Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Katahdin and Baxter State Park

Maine’s biggest rock, and therefore the most sacred, at least to the Penobscot Indian Nation (and me) is “Ktaadn,” the Greatest Mountain. It looms over all creation just to the north and east of the Iron Works, in the middle of Baxter State Park, which by the terms of Percival Baxter’s bequests “shall forever be left in a natural wild state.”

Katahdin is an impressive mountain, big-shouldered, broadly dominating the lower lands around it, the highest mountain in the East, and when Percival Baxter first saw it in 1903, on a fishing trip, it was the start of a magnificent obsession. Baxter was a rich kid turned good, Bowdoin College (1898), Harvard Law (1901), the scion of a Portland family dedicated to the outdoors, philanthropy and politics. He founded The Quill, Bowdoin’s literary journal, he loved animals, he was a life-long bachelor. Reading about him, one gets the feeling that he entered politics (ending as Maine’s Governor from 1921-1925) mostly to do good, specifically the preservation of as much land as possible surrounding the mountain he loved.
On the Maine Atlas and Gazetteer, Baxter is a green rectangle of allure, full of icons noting places of beauty. Most of its perfectly straight borders coincide with the edges of the unorganized territories that surround it. It took Baxter 32 years and 28 separate deals to assemble his park, an astonishing display of patience and persistence in the face of the timber and paper companies, the private owners, the hunting/fishing/trapping public. He was a one-man show, doing by himself what the committees and collaborations of the land trusts are accomplishing in this century. His vision was pristine and celibate and still today there are no stores, paved roads, RVs, motor boats, showers, or toilets with plumbing. There is no electricity. Access is strictly controlled (no more than 1,200 visitors a day). Its 50,000 visitors a year may seem like a lot, especially on the top of the mountain on a nice summer day when hikers line up at the summit of Katahdin for photographs, but that pales in comparison with Acadia’s 3 million.

Even more than Moosehead Lake, Baxter State Park and Katahdin are symbols to me of a new, precious kind of religion. My experience there is limited: one afternoon of drizzle and cloud in which my wife and I didn’t see the mountain at all, and most of the next day, when the weather cleared at noon and the majestic mountain appeared above the tranquil waters of Daicey Pond. But that was enough for a lifetime. Why? Because the Park has never seen a paver or a lawn; because it never will; because the moose, the merganser, the mink will live there forever; because it allows humans to experience nature in enough discomfort to heighten the senses; because it is, in essence, the Great North Woods, where a forest, a mountain, a river carving a gorge can be eternal.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: the granite quarries of Clark Island

Maine granite was king for a long time. There’s Vinalhaven granite in the Washington Monument, the Brooklyn Bridge, the eight pink granite columns in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, not to mention all the ordinary granite pavers from other mines lining the streets of Northeast cities. Maine granite was of good quality, but most importantly it was cheap. The quarries were largely on islands and transport by water was efficient and easy. Maine led the nation in production in 1901, but by the 1920s there was little business left, not because the resource was exhausted but because Portland cement and concrete and steel and asphalt were cheaper. Pre-formed, pre-poured, viscous: these are better business words than heavy, hard, obdurate.

The main customers of quarries these days are kids jumping off their sheared walls. It's one of those quaint things that make Maine special, or is it? Clark Island in Spruce Head holds a former quarry - deserted, peaceful, gone to nature. There are quiet trails, lovely ocean views, those deep blue-green quarry waters, a generous inn at the edge of the causeway. Imagine it in the 19th century, however: the rough barracks for the workers, the hard work and poverty and exploitation, the explosions, the steam drilling, the hammering, the pollution. Stone is an obstinate thing to handle. Life on Clark must have been a little less than idyllic.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Mt. Kineo and Moosehead Lake

For now most of the far north is protected by distance, by lack of improved roads.  Seaplanes are too costly for daily living (and too slow for the rich, who are used to commuting by jet). But how long before Moosehead and all the others look like Sebago?
I don’t think I could bear it. My wife and I climbed Mt. Kineo on a glorious day in September. The path parallels the shore for a while before climbing up; seeing that water close at hand, clear as a diamond, and from on high, blue as a sapphire, spoke of a purity and healing power as strong as anything I’ve experienced. The lake is like a great eye at the edge of wilderness, carrying light into the woods. The Native Americans thought the place was sacred, for Kineo boasts about a thousand feet, 700 above the water, the rest below, of pure vertical hornstone, a rare flint that Native Americans from all around New England used for arrow heads. But white people don’t hold much for sacredness.
Development at Mt. Kineo started in the mid-19th century. Rusticators could take a train from New York or Boston all the way to Greenville at the southern end of Moosehead (Thoreau did in 1853), and catch a ferry for Mt. Kineo House, of which there have been several versions over the years. One was the biggest hotel in the country at the time.  But the Indians or perhaps the lake had their revenge; each Mt. Kineo House burned to the ground, leaving the modern rusticator’s way of life of today, lived on a golf course and on the porches and docks and yachts of a few big houses.

Moosehead affected me as much as any place in Maine, more perhaps, and not just for its stunning natural beauty. It is huge and was perhaps therefore unassailable. It was remote and is no longer. The train is gone but the cars pour in, and the Plum Creeks with them, and that great eye shining in the wilderness is now like a rip in fabric, and the waterways that Thoreau canoed in his clear-eyed innocence are open for business and the shores laid bare for suburbia. At least Mt. Kineo has been saved (if you ignore the golf course and the big houses on the south side): to prevent it from further development the State, along with the Nature Conservancy, bought it in 1990. There seems to be no other way to preserve our treasures.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Sebago Lake

Next door to Long Lake, Sebago Lake is the poster boy for southern Maine’s paradox of use.  It is Maine’s second largest lake, and its deepest.  Its water is still so pure that it supplies Portland without the need for filtration. Its shores are thick with cottages and mansions and a total of 2,500 septic systems. Its 300-foot depths shelter the original land-locked salmon (which now need stocking) and lake trout (which do not).  Jet skis are neither banned nor regulated, as they are on many Maine lakes. The towns on its shores are bedroom communities for Portland just 15 miles away, none stranger than the seasonal town of Frye Island that in summer might as well be a Portland suburb, with golf course and “leisure activities” and the obligatory lakeside restaurant serving burgers, whose ferry completely shuts down in winter, as does the whole island, whose official population is zero.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer

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