The stream flowing out of the mountains feels different than the river; colder, clearer, wilder. The water comes straight off the mountain slopes into the Klondike, then spills over, tumbling down pink granite boulders out of Baxter State Park through undeveloped forest and on for another 14 miles of whitewater before reaching the shallows of the silver maple floodplain here, where the wild Wassataquoik flows into the East Branch.
The other canoes pull up to the gravel river bank just below the confluence.
In February, I crested the summit of a mountain a few miles from here and saw the Wassataquoik Stream valley laid out below the tips of my snowshoes from its headwaters at the foot of Katahdin to its mouth far down at the East Branch where we are now paddling our canoe.
Of all the places in the East Branch country that I had seen on this four-day canoe trip, the Wassataquoik had fully captured my attention before I ever set foot in the canoe.
I’ve seen unfettered rivers draining through wild forests before, but not here in Maine. If there are other wild valleys like this one, I have not yet seen them.
“Let’s go up it, just a little,” I say over my shoulder to my companion in the back of the canoe.
I keep paddling, hoping he will roll with it for a few minutes, at least. We can’t go far, anyway. The stream is whitewater almost all the way down.
About half of the Wassataquoik valley sits inside Baxter State Park. Most of the other half is on land that the Quimby family wants to give to the National Park Service to turn into a Maine Woods National Monument — something that could happen as early as next week, if the president signs the declaration on the centennial of the National Park Service.
But one isolated 2,574-acre parcel that straddles the Turner mountains and borders the Wassataquoik Stream as it curves out of the Great Basin belongs to neither Baxter park nor Quimby.
It is the East Turner Mountain Public Lot, one of Maine’s Public Reserve Lands.
I didn’t know anything about the Wassataquoik valley when I saw it in February, other than that I could see no buildings, no evidence of timber harvesting equipment, and no easy way to get to it. Downstream where the valley flattened out I detected signs of timber harvesting in recent decades, but the upper valley looked wild and relatively untouched.
From my vantage point on the snowy summit on the north side of the valley, the forest on the public lot directly across the valley looked steep. It appeared roadless. Those steep slopes would not have been easy to log, even in the timber boom years of a century ago and there was something about the way the forest looked. Something looked different about it, even from far away. I wanted to go right then, by snowshoe, to see it. But we were out of food and out of time, so we snowshoed down and then skied out of the East Branch country, crossing the footbridge across the East Branch to Bowlin Camps, where we caught a ride up a logging road back to the car.
On the way out of the woods, we pulled off I-95 in Medway to get gas. Waiting in line to pay for coffee and a cinnamon roll, I glanced at the front page of the Bangor newspaper.
Almost to the minute that I was admiring the East Turner Mountain Lot from the summit, Governor Paul LePage announced he planned to build a logging road up there across Quimby’s land and start logging it.
After about ten paddle strokes into the Wassataquoik Stream, my partner calls a halt.
“We can’t go up there,” he says, then turns the canoe back towards the confluence. It isn’t far down the East Branch to Whetstone Bridge where we will run the last big rapid before leaving the river at the end of our 26-mile trip.
He steers us ashore at the mouth of the stream, not far from the rest of the party. They pass along a bag of Chex mix. I think that’s what it is, at least. It has peanuts in it.
LePage’s road building project stalled out through much of the winter and into mud season. It was going ahead, now, in May. It was back on track and headed towards East Turner’s remote timber. How much progress had been made wasn’t clear.
I pass on the Chex mix, then wade out shin deep in the water and stick my head in the river.
I really want to go up into that wild valley.
"All buckled in?”
Pilot Steve Williams taxis the four-seater Cessna out onto the Old Town Airport runway on July 11, 2016, the first really hot day of summer. The wheels leave the tarmac and the plane cruises upward, the patchwork of green woodlots, towns, streets and mowed lawns receding to a game board below and then giving way to sphagnum and hackmatack as we fly over the Alton Bog and Interstate 95.
Towns grow fewer and smaller. Trees take their place. So do landfills and plots of forest that have been hammered within a whisker of a clearcut, followed by more forest, much of it patterned with the distinctive marks of mechanical timber harvesting that make it look like an agricultural crop from above. The pilot keeps the Penobscot River off the right wing, following it up as Katahdin rises in the distance. The lakes multiply as we fly north, shimmering in irregular shapes across the deep forest green.
Williams, who is out of Wiscasset, volunteers for LightHawk, a non-profit that recruits volunteer pilots in the western hemisphere to offer flights to environmentalists, policy analysts, scientists, journalists, and others working on conservation issues where an aerial view will help bring things into focus. He’s done a lot of these flights.
I’m right behind him, looking out the left side of the plane.
Two environmental advocates are in the other seats: one taking photos from the front, the other keeping her thoughts to herself in the seat next to mine.
Millinocket Lake and Mount Katahdin come off the left wing as the two of us in the back consult maps and take turns being backseat drivers, directing Williams through our headsets towards Katahdin Lake and the Wassataquoik Valley beyond. Williams knows the country. He has a camp up on the other side of Baxter on a lake that is difficult to get to, except by floatplane.
He circles and then follows a logging road until we come to the one we are searching for: newly cut with culverts recently installed and looking as fresh as a turned garden drying in the hot sun. We follow it up towards East Turner Mountain.
Like the rest of Maine’s Public Lands, the East Turner Mountain Lot is not a park, even though it shares some of the same uses and is overseen by the same agency: the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.
Maine Public Lands managers have historically aimed towards a careful balance of managing the public state lands for timber, recreation, wildlife habitat and ecological values. After two directors of Maine Public Lands were forced out in quick succession after balking at dramatic increases in timber harvesting on the public lots, LePage appointed Doug Denico to be in charge of the Maine Public Reserved Lands.
Denico, a former industry forester who cut his teeth during the heyday of the spruce budworm epidemic in the 1980s, is remembered in Millinocket as the forester who used to wear a baseball cap at that time that said “Mow ’em and Grow ’em.”
He is remembered there as a guy who liked to cut trees. And build roads.
Denico is also in charge of the Maine Forest Service, whose mission is to promote sound forestry with an emphasis on growing and harvesting timber for markets. Denico’s approach during his tenure at the Maine Forest Service has leaned towards a more industrial style of forestry and away from conservation forestry. His default approach is that the primary function of a forest is to produce timber products and that conservation standards will be met at minimum accepted levels.
Denico is also chairman of the Baxter State Park Authority, the three-person governing body over Baxter State Park, which is to remain “forever wild” by law.
In short, Denico has a lot of different hats to wear.
Then there is the East Turner Mountain, with “forever wild” Baxter Park on one side and Quimby’s private land on the other, where Denico is overseeing the building of a logging road on a state right-of-way to reach the remote state public lot that ecologists within his own department identified as having special ecological features in a forest type that stretches into Baxter Park. And, in 2014, Maine Public Lands foresters recommended the East Turner Mountain Lot for remote recreation, not timber management.
It's like a college test question in an ethics class: Explain what you would do if you were faced with these potential conflicts of interest?
At the very least, it must be difficult to decide which hat to put on in the morning.
I have had a long and ongoing conversation with an old friend
about the definition of wilderness.
I used to work in federal wilderness areas, whose use is governed by the 1964 Wilderness Act. Federally designated wilderness areas are a mixed bag of political compromises: the areas are meant to be “untrammelled” places kept for current and future generations where man is a visitor who does not remain. They have no roads, allow no mechanized equipment (including bicycles and chainsaws), have no buildings or outhouses, and some have no bridges across fast streams. Cattle grazing is allowed in some federally designated wilderness areas, as are horse-packing teams and big commercial backcountry outfitter camps that are seasonal canvas tent villages with horse corrals, hunting guides, and staff.
Other federal wilderness areas I’ve visited are over-run with people who leave soiled toilet paper wafting in the breeze near alpine lakes. The problems with pathogens are real and untrammelled solitude, the signature definition of the wilderness experience, was decidedly lacking.
Certainly, wilderness means different things to different people; to some, hiking the Appalachian Trail is wilderness. To others, the AT is a difficult and crowded sidewalk through the woods where stamina is needed, but skill is not.
While I’m sensitive to the various definitions of wilderness related to political boundaries and personal perception, I’m also mindful that human-centered definitions may have nothing to do with the landscape itself.
And the landscape has a voice.
I am far from being the only one contemplating new definitions of
wilderness. The National Park Service itself is reconsidering what it
means, as are the anti-park legislators like Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski,
who has championed a road being built through protected bird habitat in a
designated wilderness area. If Quimby’s land is designated as a
National Monument, these questions of how to define wilderness will come
While I do not think wilderness requires a landscape that has never been altered (after all, many landscapes have been altered historically and all landscapes have now been altered by human activity on a global scale in ways we are just beginning to research), it is possible to be specific and not relative in the definition of wilderness. My definition looks to a remote place that requires self-reliance and backwoods skill, offers solitude and contemplation and perhaps even spiritual renewal as secondary considerations that are in service to a bigger, more solid definition that has less to do with our experience and a lot more to do with embracing a landscape-level view.
If you want wilderness, you need places big enough to hold them. Two words can guide an effective working definition of wilderness: ecosystem integrity.
And indications are that the upper part of the Wassataquoik Valley, including the East Turner Mountain Lot, could qualify.
"I inherited this sliver up there,” Denico said in response to a question from a member of the legislative committee that oversees Maine Public Lands about why he planned to log the East Turner Mountain Public Lot.
Denico said he planned to build a logging road and put in a bridge across a stream on Quimby’s land at a cost of about $160,000. Then, he planned to hire contractors to cut a third of the timber off the lot for an estimated $500,000 in revenue. He planned to go back in to log again in 15 to 25 years.
The price for timber is down, he told the legislative committee. They would harvest timber, anyway.
“We aren’t going to give the wood away,” he said. “But we need to keep the contractors going.”
What was the forest like up on Turner Mountain, one of the committee members asked.
“It’s not unusual for that area,” said Denico. “There are 1,400 acres in Baxter like that. It is not unique.”
In fact, a 2012 analysis by the state Maine Natural Areas Program, a bureau within the same agency as the Maine Forest Service, found the area extraordinary.
The ecologists and foresters who did the field work reported little logging had been done for a long time on the East Turner Mountain public lot (with the exception of a small piece on the eastern boundary). On half the lot, they found most of the trees were 100 or more years old, with some over 200 years old. The public lot, the report notes, is part of an intact spruce and northern hardwood forest ecosystem that “is remarkable for its near-pristine condition and because it is one of the largest undisturbed examples of its type known from the state.” It is not an unusual forest type. It is an unusually old example of it.
A 2014 report by the agency that Denico now heads (the report is available online from the Maine Department of Conservation, Agriculture, and Forestry) states that at least 40 percent of the East Turner Mountain Public Lot was too steep to log. Given its ecological and backcountry features, the East Turner Lot should be managed for remote recreation as its dominant use, with stream-sides given extra care to protect fisheries habitat, according to the report. Timber management and timber harvesting were mentioned, but not recommended.
The public lot was also roadless.
The Wassataquoik Valley was not always wild; it certainly cannot be called a primeval landscape untrammelled by the works of man.
The heaviest logging in the East Branch country happened in the Wassataquoik, with timber prospectors going after enormous white pines first, followed by red spruce, and then pulp wood to feed the paper mills. Dynamite blasted away obstacles in the stream. Way houses and logging camps were built next to it. At one time, 23 dams controlled water flow to allow logs to float by the thousands downstream to the East Branch. Once, the valley had been the favored entrance into the Great Basin by adventurers seeking to climb Katahdin. Teddy Roosevelt went up this way at 19 to climb Katahdin in his moccasins.
Brendan Curran, who retired this year after 27 years as a backcountry Baxter State Park ranger stationed at Russell Pond, was high up on the steep slopes of Tip Top above the Great Basin in 1982 when he stumbled across the remains of a wooden chute that was used to send logs a thousand feet off the mountain.
“It was like a ski jump, a line of rotten logs with spikes sticking out of it that went straight down the mountain,” he said.
Curran followed the chute down to the remains of an excavated pool at the base, with a nearby sluice gate to control the streams feeding in and out of the pool in order to raise and lower water levels. The Wassataquoik lay not far beyond. He figured the thousand-foot drop was a dry log chute, with the logs plummeting straight down to the pool. The sluice gate that controlled water levels was still there. After reaching the pool, the logs were likely driven a few hundred yards down a stream into the Wassataquoik and out of the mountains down to the East Branch of the Penobscot.
In 2014, Curran was up on Tip Top, again. The log chute of a century ago was gone. He picked his way down the rocky slope then stopped without knowing quite why and parted the bushes next to him. At his feet lay the only remains of the thousand-foot dry cute: the sluice gate to the excavated pool.
Three intense wildfires, fueled by logging slash and perhaps by budworm-killed trees, raged across the Great Basin and the Wassataquoik landscape from 1884 to 1915, finally closing the logging down. The district was abandoned and the hard-used forest started growing back.
A century later, the dams are all gone and the fields along the river grown back to trees.
But there were always steep and inaccessible places in the valley; places the fires jumped, wetter places where the burn wasn’t heavy and trees survived; older trees and interesting places that require effort to see and some knowledge of what you are looking at once you arrive.
Why weren’t they logged, if loggers could get up on to Tip Top?
“There are places like that inside the park, too,” said Curran. “I don’t know why. One side they left untouched, and across from it, it was cut all the way up the slope.”
The Klondike, a thick spruce and fir bog surrounded by the mountains inside the Great Basin, is the source of the Wassataquoik. Rain and snow falling on the inside slopes of the mountains flow down into the catch-basin of the Klondike before spilling out to form the stream.
“It is an incredibly thick, wet, nasty inhospitable area,” he said. “It’s not a place a person would want to go twice. The first time would satisfy all your curiosity.”
The Cessna circled again and again over the East Turner Mountain lot while we looked down at the forest below, identifying landmarks.
I followed the path of the braided stream coming down the slopes of the Turner Mountains from Twin Brook Pond. The 2012 report said there were 150-year-old sugar maples nearby and red spruce growing on a boulder field.
The new logging road up through Quimby’s land stopped just short of the East Turner Mountain Lot boundary. Culverts were piled up nearby, indicating more road building ahead. The once roadless part of the valley was now navigable by logging trucks. But there was one problem with logging the public lot: the state doesn't hold full title. The state owns about a 77-percent share. The rest is owned privately by one man who isn’t talking to anyone. Until it is determined who owns which parts of the East Turner Mountain Lot, cutting timber up there would be legally problematic.
Williams circled again and we followed the Wassataquoik downstream, passing over Robar Brook on Quimby’s land. It flowed around an imperilled spruce heath barren that had a view up the valley to Katahdin, according to Bart DeWolf, the ecologist who had surveyed the Quimby property. We followed the Wassataquoik down until it joined the East Branch at the gravel bank where six weeks earlier I had waded out into the water and stuck my head in the river.
We pushed the canoe off from the gravel bank back into the East Branch. It didn’t take long to reach the last rapid at Whetstone Falls. It was not a particularly easy rapid, it turned out, since the concrete bridge abutments were added to the natural obstacles in the river.
One of the guides suggested I walk around.
I had made the decision to stay in the canoe way upriver, four days earlier. I had stayed in the canoe through the rapids we had run all the way down, even as the mood of the river and the group dynamic changed. It would take months to put these four days into words that were readable, long enough that the East Branch would be as much of a memory as a fact. By then, I would be more than ready to leave the river and drive off down a dirt road to a shower and a cold beer.
But, not now. Since Stair Falls, I was all the way in.
My guide gave me instructions, reminding me of his earlier instructions about deciding whether to go faster or slower than the river. Mostly, he had opted to go slower, a leisurely approach to whitewater that must have made it appear effortless from the riverbank.
We got in and went through the first part of the rapid. He intentionally aimed for the abutment.
“Okay,” he said from the stern. “Now.”
And I pulled the bow over and we were past the bridge and into an eddy, watching the others as they came down through.