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In Thoreau’s Footsteps; Maine Trail Celebrates Author’s Treks Through North Woods

August 29, 2007

Henry David Thoreau made his third and final trip to Maine’s North Woods 150 years ago, traveling waterways and forests that shaped so many of his ideas about nature.

A non-profit group on July 23 unveiled what it calls the Thoreau- Wabanaki Trail to pay tribute to Thoreau whom some consider the first ecotourist and the Penobscot Indian guides who accompanied him on two of his treks.

Maine Woods Forever has produced a detailed map of Thoreau’s trips and will erect informational kiosks along different parts of Thoreau’s route. The group also has worked in partnership with a photographer who is producing a book of photos, “Wildness Within, Wildness Without,” retracing Thoreau’s steps.

The project aims to raise public interest not only in Thoreau’s travels but also in the wilderness spirit and recreational heritage of the North Woods, the largest contiguous block of undeveloped forest east of the Mississippi at least 10 million acres.

Thoreau came to the North Woods in the 1840s and ’50s to experience the natural world in a way that no longer was possible elsewhere in New England. But since Thoreau’s time, the land has seen a lot of changes. The forests have been harvested repeatedly for their timber. Submerged logs lurking just below the surface of the West Branch of the Penobscot River, one of Maine’s premier fisheries, remain as reminders of the log drives that once choked the river. And the clearings visible beyond the corridor of trees along its riverbank are evidence that adjacent lands were clear-cut as recently as the 1980s.

While hundreds of thousands of acres on both sides of the river are still owned by paper companies, the immediate surroundings are set aside for recreation, and the forest is slowly reverting to something closer to what Thoreau experienced. Mergansers and kingfishers streak past, and eagles and osprey soar overhead. There are bears, otter, moose, coyote and bobcats. Rounding the last bend in the river, visitors will be confronted by the enormity of Chesuncook Lake, third biggest in Maine, and by the mass of Katahdin, which dominates the southern skyline.

Thoreau, an author and philosopher who lived from 1817 to 1862, is well-known today for his reflections on simple living in nature, especially through “Walden.” That book described his two-year retreat in a small house on Walden Pond in his hometown of Concord, Mass.

He also wrote “The Maine Woods,” a lesser-known book about his observations and thoughts during his three journeys to northern Maine, in 1846, 1853 and 1857.

The Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail map tracks each of these trips, day by day, as he canoed Moosehead Lake, the Penobscot River and its tributaries and climbed Mount Katahdin.

Exploring the interior

The map is designed to give a broad overview of Thoreau’s trips and includes his observations from selected points along the way, but it is not intended as a navigational tool.

But it could provide inspiration for travelers to head for Thoreau country. Many visitors to Maine never leave the state’s famous coastline, where dining on fresh-caught lobster and lazy days exploring tidal pools and rocky cliffs seem too good to pass up.

But vacationers who drive inland to Maine’s lakes and woods will not be disappointed, even if it’s only for a day or overnight. There is no better place to see this other Maine than on Moosehead Lake, which offers moose-watching, boating, mountain hikes and an island golf course with breathtaking views. This is where Thoreau began his third and final trip in Maine.

At 40 miles long and 20 miles wide, Moosehead is the largest lake in Maine as well as the largest body of water east of the Mississippi within the confines of one state. Out in a small boat, you feel like you’re in midocean; on a rough day, waves can rise 5 feet. You could easily be in a remote part of Moosehead and never see another boat; large stretches of the evergreen-lined shore are undeveloped.

Ancient canoe trail

For its Thoreau project, Maine Woods Forever assembled a group to exchange ideas on what should be done.

Butch Phillips, a Penobscot Indian from Milford, suggested that the trail be named to recognize the Wabanaki Indians which include the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Abenaki and Micmac tribes.

In his last two trips to the North Woods, Thoreau used Penobscot guides Joe Attean and Joe Polie to lead him through the wilds. His routes were part of an ancient canoe trail used by Wabanaki tribes for thousands of years as they traveled the area on its various waterways and connecting portages, Phillips said.

“The trail is going to bring recognition and publicity to a canoe trail that was made popular by Thoreau’s writings of his visits to Maine,” he said. “It also memorializes Thoreau’s Penobscot guides, who played an important role in his travels and his stories.”

The trail’s first kiosk has also just been installed in Greenville, a prototype for eight to 10 others that in time will be placed at other yet-to-be-determined points along Thoreau’s route. Two granite sculptures one of a birch bark canoe, the other of two hawks have also been unveiled in Greenville.

Greenville, on the southern end of Moosehead Lake, is also at the center of a long-contested plan by Plum Creek Timber Co. to develop two resorts and nearly 1,000 private lots on some 420,000 acres.

“I think everybody knows that the economy of the North Woods is changing,” said Don Hudson, president of Maine Woods Forever. “Yet I think there is a role for nature-based tourism to play in the future of Maine. And I think this is a good example of how we can organize ourselves to essentially show people how wonderful this state is to travel in.”

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If you go

TRAIL DETAILS: The Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail includes portions of the Penobscot River and Moosehead Lake, which Henry David Thoreau explored by canoe, along with Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest peak and the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The first kiosk on the trail and two granite sculptures are in Greenville, where Thoreau began his Moosehead Lake trip.

You can download the trail map on the Maine Woods Forever Web site, thoreauwabanakitrail.org, which also has links to information about canoeing, parks and the Penobscot nation. Or call MWF at 207- 882-8439.

TOURISM INFORMATION: The Maine Highlands tourism region, an area almost the size of Massachusetts in north and central Maine, was Thoreau’s main hiking and paddling grounds. Among the options for exploration in the region are Bangor, at the southern end of the Highlands, a nexus of culture and Stephen King’s longtime home; Moosehead Lake; Mount Katahdin and Baxter State Park; and the Lincoln Lakes Region and Penobscot River. For information, contact The Maine Highlands, 800-91-MOOSE, themainehighlands.com.

Staff and wire reports

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Pine Stream, 1853:

“Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.”

Henry David Thoreau’s “The Maine Woods”

Noting evidence of logging and dam-building on his last trip, 1857:

The Anglo-American can indeed cut down, and grub up all this waving forest, and make a stump speech, and vote for Buchanan on its ruins, but he cannot converse with the spirit of the tree he fells. … He ignorantly erases mythological tablets in order to print his handbills and town-meeting warrants on them.

Before he has learned his a b c in the beautiful but mystic lore of the wilderness which Spenser and Dante had just begun to read, he cuts it down … puts up a deestrict schoolhouse, and introduces Webster’s spelling-book .

Henry David Thoreau’s “The Maine Woods”

Climbing Katahdin, 1846:

“There it was, the State of Maine,

which we had seen on the map,

but not much like that. Immeasurable forest for the sun to shine on, that eastern stuff

we hear of

in Massachusetts. No clearing, no house … countless lakes … and mountains also,

whose names,

for the most part,

are known only

to the Indians.”

Henry David Thoreau’s “The Maine Woods”




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