The National Parks Turn 100: The Last Wild Place in the East
Bowman and Co. explore the land around our newest national monument in the north Maine woods.
It’s the last wild place in the east, maybe. A sprawling 3.5 million acres of timber and mountain, stream and lake. A gnarled network of dirt roads, narrow and tangled up in the hills or wide as any four-lane, spreads out over the whole of it. This is the heart of the state’s timber industry, and massive, laden semis barrel down the main routes with abandon, an apocalyptic cloud of dust rising from their wheels. And there’s the sound; the roar and riot of metal and pine rattling off of each other over the pocked and rutted road. We’re five hours from Portland, but everything out our windows looks like the farthest, darkest acres of Alaska.
I trust the truck, but I’m not an idiot. This is as remote as we’ve been in the nearly seven months since we left Knoxville, and once the weekend rolls around, the logging camps will all turn vacant. Even with some determination, we’re four hours from the closest soul, and more from proper medical care. Like all forgotten places, this one is to be respected. Moose, bear, fast and deep water. A day's drive from pavement the odometer rolls over 311,000 miles, each digit a dare, a little louder than its predecessor.
Our friends, Brandon, Leigh, and their two dogs, met us in Portland. They’ve done as we’ve done: packed up their lives, parked it all for a spell, and left to wander the country for six months in their ragged and brilliant Westfalia. We’ve agreed to travel together for a bit, as much for the company as for the security. Someone else to hassle with decisions or to help diagnose one of the truck’s chorus of rattles. Someone to go for help if the occasion calls.
Their van is no Syncro, but with a comfortable lift and Fox shocks from GoWesty, the thing’s as capable as our truck on the cratered and rutted roads of the North Maine Woods. Meaty all-terrains and all the weight over the rear axles help give the van respectable traction, even with an open rear differential. The thing just goes, wading through bumper-deep pools and scrambling up inclines, its little Subaru engine burbling along as happy as ever, trundling along behind us. I find myself watching my side mirrors more than usual, drinking in the spectacle of the van as it clamors along.
There are no road signs. No clear directions. Beth works the gazetteer, counting streams and watching topo lines. Eying the green glow of the truck’s compass to make certain we’re headed the right direction. We are, more often than not. Our speeds are all over the place: Crawling through dense underbrush, the trees and bushes raking the truck’s flanks as we pick our way through flooded stretches of road; or blasting down the wide sections at 50 mph, obliterating everything behind us in a sprawl of airborne grit.
Men have cut trees from this land since well before rail. Spent their long winters felling timber. Floated the logs down the Penobscot and the Saint John. The map is paint-splattered with lakes and ponds, some natural, plenty more made by damming rivers and creeks in order to move the fallen forest south to the mills in Bangor. They’re all beautiful, and we spend our first night on the shore of Baker Lake, its bottom obscured by brown water.
Seeing it is the first indication of the scale we’re working in. A minor puddle on the map, the reaching lake is massive, stretching off to our conifer horizons. There’s nothing to hear but the birds in the trees and the sound of the water as it moves downstream, past our camp. We couldn’t be more alone, the four of us.
I’ve been wound tight since we left Utah. Driven tense by the crowds and the cost of existing in the east. The insufferable familiarity of the Appalachians and the Atlantic. Scenes I’d seen before. Standing there, eyeing that water, watching a storm work its way from the far shore, the slow, cold rain and low clouds blotting out the trees in waves, it unlocks me. Lets me breathe.
It’s a rare place. The kind of wild that breeds a duality in me. I both want to tell everyone and no one about what I see. Show everyone the snaking marshes and wildflower meadows, but keep them all for myself. Can a thing be both loved and protected, or does doing one betray the other? Halve it, somehow?
The National Park Service turned 100 years old while we were standing on that shore, and to mark the occasion, President Obama designated a vast swath of land to the east a National Monument. Roxanne Quimby, one of the creators of Burts Bees, had been buying land for years, and turned over some 87,000 acres to the Department of the Interior for just such a purpose. Those acres are now the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. It’s the first step towards a new National Park, maybe.
I desperately want to love our parks. I’ve drug us through a gamut of them this year, from Big Bend to Zion and Canyonlands. Capitol Reef, Bryce, Grand Canyon, and Everglades. Maybe it’s the centennial celebration or the summertime rush, but so many are overcrowded and underfunded. So few give us more than a domesticated glimpse of the wildness that was.
I want to believe the Park Service is there to protect the land from the people, but I see the opposite. This is an organization that will pave a two-lane road to the top of a mountain, construct a sprawling visitor’s center at the summit with a 100-car parking lot, flush toilets, and a restaurant, all while posting signs that say “Protect your forests, stay on designated paths.” No one seems to see the irony of campgrounds with 20 sites to an acre, everyone packed in tighter than in any apartment complex. Mowed grass. Gift shops and concession stands. Endless lines and insufferable traffic. It’s the Disneyfication of our precious places.
What does it say when I feel more at peace in the middle of a multi-million-acre logging tract than I did on the top of Cadillac Mountain in the heart of Acadia, one of the jewels of the Park Service crown?
We spend a full day at Baker. Our daughter splashes around in the shallows and waves the kayak paddle at the trees. Hangs out with the dogs, Lilly and Piper. Gets her shoes sandy and her butt wet. There’s not a thread of me that doesn’t want to hold this place for her. To save it as it is so that she can return to it some day and walk these same shores as a full and grown woman. When I am a man too old for wild things. What will I tell her then? I will say that we were there before the park. That we watched fox and deer, and that when the storm blew off, the sky grew deep with the full arc of our galaxy glowing against the darkness. That we were only trying to protect it for her.