, most are not. We find a likely suspect, park the rigs, and gear up. Bug spray and hiking boots, Camelbaks and Kiddo’s pack carrier. Bear spray. Brandon’s wife, Leigh, decides to stay behind. Says something about not feeling well and not wanting to hike the two dogs the three miles in and three miles out.
The truth may have been simpler: She’s smarter than Beth, Brandon, and I.
The day is made for hiking. A beautiful blue sky, deep and cloudless. The color of coming autumn afternoons. It’s cool, too; Fall is already on its way. The tips of eager maples burst orange, red, and yellow, blotches of impossible color against the wall of green and brown around us. The trail is less accommodating. It’s little more than an old logging road, and the ruts are flooded in more places than not. We find dry ground where we can. Put our boots in the deep prints of elk, moose, and bear. Spook frogs and tadpoles in their clear pools.
Kiddo does all right for the first 10 minutes, then gets bored and hungry. I accommodate her by counting to three, then spinning on my heels to face her mother, who waits with freeze-dried yogurt drops. Lucy squeals with glee each time. This goes on for a couple of miles, right up until we run out of road. The path stops, the forest takes over. We check our maps and eye our GPS. Beth and Brandon look for a path while I keep spinning with Lucy on my shoulders. Anything to keep her giggling.
There’s a whisper of a path ahead of us. A shadow of an even older road. We try it, scramble up over the piles of shattered underbrush and twisted limbs. The scatterings that were too small for the logging company to worry with. Kiddo teeters around on my back, throwing me off balance. She laughs with each step and sway as I crunch our way into the forest. It’s cool there, under the bellies of the pines and firs. The trees are dense—you could park a full freight train fifteen feet from us and we wouldn’t see it for the timber.
It’s no good. We double back. Try another spur off the main trail. It looks more promising, but Kiddo starts losing her mind. The twirl-and-feed routine isn’t cutting it. We switch to kindergarten songs: The Wheels on the Bus, Old MacDonald. We make noises and jump and dance in the sticks. We are in no danger of surprising any wildlife.
Kiddo’s carrier works well, but she’s every bit of 30 pounds these days. Throw in snacks, water, diaper necessaries, a jacket, and other bits, and the weight wears on my shoulders and hips. By the time the trail dead-ends a second time, I’m feeling it. A web of skidsteer tracks spread out from the end of the road. We try one. Walk a ways until the trail turns to an outright marsh. I take a step and sink to my knee. Water rushes into my boot, and I yank it back to freedom without thinking. If the thing wasn’t laced half way up my shin, I would have lost it in the mire.
By the time we extricate ourselves, I’m ready to call it and head back for the truck, but there’s another young family there. A father, a wife, and a daughter.
“You guys looking for the train?”
The dad says yes, and that he has GPS coordinates but no device. We pull them up on our Delorme. Half a mile, it says. Infuriatingly close, but we have a direction, now. We pick another skidder path and start hiking. It would be hard going even without 35 pounds on my back. We aren’t on a trail so much as a torn line through the woods. With Kiddo kicking and wiggling, it’s all I can do to keep from falling face forward on the broken limbs and stumps at my feet.
The other family gives up and heads back. No matter which direction we head, we’re never any closer than that half mile. The woods won’t give up those old locomotives. They’re out there, and it’s maddening to know we’re so close, but we can’t keep wandering around, stumbling over the dead underbrush and wading through the ferns.
I couldn’t tell you why I want to see the things so badly. We’re surrounded by more natural wonder than any rusting hulk could duplicate, but there's something about the spectacularly abandoned. How willing we are to pour the heat of our focus towards some prize, only to declare the effort worthless and walk away. Proof of our impermanence, maybe. Physical evidence of the truth that everything ends.
I’m ragged by the time we get back to the rigs. Tired and sore with soaking feet sloshing in my boots, but Kiddo’s content. It’ll be another three hours before we’re out of the wilderness. I’ll chew on missing those trains the whole way there. It’s an itch, sure, but not a bad one. As good an excuse any to come back. To hunt out the ghosts of the North Maine Woods.