Joe's Air Blog

An occasional Brain Dump, from the creator of Joe's SeaBlog

Monday, February 27, 2006

The North Maine Woods

I'm sitting outside the Cosi coffee shop in the Ballston section of Arlington, VA. My plane to Maine leaves in about three hours, and it's too nice outside to be sitting in an airport. Reagan National is less than a half hour from here via the Metro rail service. I'm in town for orientation and training - two days of power point presentations followed by a field trip to the Potomac Gorge reserve in nearby Maryland.

Today's weather was ideal for the hike. I had some concern earlier in the week, because the area was hit by a foot of snow over the weekend. However temperatures soared into the 60's, and we had ideal conditions for what turned out to be a three hour hike over the rocky trails. There were still pockets of snow on the ground, but they did not really impede our footing.

I was overdressed from the beginning, and had to shed several layers during the trek until I was down to my tee shirt. This was a far cry from the conditions that I met on a field trip just a week earlier. Instead of the hustle and bustle of the nation's Capital, I was far up in the Maine woods. I was in the upper St. John River area of Aroostook County, in unincorportated towns that, for the most part, don't even have names. They go by cryptic code letters, "T12 R17" and the like (which stands for Township 12, Range 17). Locals just use the numbers. "Twelve Seventeen" is all the information one needs, though a few do carry fancier handles like "Big Ten Township".

The area sounds remote, even for Maine, and it is. In fact, from certain parts of the state it is easier to get there by leaving the country and driving through Quebec, Canada for part of the journey. This is exactly what our party did. However, it is unwise to assume that the area is largely devoid of human activity.

This was a surprise to me. In looking at the state of Maine, one sees the western half of Aroostook County (along with the northern portions of several other counties) as vast wilderness, with no towns and little reason for anybody to go there. However, if one looks at a map that also shows Quebec, one sees a series of towns that dot the Maine border. These towns are populated by people who do one of two things, farming and lumbering. Those in the forestry industry cut a lot of lumber in Quebec. They also cut practically all the lumber in this part of Maine. One can not last long in this endeavor without being able to speak French, because most Quebecois don't speak any English whatsoever.

The border crossings aren't the busy entry points seen along the major thoroughfares of the state. They see a few dozen people a day, usually the same few dozen people every day. Because the logs are sold into lumberyards on the Canadian side of the border, some pulp truck operators may cross a few times per day, depending on where the lumber is being harvested. In general, border crossings are pretty uneventful. Even the US guards seem to recognize that a terrorist would be going pretty far out of his way to cross at St. Juste and navigate the logging roads to gain entry into the country.

The logging roads are legendary in Northern Maine. The first rule to remember is that the pulp trucks have the right of way. These roads are owned by the timber operators and they are, first and foremost, there for the forestry industry. The trucks go fast, and they aren't going to move over for any four wheeled vehicles. If you see one heading your way (which isn't always a given on the windier parts), you need to slow down, move over, and give a friendly wave as the truck goes by. The main roads are barely wide enough for two vehicles during the summer months, and they are downright snug with snow piled on either side. It's also worth noting that the road beds are primarily ice-covered, so the driving is slick. That doesn't appear to deter anybody from driving well above the posted 40 mph speed limit.

When I left on the St. John trip there was no snow cover in Southern Maine. That was the case for much of the drive north, with such outposts as Bingham and The Forks showing bare ground. Not until we were in the snowmobiling town of Jackman, almost to the Canadian border, was there consistant snow cover. Driving north through Quebec, however, it’s apparent that winter is in full force. Several feet of snow were on the ground and large snow banks lined the streets and driveways. Much of the land consists of open fields dedicated to farming, and the constant wind sweeps drifts of snow that need to be shoveled days after the last storm. The towns are very utilitarian-looking, with functional homes nestled close together and sitting close to the roads. There are no subdivisions, and nearly all of the homes are along the main roads. There are a few grocers, gas stations and maybe a restaurant or two. It gives all the appearance of a hardscrabble life, and harkens back to the US of 40 years ago, before formulaic chain stores homogenized the landscape.

There is very little industry along Quebec – Maine border. Other than farming, the towns of Daquaam, St. Pomfrey, St. Juste and others of the region simply serve the timber industry of Easten Quebec and Western Aroostook County in Maine. Men cross the border into Maine to harvest the wood, and the wood crosses the border back into Quebec, where the lumber yards sell it to paper mills or saw mills. Part of what makes this region of Maine so mysterious and magical is the lack of a human population, however there is a great deal of economic potential in the woods that is being exploited by the Canadian population just a few miles away. And in fact, while these are truly “deep woods”, it is not virgin forest. Most of the timber has been cut several times over the past couple of centuries. I’m certain that the forestry practices have affected the mix of the tree species in some townships, but here is living proof that forestry is a long-term sustainable industry. In fact, the land that we are visiting is conservation land, part of which is acting as a sort of laboratory to test the impacts of new silvacultural techniques designed to maintain the makeup of the forest, and conserve parcels that have unique or interesting characteristics. This is humanity coexisting with nature, where both people and animals are sustained by the wild forest.

The wilds of the St. John River are also treasured for the wildlife. Wildlife abounds – moose, lynx, marten, otters, and snowshoe hares are abundant. Bears roam the territory in the warmer months, however they are deep into their winter hibernation during my visit. There is some snowmobiling activity in the region, however the access is too limited for there to be many cross country skiers or snowshoers. There are many cabins along the river that are used by hunters and fisherman. They are accessible by canoe, although the river is very shallow for much of the year and canoeing trips can involve a fair amount of carrying as well. The cabins are very austere, usually one room with a woodstove and a bunk or two. The people who inhabit them (most are leased by the same individuals for many years) don’t need much in the way of modern conveniences. It’s truly frontier living.

The North Maine woods are a region unlike many others in the country. Most undeveloped land in this country is difficult to access – mountains or barren land. This is not the case in Aroostook County. The terrain consists of the same rolling hills of the towns across the border, very similar to the foothills found in Oxford and Franklin Counties in the southern part of the state. However nobody has chosen to build a town amidst wide expanses of the forest, and as such it is the largest contiguous forest remaining in the United States. It is wild and unique and, as such, is a treasure. There are sexier portions of the North Maine Woods that are currently under development pressure. It’s beautiful country, but it’s beautiful because humans haven’t made it look like the rest of the country. My hope is that we see it in our hearts to keep part of the wilderness wild, and maintain the treasures that the wilderness houses.

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At 10:14 AM, Blogger Wisdom Weasel said...

This is an outstanding post. With all the attention in Maine seemingly focused on the environs of Baxter State Park I'm glad you highlighted this part of the state and the conundrum that has always exersized me; for all the talk of Maine as frontier their is a whole 'nother country to our north.

When I was bumming around far western Maine when I first moved to the States the whole thing struck me as odd and sort of eeire- not wild like Alaska but not the manicured "nature" of Acadia National Park either.

At 5:18 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Thanks for the kudos, Weasel. Even though I've lived in Maine my whole life, I never really understood the North Maine Woods.

I'm planning to expand this piece and submit it to Baumer's project in the next couple of weeks.

At 6:47 PM, Blogger Wisdom Weasel said...

Bugger- he had asked to expand my piece on Andy Wyeth which is essentially the same theme. Back to the drawing board...

At 6:15 AM, Blogger Jim said...


Really enjoyed reading this. I find it amazing that Maine is only 39th in land mass, compared to the rest of the U.S. because it seems vast, especially when you get off the beaten corridors of I-95, or Rte 1.

When I drove "down" the coast, I realized that I've been to many other places outside of Maine (Florida, for instance) more than I've been to many of our state's "mainstays" like Baxter and Bar Harbor.

Sounds like you're enjoying the new employment and some of the travel perks.

I think something like this, capturing an aspect of the state would fit great in the anthology (tentatively titled, Pine Trees, Potato Fields, and Lobster Traps). Weasel, if you're reading, I'm cool with Joe's take on the Maine woods and your analysis of the Wyeth/Rockland connection to the state. I'm sure that your writing style and perspective will be different enough from Joe's to make it all work out.

I'm looking for more on the travels of Joe and his thoughts as he travels about on his employer's dime.


At 11:26 AM, Blogger Joe said...

Thanks for the feedback, Jim. It sometimes is much easier to get to places outside of Maine than those in our "back yard". Actually, it took me less time to get to DC than to T12!

And Weasel, I think Jim is right on in that our projects really aren't going to be all that similar. I'm envisioning describing my specific experience as an outsider vising this region, and a discussion of all the human activity that I witnessed. If you're going to bring up Rockland, then I don't think we're going to be duplicating much.

At 2:19 PM, Blogger Wisdom Weasel said...

I wasn't, but I will. No biggie, I'll swing the emphasis from the third to the second paragraph as I branch it out. And as Jimbo notes, our styles are sufficiently different that I think the pieces will compliment each other.

Oh, and more of this please; I dig reading about your travels.

At 2:37 PM, Blogger Michelle Souliere said...

Came to your piece via All Things Maine, and wanted to say YEAH! Good piece. I've spent time over the last 10 years or so up in the Presque Isle area (because of in-law family) but haven't had much of a chance to explore the backways, which I always regret. Maybe this summer I'll finally get there.

At 4:37 PM, Blogger Joe said...

I'm glad you checked my site out, Michelle. Your weird Maine site looks pretty cool.

They're keeping me running, Weasel. There's another VT trip coming up where I will hopefully have time for some Night/Spring skiing at one of the nearby mountains. I'll be sure to report about that.

At 11:17 AM, Blogger Jim said...

Not only has Joe got us contemplating the varied geography of our state, but Michelle's comment and referencing of All Things Maine brings up the point that we also have a varied group of folks living in the PTS, many who are quite interesting and blogging helps to bring it all together.


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