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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