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  • Mikah Meyer

America's Newest, Most Controversial National Park Site

Unit #46 / 413 - Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

14 Sept 2016

Sitting out a shower after hiking to the top of Barnard Mt. I'm a local so I won't comment on the politics of the National Monument. It's done, and I'll look on the bright side. I'm not happy that I can no longer cruise the roads and explore every side turnoff; (used to hunt between Whetstone and Barnard Mt.). But maybe the restricted access will somehow make things better. Best wishes everyone.

Registered Maine Guide

(From a group notepad left for hikers in a lean-to on the International Appalachian Trail, which crosses through Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument)

Going into my 3 year journey to all 400+ U.S. National Park Service sites, I figured national parks must be one of the least controversial topics in existence. After all, what American doesn't like the idea of preserving its most beautiful, historic, and culturally relevant places?

But only a few months into my project, I found out that's far from the truth.

Having once read a Washington Post article about the proposed new NPS site in northern Maine, I learned that on the eve of the National Park Service's August 25th, 2016, 100th anniversary, President Obama had designated Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument as the 413th site.

Initially I was fearful: How would I visit this park site whose borders didn't yet appear on Google Maps?

On the other hand, I was excited: Because my route was already set to pass through Maine, I would get to be one of the first visitors in this infant national park.

So on September 24, 2016, one month to the day of Katahdin's creation, I drove my Vanny McVanface over a bridge and into a park so new that it was not the speed limit that slowed my pace around the site's 17 mile loop, but the unfinished roads of dirt, rocks, and tractor strips.

Passing multiple "This Road Owner says National Park NO!" signs and a "This Bridge Owner says National Park NO" post along the way, I recalled the words of a Millinocket, Maine, resident I'd met outside the new Katahdin office.

Upon asking, "Why do I see so many 'National Park NO' signs?" he replied, "Well, there's a guy running around town tearing down the YES signs."

"But there's actually more local support than it appears," he continued. "Look around you. It's a ghost town, right? Would you believe 25 years ago this was the richest town per capita in Maine? It provided 5 cents of every tax dollar, and the paper mills sourced the workforce, the hydro power, and the resources--all locally. This town's economy wasn't just the mill, the mill was this town. Who donated when the local high school needed uniforms? Who provided well-paying jobs? Who let the residents use timber lands for their own recreational purposes? The mill. So you've got a lot of people who think the industry will bounce back and they can return to the way things were. But you've also got people who realize this park is the future and they need to be part of it."

Remembering the run-down houses that accompanied the park's access roads, I considered the other 45 NPS sites I'd been to in the past five months and thought, "If I lived here I'd put up a food market, because this place is about to blow up with tourists."

Those visitors would come across a view Lucas St. Clair has taken many a journalist, politician and park skeptic to.

Stretching beyond a clearing rests the 5,267 ft. Mount Katahdin, that which I'd climbed only two days earlier on my hike to the northern terminus of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

It's this view which St. Clair, the son of Burt's Bees founder Roxanne Quimby, has used since 2012 when he took over the campaign to create this NPS site. Though Quimby had purchased the woods and waters years earlier, it took more than donating the land with a $40 million endowment to turn the philanthropic gift into a NPS site: the hearts and minds of leery locals had to be won before Congress or a President would designate the land.

“We have no representation anywhere in the national park system like the forests and lakes of northern Maine,” National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said during a May 2016 public hearing on the park.

Indeed these moose-filled lands had once inspired the likes of Henry David Thoreau, and are now preserved for anyone who'd like to visit. That might include my docent on the Vermont State Capitol tour I'd taken a week before my Katahdin visit. He mentioned he's lived in New England for the past 30 years and is "still hoping to see a moose."

I hadn't thought much about his assertion until mile marker 10 of Katahdin's loop road. It was just before then, while driving around a corner, that I saw a giant shadowy figure in the distance.

Thinking it might be a logging vehicle or rock, it came into focus only long enough to see a chocolate brown, horn-filled moose turn back and sight my van then bolt down the road.

Grabbing my camera and gingerly rolling around the next bend, my first sighting was replicated when the moose looked back at Vanny McVanface one last time before running down the road and into the woods...leaving only fresh moose tracks behind.

"I've probably seen a moose every time I go there," I heard from Lucas St. Clair upon meeting him a week after my visit. "They tend to like the roads because it's easier to move with their big horns."

The multitude of moose tracks on the dirt road may have been one of the only benefits to visiting this park before its roads are developed, but following along the loop I came to the trailhead for what is likely to become one of Katahdin's signature hikes: Barnard Mountain.

Not only was this the only place in the park I came across any other travelers, but accessing the trailhead (which takes some trust--see Highlights below) allowed me to hike along the International Appalachian Trail. After passing the lean-to that provided the notepad and poignant quote above, I climbed to a 1,558 ft. view of the same Mount Katahdin I'd seen at the earlier pullout.

With other roads leading from the loop to rivers, waterfalls, and hunting grounds, it's a reinforcement of what park organizers stressed to those fearful of losing their snowmobiling and fishing lands: these special forests will continue to be available for locals' traditional recreation, only now with the National Park Service distinction they are open to the world to continue writing Katahdin's story.

3 Katahdin Woods and Waters Highlights

1. Drive the Loop Road

Stopping at the easily accessible viewpoint of Mount Katahdin approximately 6.5 miles into the road, it also allows pockets of surprise views such as this tree-framed photo below.

2. Hike Barnard Mountain

Since Katahdin is still a new park and being developed, the path to the trailhead is both unmarked and a little longer than the map suggests. But follow these directions and trust the trailhead will come:

Just before you reach mile marker 12 on the loop road, park in the small clearing and walk behind the vehicle guard. Head straight down the road-looking path for approx. 1 mile (past the lean-to on your left) then take a right at the first large, road-looking path you see.

Follow that down another mile until you see this sign. There, take a right into the forest and follow the trail until you reach a clear overlook of Mount Katahdin.

Make sure to pack a lunch for the well-placed picnic table!

3. Moose Watch

With the moose being Maine's state animal, you can't ask for a better chance to see one of these majestic creatures than in Katahdin's full woods.

Tim Hudson, at the new Katahdin park office, taking a moment from planning the new Monument's services to pose with one of Maine's most famous creatures.

Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations. What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)

Maine to Massachusetts

-Saint Croix Island International Historic Site

-Acadia National Park

-Adams National Historical Park

-Boston African American National Historic Site

-Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area

-Boston National Historical Park

-Cape Cod National Seashore

-Frederick Law Olmstead National Historic Site

-John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site

-Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site

-Lowell National Historical Park Minute Man National Historical Park

-New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

-Salem Maritime National Historic Site

-Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site

-Springfield Armory National Historic Site

The journey thus far:

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