Tuesday, September 9, 2014

there and back again

Maine is such an incredibly large state.
Northern Maine is the largest undeveloped forested landscape east of the Mississippi. It covers more than 10 million acres and is home to a year-round population of only about 15,000 people.
It is hard to imagine down here in southern-ish Maine that up North, up toward Canada, up toward where my father grew up in Presque Isle, there are 3.5 million acres of forest land owned mostly by large timber corporations and overseen by a combination of private and nonprofit landowners and state government agencies.  The North Maine Woods is divided into 155 unincorporated townships.  Resulting in signs as you drive through the areas with combinations of numbers and letters as names instead of town names.  I have always found it funny to imagine a child from one of those townships trying to explain where it is they are from.  The area is admittedly scarcely populated, so this is likely not much of an issue.  But West of Ashland or along the Fort Kent road just North of Eagle Lake is much more interesting than Hooksett, the town with the toll booth on the NH turnpike, if you ask me.

It is a fascinating place.  The North Woods is not original untouched first growth forest.  Much of it is replanted after having been harvested multiple times for timber.  So I am not exactly sure you can refer to it as wild.  Originally, timber harvesting in these parts of the woods used rivers and streams for log removal and transportation.  Eventually however, a series of logging roads were cut into the forest to allow for the trucking of logs.  There are currently thousands of miles of logging roads in the North Maine Woods, many roads now usable by the public, where in the past there were unattended gates restricting access.  The history of this area is complicated by issues of ownership, Maine having been sold in large shares to multiple landowners who held percentage based shares, and then ownership was further dispersed when property was passed down through generations within families.  Read more about this here if you are interested.

It is a land of dispute, given its competing purposes.  This is a working forest, harvested for its timber, and a place that is privately owned but used for recreation by the public.  A place where conservation efforts and profitable management often compete.  There is even talk of a Maine Woods National Park, but it is best not to speak of this when one is in The County.

The log trucks are actually a fixture of my childhood.  Trips up to my family's camp in Northern Maine were dotted with myths and stories about encounters with these trucks, that would often be the only headlights along with us as we traveled the last bit of the trip from our exit from the Maine Turnpike at Smyrna Mills, following Route 11 North to Ashland, and then crossing the river and heading farther north toward Portage Lake.

I know these logging roads.  These are the roads that my family, when I was little, commented upon when we passed by them.  But never, under any circumstances, did we actually drive on them.  When trying to get from Portage to say, Caribou, one could take the private roads, the ones traveled by the lumber trucks, which were a straight line between one town and another.  Or one could take the traditional roads, the ones with crazy things like pavement, and location markers, and gas stations, but which headed hours out of your way in exchange for the assurance that you were actually going to end up where you planned.

* * *

About 125 miles south of Portage Lake, KI Jo-Mary Forest -- managed by the North Maine Woods -- is a similar working forest to those I have known all my life in Aroostook.  Both have logging roads and gates and check-ins very similar to the roads I know up north a bit.  It is described on their website as follows.
It is a region of approximately 175,000 acres of privately owned, commercial forest, located between Millinocket, Greenville and Brownville. Included within its boundaries are over 30 miles of the Appalachian Trail, the Gulf Hagas Reserve, the Hermitage, the east and west branches of the Pleasant River, White Brook, more than 50 lakes and ponds and over 100 miles of brooks, streams and rivers
When up in the Moosehead Lake region, we did it again.  We took the advice of a friendly State Park ranger for a hike.  And ended up on one of these roads.  And found ourselves within the KI Jo-Mary Multiple Use Forest, maintained by the North Maine Woods.  We should wear t-shirts that say does not learn from past mistakes.  Maybe if we did, people would read them and take better care of us.  Like the preschoolers we are.



Here, you can head off on a road, a dirt road, and not meet another car for miles.
Maine's interior is laced with more than 10,000 miles of logging roads. Great Northern alone maintains a 3,000-mile network of private roads, and each year builds an average of 100 miles of new roads as it abandons old ones that are no longer needed. The roads are built to accommodate rigs that can haul up to 450,000 pounds of logs.
Rangers apparently are so used to this world that they do not fully prepare us for what is out there.  Which included no cell service, no signs at forks in roads, and roads that are closed, flooded, or uncleared from tree fall from that last serious storm.

I thought I might describe them a bit, since it is clear, given how alone we are when we are driving them, that many might not know such roads exist.  Being upon one, off the grid, off your GPS and cell service.  You kind of hold your breath while out there, at least us comparatively city people do.  It all feels a bit risky, and though you offer assurances to your children that you are supposed to be out there, that it is okay to be a bit lost, that of course you are safe, inside your head you are wondering just how many meals you could provide from the scraps on the floor of the back seat, whether you do in fact have enough gas to make it out again, and what might happen if you drove and drove and drove and could not find your way back to civilization again.

One heads off on these roads, when one can find them, because they are often unnamed and if you ask, townspeople will have no idea what you are talking about.  And head off into the woods on a dirt road tucked in behind the small landing field on the outskirts of town.  And once you are on them, you see few other cars, only fast moving logging trucks.

The roads are bordered by wildflowers that flourish in the dry sun where trees have been cleared.






If you continue for a good long time, and yield, always, to the oncoming logging trucks barreling toward you, you come to checkpoints.  You adjust to the strange feeling of needing to pull over and get out of the car and walk over to the building and chat with the person in the station about your plans for the day, your destination, and your estimated time of departure.  You answer questions about your children, your preparedness for wilderness hiking, and try not to take offense.



And you realize that not all roads are always open.  That two posts, one with a stop sign and the other providing a bit of explanation about land shares and permitted use of their land, have a chain running between them, lowered during the daylight hours and raised during the night.







You can drive what the gate keeper will tell you is a few miles, but there is something about the slow speed you must use and the lack of familiarity and signage and presence other people that makes it feel like at least 20 miles and as though you must have missed your destination by now.


But, no, seemingly three times as far away as you expected, you find your parking lot.  The one on the map, but it is on the opposite side of the road than you expected it to be.  You turn your map around.  Ah.


You park.  Tie your hiking shoes.  Apply bug spray.  And walk toward the trail head.  You try to ignore the already grumbling children and the increasingly humid air and darkening sky and though you would never admit it to anyone, you too are already feeling a bit hungry, remember that you are a bit low on snacks, and may have just heard a bit of rumbling thunder far off.


You head off on the trail, following the blaze markers, determined to make this afternoon hike an adventure despite the loud questions of your children and quiet voice in your head that perhaps this hike is not a good idea, and what was the color of the blazes we were supposed to be following?  And then you spot the milkweed.  And wish you could send out a beacon to all the struggling monarch butterflies who are in need of this patch.



You spend a few minutes appreciating that you are actually on the Appalachian Trail and wonder at how this sign would be enough for a thru-hiker to feel confident that they are on the right trail, north to Katahdin or south to Georgia.


You walk for a bit, knowing that today is not likely the day that you are going to get very far.  Listening for thunder, as the dark and stormy clouds are moving in.

One child's anxiety about severe weather, specifically severe weather while out in the woods without shelter, causes her to go a bit rigid.  And takes an epic fall, face flat in the mud of the trail, dragged a bit by her confused Labrador on the leash around her wrist.


You find a river crossing.  And decide that this here river bend is your destination.  You gaze at it for a bit.  And turn around.


Back at the check point, you decide to make use of the surprisingly civilized bathroom facilities.


The kids pass the time by playing hopscotch on the roof shingle texture providing grips on the walkway.




Strangely, the bathroom and its connection to civilization makes everyone a bit giddy.   Because it means that people have been here.  And needing to go to the bathroom is an everyday kind of thing that makes them feel better rooted.


You wonder, where do these people shop?  Where do you find signs for the masses demanding signage for their lean-to shaped toilets?


You wonder who has the legend to the map that explains what these markers mean.


And then, bathroom used, followed by checking out at the check-in point, you return to town.


Rounding the last bend in the road, you pass back into the outskirts of the now seeming metropolis of 1,623 souls, and see the weather moving in to the land you were just within.


You celebrate your return, and that you are alive, with ice cream.  Stand in line with the nice family that was the only other family you ran into while on the Appalachian Trail.  


And with a bit of shopping.



These back in civilization with signage acts make you almost as giddy as the woodland outhouse.

Almost.

These roads to nowhere.  Or to everywhere.  They are an adventure in and of themselves.

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