Monday, June 4, 2007

Yeah, I'm goin' to Jackman; look out Jackman town!

I use that title with apologies to Mr. Cash, but for the several days before our arrival in Jackman I could not get that song, however altered, out of my head. It was one of those satisfying lyrical brain attachments though, where you only remember a line or two but it just seems to fit. The Switzerland of Maine was our goal, and that tune kept it on my mind.

After a great afternoon exploring Rangeley, Ben and I took to the road and began our portage into the Kennebec River watershed. It was a breeze of a portage for us as it was only four miles and on a paved road under clear and cool skies. Just outside of town we encountered our first and only person problem, even if was an extremely minor one. An older woman in a pick-up truck drove about five miles a hour just behind us for about a minute, eventually honking her horn at us. It was one of those "I can't pull over any more!" moments, as we were already on the shoulder. She then blew by us and yelled "You think you can pull that thing along the road!?" then added a string of cackles and gibberish as she peeled out. I do not add this insignificant anectdote to highlight the cruelty of the people of Rangeley, but rather to make note of this incident's singularity. This was the only occurence on our entire thirty-three day trip that could even remotely constitute people not being shining examples of helpfulness and friendliness.

Route 16 was not finished with us, however. We had just spotted the height of land about a half mile ahead when a jacked-up Ford F-250 pick-up with Virginia plates roared past us and careened onto the dirt shoulder fifty yards ahead of us. Both doors flew open, pouring country music thick and loud into the landscape, and discharging two rather large men with mustaches, aviator sunglasses, and US Navy hats. Their southern accents were as thick as their Super Swamper mud tires, and they grinned at us with obvious interest.

The reality was a bit more interesting and unexpected than any we could have dreamed up. They were survival instructors for the United States Navy. They taught military personnel from all branches of the armed forces, save the Air Force, how to evade capture, resist toture, escape captivity, and survive in wild and hostile areas. Our campsite that night was at the end of the portage, where Rt. 16 and the South Branch of the Dead River intersect. It is also were the access road for the Redington Naval SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School) School was located. From our maps, it looked like there may have been another settlement down that road, but that still could not explain the twenty-two full-sized tanker trucks that turned down that road in pairs every half hour or so for most of our stay at that campsite. Makes you wonder.

In any case, we chatted a while with the boys from Virginia and answered a slew of questions about our trip and our route. They offered to drive us the rest of the way to the river, but we declined and eventually continued on our way.

The next morning found us reluctantly putting on pfd's covered in frost and pushing off down the South Branch of the Dead River. We ended up having to portage and walk a good deal of the river, but not nearly as much as some rivers in the past. In the rivers lower reaches there are several gorges that presented some very interesting challenges as we lining down the left bank. We scrambled up steep cliffs and leapfrogged our away through, sometimes having to swing the boat around obstacles into the current, other times having one person control both lines as the other inched their way to the next outcrop of boulders. As the sun began to sink low, I climbed a ledge to see around the next bend and try to pinpoint good positions to line from. I saw clear and fast water with a few small haystacks in easily avoidable wave trains. We could run it, and we did- flying downstream a few miles into calmer waters, and, eventually, Flagstaff Lake.

Flagstaff was mercifully flat for us, and we crossed its length in one morning. The only obstable we encounter was a massive dry-ki barrier stretching from the mainland to a mid-lake island. It cost us a few miles of backtracking, but it was a sight to see.

We got a bit of wind and a mild chop in the last stretch before the dam, but it and the portage that followed was no sweat. Flagstaff Lake is one of the more interesting bodies we crossed, and highlighted a few fundamental realites of the land use history of the entire northern forest.

Everywhere we turned we saw trees and water. The two are intertwined here in many ways, and have for a great long while been the only resources of any note. Trees are processed for pulp production and lumber, and water harnessed for mills and electricity. Flagstaff Lake was once a small pond in the course of the Dead River, but the construction of the Long Falls Dam, seen in the previous post, flooded the land and created the thirty-mile long lake in 1950. The dam allowed for more reliable power production and mill operation downstream. It also drowned two towns; the state forcibly removed the residents to nearby areas above the flood line.

Tremendous change has been wrought on the landscape of northern Maine in the quest for trees and water. These two dual resources are Maine's most important, but most casual travelers do not even notice this. People call it a wilderness, but it really isn't. Maine has been an intensely managed landscape, both in a hydrological and silvicultural sense, for over a hundred years, and Flagstaff is a perfect example of that. The wild character of the landscape is a testament to protection on the one hand and to the shifting economic realities of our time. Harvesting and water impoundment continue in Maine, but on a controlled and limited scale that looks to be ultimately headed for only a token regional role. Bangor was once the largest exporter of timber in the world; today, I would expect Borneo or Brazil to hold that honor.

When I saw the Chantier de Chibougamau shipment in eastern Vermont and the powerlines in western Vermont, the tree-forest product and water-electricity resource dichtomy of the Northern and Boreal Forests came home to me. That process of realization continued throughout the Maine section of our trip, and is highlighted by these photos I took in northern Quebec in March of 2007 on the trip I mentioned in an earlier post.

1.) This is a shot of the Chantier plant, just outside of the town of Chibougamau.

2.) This is a shot of a logging truck. The difference between a logging truck in northern Quebec and Maine is readily apparent in the size of the trees. In the Cree Nation, black spruce covers the land, but because of the far northern latitude the trees, no matter their speices, do not grow particularlay large. The recovery time for a healthy forest stand is significantly longer there than in New England as well, also a product of the climate and soil quality.

3.) The pièce de résistance. This photo is of a harvesting site near Lac Albanel, on lands under the management of the Cree nation. They have their own forestry company, Eenatuk Forestry, but the company only has two employees. Chantier does the actual harvesting and takes all of the raw material out for processing and shipment south, to us.

The point is, everything is connected. There is no free lunch and everything comes from somewhere. We can protect the Bigelow Mountains from development or the Allagash River from harvesting (and we should) but our consumption of forest products and electricty dictates that these things will be taken from somewhere. Through globalization and modern extractive resource economics into the mix and any large company that respects its bottom line (and they all do) will eventually look for the most raw material at the lowest harvesting cost. Cost includes dollars, time, and political opposition.
That is why Hydro Quebec can flood hundreds of square miles of northern Quebec and Chantier can clear cut. How many people in Portland would care if Plum Creek wanted to cut or develop in northern Quebec? Would they form a land trust?

I say this all at the cost of sounding cynical, but I'm really not. Things are getting better in many areas, but constant advocacy and intelligant action are still required of all. My generation can save the world; we're working on it.

Anyway! Back to the riv-ah. We cruised down the Dead River to Grand Falls and a bit of a portage around the biggest falls on the trip. The Bigelow Mountains began to disappear as we headed due north, but the shadow of their naming still hung over me, as well as of Flagstaff Lake. Both were named for different parts of Benedict Arnold's 1775 expedition; Bigelow for one of his lieutenant, and Flagstaff for the flagpole they left at one of their camps. I am a student of history and have read and written quite a bit about Arnold. His journey across interior Maine to attack Quebec possesses a particularly epic quality, and it was with little imagination that I pictured us assuming that mantle. If your ever looking for a good read, check out "Arundel" and the sequel "Rabble in Arms" by Kenneth Roberts. "Arundel" follows Arnold's 1775 campaign across Maine, will "Rabble in Arms" details the 1776 campaign. He also has a slightly less popular book about the French and Indian War; the three books together describe a variety of colonial expeditions on the waterways of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (Arundel in Maine, Rabble in Vermont, and Northwest Passage in Quebec, Vermont, and New Hampshire).

From the foot of the falls we ascended Spencer Stream and Little Spencer Stream, a day long upstream move that brought us to Spencer Lake. The banks nixed any attempt at lining and the stream was much too swift and shallow to paddle. With our setting pole in a logjam somewhere in upstate New Year, we hopped out and walked the boat almost the entire way. Spencer Lake was a blessed relief, though neither of us disliked Spencer Stream by the end. It was a good route, we were just going the wrong way. Our ascent was capped by rounding a bend and being confronted by a twenty-foot conrete dam that our maps and route description instructed us to lift over. We managed an improvised portage instead.

Spencer Lake, we latter learned, is under private ownership and the dam had been recently built by the owner. The lakeshore and surrounding land was bought from Plum Creek (yes, that Plum Creek) by a guy either from Massachusetts or Colorado, depending on who we asked. I think there may be one huge property there and one much smaller one, each privately own. On the lake is a massive and relatively new log mansion with out buildings; I'm guessing this belongs to the owner. He keeps the rest of the lake and adjoining Fish Pond completely undeveloped save two primitive - and free - campsites. We spoke with a man at the second of those two campsites. He was there from Waterville with his father and his grandson, and he praised the man 'from away'. Apparently, many people had bemoaned another huge parcel of land being snapped up by a fabulously weathly person from away, but that fabulously wealthy person from away replied with something to the effect of: "If I hadn't bought this land, it would have been chopped into a 100 or 200 camp lots and the lake would be ruined. This way, with the reservation campsites, everyone can have a turn for free and the lake stays wild." That is, at least, how Charlie explained the situation to us as he laughingly scolded his grandson for burying their fishing bait.

The Trail heads north from Spencer Lake to Fish Pond, and from there to Whipple Pond and the start of the portage into the Moose River watershed. Fish Pond, however, was as far as we got. The passage to Whipple Pond was too shallow and swampy to make any progress, and the section beyond that was marked on our descriptions as being best to portage around. As I remarked to Jen Lamphere of the NFCT organization, that turned a marked two-mile portage into a seven-mile portage, and we asked someone we met at the campsite for directions on the roads. He turned out to be an employee of North Maine Woods, Inc., the recreation and access control body that the multiple owners, both private and industrial, hire to regulate their lands. He offered us a ride to Whipple Pond, and we ended up using his truck to scout the trail. We were on those roads for the entire morning and part of the afternoo; we tried every road by truck or foot, with NFCT maps, compass, and Gazeteer, but Spencer Rips Road didn't seem to want to get us there. The guy had worked in the are for a decade, and he didn't even know how to get there. We got so frustrated, espeically after a dead-flat tire, that we ended up just driving out to Jackman and paddling the Moose from there. We felt slightly better about the mechanized portage when the guy from North Maine Woods said that he had helped out some of the thru-paddlers from 2006, and that they had skipped ahead to Jackman just the same as we had.

While Ben rode in the truck bed with all the gear, I rode in the cab. We had more than an hour to talk, and I gained quite a few insights into the land ownership dynamics of the northern forest in Maine. North Maine Woods Inc. is an important part of that, especially the recreation access part. Our NMW friend had some very interesting things to say about Plum Creek as well.

After he dropped us off, we carried right into Jackman and had a huge meal to help us forget the frustrations earlier in the day. We walked the town, resupplied for the last leg of the trip, and pushed off to take the Moose River east to Moosehead Lake.


Anonymous said...

"but that still could not explain the twenty-two full-sized tanker trucks that turned down that road in pairs every half hour or so for most of our stay at that campsite. Makes you wonder."

Poland Springs has a water well up that road, those tankers are hauling water to their bottling plants.

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