|9/18/2014 10:11:00 AM|
Changing Values in the North Woods
Magic City, Part 2
|After I pushed back the mountain laurel and walked into the permanent twilight of the woods, I stopped to let my eyes adjust to the gloom. The woof that I had heard a few moments before wasn't repeated and the cloistered hush beneath the trees made Mount Katahdin seem wilder than it had just a few steps away in the clearing.|
There was something nearby, of that I was sure - something large and heavy, and oddly clumsy. For now, it was quiet and I wasn't inclined to track it.
Still, I was curious enough to wait and listen.
In September 1846, Thoreau left his companions to make camp on the side of the mountain not far from this spot and continued upward in a swirling fog until he reached a place where the black spruce grew thick and matted, flattened by the wind and cold, so that it grew outward, rather than up.
I walked . . . upon the tops of these trees, which were overgrown with moss and mountain-cranberries. . . . Once, slumping through, I looked down ten feet into a dark and cavernous region, and saw the stem of a spruce, on whose top I stood, as on a mass of coarse basket-work, fully nine inches in diameter in the ground. These holes were bears' dens, and the bears were even then at home.
My difficulties with the mountain had more to do with finding a parking spot than falling into a bear's den.
I reached the Baxter State Park south gate, 20 miles north of the town of Millinocket, on an afternoon in late June 2014. The popular 35-car-capacity parking lot at the trailhead leading to Chimney Pond and up Mount Katahdin was full. That wasn't unusual, especially so late in the day. The park rangers at the gate said I would find a parking spot open at Katahdin Stream Campground trailhead, capacity 25 cars, but after driving eight miles down a narrow gravel road to reach it, I found it full, too.
The day was hot and sunny and I wasn't in a hurry, so I parked in a No Parking zone and spent a half hour waterproofing my leather hiking boots with Nikwax, which probably worked better and certainly smelled better than the butter Thoreau slathered on his boots at Thomas Fowler's place on Millinocket Stream before setting out upstream in a break between rainstorms. I polished them up pretty, sitting on a picnic table, eating a handful of good old raisins and peanuts which, without a doubt, was far better than the raw pork and dry wafers Thoreau ate somewhere nearby, as the crew's provisions ran low.
The cars in the campground parking lot were from all over the East and the Midwest: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois. One was from Alaska. Another from Colorado. A few had Maine plates.
Most of the 64,000 people who came to Baxter State Park annually drive up I-95 and hang a left on Route 11 at Medway, near the confluence of the East and West Branches of the Penobscot River. Millinocket, population 4,500 and shrinking, is the last town they go through on the way to the mountain.
More pass through on the way to camp on forest-industry land, or hunt there, or go river rafting down the Penobscot, or hunt bear and moose, or snowmobile or ride their ATV's all across God's half acre. Some stop for gas at Medway - that's a busy place, first gas station off the interstate - and some head over to the Pelletier Loggers Family Restaurant Bar and Grill for wings and a beer, made famous by the Discovery Channel reality TV show "American Loggers." Then it's off to the woods or back out to the lake. Not much to do in Millinocket. Not much to see.
"Millinocket? Is that what they call it?" a Boston computer programer named Matt asked after coming down the trail off the mountain and stopping to chat while I laced up my boots.
He comes up every year to climb the mountain in his own personal quest to prove that he still can. This year, crossing the narrow Knife's Edge on the top of Katahdin, Matt counted 70 other people traversing the mile-long curved ridge that slices the sky like a farmer's haying blade and hangs at the top of a sheer wall overlooking Chimney Pond at its base. He had finished his trek in record time, besting his best record, and was planning to drive straight on out of the north woods and back to the Commonwealth as soon as he changed into a pair of sneakers and grabbed a Big Mac on Route 11 at the outskirts of Millinocket.
"Millinocket?" he said. "Is that a town?"
Something crashed in the woods, loud and close.
"Are you on the trail?" a woman called, a note of panic in her voice.
My eyes adjusted. She was a hundred feet away but I couldn't see her clearly. We were separated by the gully that led downhill towards the falls.
"Yes, I'm on the trail," I called back.
"How do I get there?"
"Follow the gully. It leads down to the trail above the falls. I'll come down to meet you."
When I reached the falls 10 minutes later, a very big woman with a buzz cut was sitting on a large log on the bank overlooking the falls chomping savagely on a cinnamon raisin bagel. There was a smear of blood on the side of her face, her shins were scraped and bloody and her face was pale, in spite of the heat.
She hopped up when she saw me and offered me a bagel, then dizzy, sat back down. She had fallen several times, the last time losing consciousness for she didn't know how long.
"Maybe a minute," she said when I asked. "Maybe three or four?"
I offered her two ibuprofen, then dipped my clean red bandana into the river and handed it to her to put on her forehead, stretching to the limits my knowledge of what to do in case of a swelling brain which, I did know, could be fatal.
She was on the first day of her 2,180-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail, which goes through the Maine mountains, the White Mountains and then levels out a little, or at least gets less extreme, on its way to Georgia. She had never hiked a day in her life.
She jumped up again, pulling a water bottle out.
"I have M&M's, too. Do you want some?"
It is the tradition among AT thru-hikers, as they are known, to take a trail nickname. Some people choose their own. If they don't, someone else does the choosing for them.
I called her Bunny. Although Pogo would have worked, too.
Bunny had undertaken the AT challenge, as she called it, after reading Wild, Cheryl Strayed's memoir of finding her emotional equilibrium by backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail after her divorce, her heroin abuse, and her mother's death. Bunny was single, 35 years old, and depressed.
"Chances are good I won't have children," she confided, without prompting. "I want to. But I probably won't. I needed something to shake things up."
Two days later, I found Bunny alive at the Appalachian Trail Cafe in Millinocket, eating a hearty breakfast of eggs and burritos. On day two of her thru-hike, she had decided to start out on the section of trail that runs between Abol Bridge and the town of Monson, 100 trail miles to the south. After being dropped off at the trailhead, Bunny had turned right instead of left and gone the wrong way for several miles before she bumped into hikers who corrected her course.
Trail Day 3 had turned into a rest day in Millinocket.
It is not clear if more people like Bunny will come to the area if the plan to establish the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Park on a big chunk of land to the east of Baxter State Park is approved and accepted as a gift to the federal government, but a national park will certainly change the towns surrounding it.
How much is unclear.
The proposed park would be funded, at least in part, through a trust fund set up by philanthropist Roxanne Quimby's foundation. Proponents claim a national park will be a "brand" that will attract more people and will help pull the region out of the economic doldrums left by shuttered mills. Millinocket, the argument goes, could become a gateway community; something like Moab, Utah, with its river rafting companies, mountain biking and cliff climbing tours, hotels and coffee shops, bars and gift shops that serve the tourists coming to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.
The proposal has enthusiasts in Millinocket, who claim the value of the wooded wilderness is changing in favor of recreation, and the economy is shifting too, away from the timber industry.
Others are as skeptical as a grumpy Monday morning millworker after a bruiser of a weekend bash. For decades the town has been waving away cash-carrying tourists like pesky blackflies, treating them more like a seasonal annoyance than an economic opportunity - worth a little extra cash, sure, but it was the timber industry that provided a reliable, steady income.
"We need a mill here. We're millworkers," Mark Marston, a selectman from East Millinocket said when I stopped in the town office where the staff was struggling with the unpaid tax bill from Cate Street, the owners of GNP-East, which had laid off 212 workers in February after it couldn't pay its $120,000 a month electric bill to keep the paper mill running. They own the defunct GNP mill in Millinocket, too, with even larger broken promises and unpaid tax bills, even after auctioning off the Number 11, the last, massive paper-making machine, in June.
"You see those logging trucks going through town?" Marston asked. "They're still cutting trees in the forest and the wood is going to a mill somewhere. Why not here?"
I asked what he thought of the park proposal.
He shook his head. Crappy summer jobs that pay, what, ten bucks an hour? Are you friggin' kidding me?
And, in fact, those who favor having a mill in town have data to back them. Whether the national park goes in or not, the Maine forest industry is far from dead; it cranks $8 billion into the state economy every year, by industry estimates, and the paper industry accounted for the biggest slice of that pie. Numbers vary from year to year, but trees cut to be made into pulp to make paper accounted for over 50 percent of the timber harvested in recent years.
But all of it is being accomplished with fewer mill workers.
In 1960, almost 17,000 Maine mill workers cranked out 1.7 million tons of paper. In 2011, they cranked out almost twice as much - 3.3 million tons of paper - but needed less than 7,000 mill workers to do it. There are more trees cut from the north woods, too, but many fewer loggers and chainsaws on the ground doing the cutting. Instead, huge machines cut the trees to length, then limb and stack them. It's fast, efficient, economical and lighter on the land.
"They've been planning that national park for a long time," said Marston. "Thirty years, at least."
I smiled and shook my head. Since the 1970s, the mills had been passed around from one investment company to another like a bad joke, with each successive company taking public tax money, cutting wages and labor, and not reinvesting. International trade practices hadn't helped and neither had increasing fuel costs. When Brookfield Asset Management, a global investment firm worth $81 billion a year, took over the local mills, they really wanted the hydro-electric dams, to add to their total in Maine, which now stands at 39. Fourteen of them are on the Penobscot River. Brookfield ditched the mills, selling the whole kaboodle to Cate Street, the current owner, for $1 in 2011.
"That's why they sold off the dams, to kill the mills," said Marston.
The environmentalists were behind it all, he said, the Quimbys, the Brownie Carsons, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Nature Conservancy.
I hadn't heard Brownie Carson's name in a while. He had retired as the head of the Natural Resources Council of Maine in 2011.
"You'd be surprised," he said.
With all this in mind, I figured it was time to go see what this proposed park property looked like, first-hand, so I headed east on Route 11 out of Millinocket and hung a left at the Huber log yard.
Next Week: Magic City, Part 3
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