Over the River and Through the Woods
A wintry return to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
In that moment, we regretted taking the minivan. But there we were, anxiously plowing through a foot of unexpected snow on an unpaved road in northern Maine, hoping our lumbering ride wouldn’t get stuck. I hit the button to adjust the lumbar support in the front passenger seat and tried to relax as fresh powder blasted up over the roof and we drifted around corners as if we were in a suburban “Fast & Furious” movie.
The late January trip had been thrown together at the last minute, but when your spouse graciously agrees to watch your 3-year-old so you can hang out with buddies in a national park, you go and go quickly, with gratitude. It was not hard to convince Michael and Ed, fellow birders and fathers, to come along on a weekend getaway to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. It had been a long, cold Maine winter on top of a long pandemic lockdown, and we were eager for a break, no matter how haphazardly pulled together.
We were nearing our destination when we careened around a bend in the road and saw a massive plow truck headed straight for us. I gasped and dug my fingers into the leather-trimmed armrests, bracing for impact, but Michael smoothly slid the minivan at full speed to the right, missing the huge truck by what felt like millimeters.
Ed and I shrieked with relief, but Michael was blasé. “Don’t worry,” he said. “She’s got snow tires.”
© KAREN MINOT
Rattled but alive, we pulled into Bowlin Camps Lodge, which sits just across the East Branch of the Penobscot River from Katahdin Woods and Waters. It would be Michael and Ed’s first time in the monument but not mine: In 2012, as an NPCA staff member, I had the privilege of working on the campaign to transfer what was then a massive expanse of privately owned forest and waterways to the public. I moved on to other projects at NPCA but celebrated when President Barack Obama established the monument in 2016. A few years later, I moved back to my beloved home state to work for Maine Audubon. Despite my newfound proximity to the park, my spare time was occupied by my family, and I hadn’t been able to return until this spur-of-the-moment weekend.
Our plan, to the extent that we had one, was to see as much of the park as we could in a couple of short days. I was curious about what the park was like in the winter and how it had developed in the eight years since I had been there. We had a partial answer to the first question when we arrived: The park in winter was very cold, with temperatures lingering a few degrees below zero and forecasted to stay that way for the weekend. But we shrugged it off and settled into the 1895 Cabin, named for the year in which it was built. It was rustic in exactly the way a Maine cabin should be, with gas lights and a workhorse wood stove. We were in high spirits — still giddy from our near-collision and grateful to have a break from our families and from worries about the pandemic. We cooked dinner and sat by the fire and toasted our loved ones back at home. Then we toasted some other things and toasted some more and talked and laughed until it was very late and time to go to bed.
The remarkable origin story of the designation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument begins with Roxanne Quimby, who moved to rural Maine in her 20s and turned a business selling beeswax candles at local fairs into the huge Burt’s Bees natural cosmetics company and later decided to pivot away from business and into philanthropy. Over time, she bought over 120,000 acres of land across Maine, purchased at market prices from willing sellers, and set the ambitious goal of turning a massive chunk of it, about 87,000 acres, into a national park. But giving land to the public wasn’t so simple.
The timber industry wasn’t keen on the idea of conserving more parkland, and some northern Mainers were resistant to the idea of a greater federal presence in the area. Quimby was an easy target for that animosity — her politics and character came under attack — and no one in Maine’s congressional delegation would introduce legislation to create the park. But there was support, too, from Mainers who wanted to both protect the state’s woods and create an anchor for outdoor jobs in the region. Quimby and her son, Lucas St. Clair, along with advocates from NPCA and other state and national conservation organizations, pressed on, and just a day before the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016, Obama exercised his authority under the Antiquities Act to establish the monument.
Once the controversy and hubbub around creating the park died down, people could hop on I-95 and see for themselves what lay at the center of the struggle. Katahdin Woods and Waters sits near the heart of Maine’s North Woods, a mostly unbroken carpet of pine and hardwood trees that is the largest contiguous forest block east of the Mississippi River. The monument’s deep, dark forests are sprinkled with bogs and wetlands and split by three sinewy watercourses — the Seboeis River, the East Branch of the Penobscot and the Wassataquoik Stream — which converge in the southern end of the park, then barrel toward the sea. The Wassataquoik originates in Baxter State Park, the monument’s next-door neighbor and home of the tallest mountain in the state, Mount Katahdin.
The Wabanaki people, who have inhabited these lands for centuries, long knew the area east of the base of the mountain as a haven for wildlife. (“Wassataquoik” is a Wabanaki word roughly meaning “a stream to spear fish.”) Atlantic salmon, brook trout, black bear, moose, wolf, white-tailed deer, caribou, bobcat, Canada lynx, snowshoe hare, North American beaver and hundreds of species of birds thrived there. The European settlers who displaced the Wabanaki hunted the wildlife (to extinction in some cases) and built logging roads to support a lumber industry that continues today. Timber companies still own a majority of Maine’s North Woods, typically allowing — but never guaranteeing — public access. The monument and Baxter State Park exist to ensure that at least part of these woods remains open to the public.
We decided to spend the first day of our winter-bird-dad odyssey hiking and snowshoeing north along the East Branch but were challenged from the start. It was really cold. The morning thermometer read minus 3, cold enough that prolonged exposure could lead to frostbite. Michael, who always runs cold, had brought along a whole box of HotHands hand warmers and stuffed the little white packs into every skin-adjacent spot he could, from his socks to his pockets. He shoved two in each glove. But his hands and feet were freezing before we even stepped outside, and the warmers weren’t helping enough. We weren’t sure what to do — cold is a real danger, especially if you’re miles from help with no cell service — but Michael didn’t want to hold us back. He decided that his body might warm up after some walking, so apprehensive but excited, we headed toward the river.
We were looking for birds and had immediate luck at Bowlin Bridge, a bouncy wooden suspension bridge that spans the East Branch and connects Bowlin Camps with the monument. Overhead, we heard the rollicking jip-jip-jip-jip! of a flock of red crossbills. These hearty finches, their mandibles oddly crossed to help them pry open pine cones, were a “life bird” for Michael (a species he had never seen before), and just like that he was feeling a little warmer. Below us, the clear water flowed thick with ice chunks, like a 7-Eleven slushie.
We crossed to the monument side, and the woods engulfed us; after just a few steps, we could no longer see the cabins or hear the river. Almost immediately, we spied another good bird, this one not flying overhead but exploding from the snow in a fury of wings and feathers: a ruffed grouse. These woods are covered with the chunky, chicken-sized birds, named for the tufts of neck feathers displayed during courtship. Ruffed grouse often perch in trees once they’re flushed, and after our hearts stopped racing, we tracked the bird to a small pine, where it was sitting at eye level. We crept close enough to see its pectinations, small, fleshy fingers that grow from the birds’ toes in winter to increase the surface area of their feet and, like snowshoes, help them stay atop the drifts.
We continued on for several hours in our manmade snowshoes, over and under fallen trees and snowy boughs. The forest had a pleasantly episodic feel: We’d push through a tight thicket of spruce and find ourselves in an open grove of birch and aspen, which would lead into a disorderly stand of white pine, and so on. Our path generally followed the river upstream, though we’d only occasionally spot it during a break in the forest. The exercise and sun had warmed us all to a tolerable level, and our steady footsteps eased us into a state of meditation. It was just us and the woods — no other hikers, no airplanes overhead, no barking dogs, no distractions. I had walked this same trail back in the summer of 2012, but the experience was completely different. In that season, you are constantly alert to the sensations of the woods — birdsong and buzzing insects and dappled light and swaying leaves. In winter, the stillness made us feel as if we were hiking in a kind of frozen wilderness diorama. We had walked for several miles, hardly speaking, before we thought to check the time. It was almost noon already, and we had more park to explore, so we followed our own tracks back to Bowlin.
After lunch we drove to the northern entrance, just south of Grand Lake Matagamon, and encountered some new wildlife: people. After a few hours of hiking in the cold we were feeling pretty proud of our survival skills, but now we were faced with a parking lot full of cross-country skiers and snowshoers much braver than we were. We heard one such skier before we saw her. Sarah Hunter was just gliding out of the woods hooting with joy at completing a 15-mile round-trip camping trip with friends to the Grand Pitch Lean-to, an exposed, first-come, first-served accommodation along the East Branch. Sleeping outside on a weekend with temperatures dipping to double digits below zero sounded, frankly, insane, but she was beaming. “We brought an ax, and we were able to make a hole in the ice near the shore — a nice, clean water source,” she told us. “I chose this area for its remoteness and beauty and was not disappointed.”
Energized by the excitement at Matagamon, we snowshoed down along the river, hoping for more birds. The forest here was studded with impressively tall oaks and white pines. We scrambled down the steep banks to the river’s edge, scanning the open skies for ravens or eagles, but didn’t find any and instead watched ice chunks tumble and roll downstream. Late afternoon is always a low time for bird activity, and we only saw a handful of other species. Soft thumpings betrayed the presence of both hairy and downy woodpeckers pecking for grubs under the bark of dead trees. A chattering flock of black-capped chickadees, squeaking brown creepers and honking red-breasted nuthatches passed through the branches like a gang of unruly kids through a library. We packed up and headed back to our cabin as dusk fell. Tomorrow would be a completely novel kind of winter challenge.
Whether snowmobiling would be allowed was a point of heated public debate in the lead-up to the creation of the park. The activity is a favorite pastime in Maine, which boasts 14,000 miles of trails, including the Interconnected Trail System, an extensive network that runs from southern Maine all the way to the Canadian border. But snowmobiling has long been controversial in national parks, as critics say the noisy machines are incompatible with the natural settings or that riders too often venture off the trails into restricted areas.
A compromise of sorts was reached by the time Katahdin Woods and Waters was designated: Snowmobiling would be allowed on parcels east of the East Branch of the Penobscot River and, except for one small stretch, prohibited west of the river. The resulting 22 miles of trails in the monument ended up being a major draw: Park Superintendent Tim Hudson estimates that as many as 15,000 snowmobilers ride through the park each winter (on marked trails only, he assured me, as the forest is too dense for going off-trail), compared with fewer than a thousand cross-country skiers.
I’m well aware of the prevailing stereotypes at work in northern Maine — the very stereotypes that almost prevented the park from coming into existence: The Carhartt-wearing hunter versus the North Face-clad skier. Pickup trucks versus Subarus. The snowmobiler versus the hiker, or, you know, the birder. I hate these caricatures, and I also hate that I sometimes sense that I’m reinforcing them. As in: Though I’ve lived in Maine most of my life, I had never been on a snowmobile. Neither had Ed nor Michael. We decided it wouldn’t be a true Maine winter experience without some time on a sled. And I was eager to challenge the stereotypes. After all, environmentalists and snowmobile enthusiasts are both out there in nature, enduring the cold, and spending time with friends and family. Wasn’t there as much that united these groups as separated them?
Winter is a rewarding time to visit Katahdin Woods and Waters, but preparation is key. Some parts of the park, such as the popular Katahdin Loop Road, close in late fall. The Patten Lumbermen’s Museum, which is located outside the monument but has a Park Service information desk, also shuts down for the winter. Call in advance to get a handle on what’s open and what conditions to expect. You should also give some thought to what kind of accommodations you’d prefer, whether it’s a snowmobile-oriented place such as Bowlin Camps and Shin Pond Village or a cross-country ski-oriented spot such as the Mt. Chase Lodge, or — for the truly adventurous — winter camping in the park. Overnight parking permits are required for stays at most locations in the park, and reservations are needed for bunk space in community huts at Haskell Hut and Big Spring Brook Hut. Wherever you stay, watch the weather carefully and bring warm layers.
Photo © JERRY MONKMAN/ECOPHOTOGRAPHY
It was 6 below zero on Sunday morning, even colder than the day before. At Shin Pond Village, a family-run outfit with all-terrain vehicle and snowmobile rentals, cottages, and camping, we were fitted with helmets and extra-thick gloves, and then led outside to our snowmobiles by Blaine King, the son of the owners. I wasn’t sure what to expect and was unprepared for the luxury of our sleds: brand-new 2021 Polaris 650 Indy VR1s, with GPS navigation screens and heated handlebars. “You know, we’ve never ridden these before,” I said. “Are you sure you want to give us these nice ones?”
He laughed and assured us we’d be fine, and after a brief explanation of the features of the snowmobile — “Too brief?” we said in glances to each other — King sent us on our way. Moments later we were bombing along the narrow trails behind the store, on our way to the Interconnected Trail System. The speed and easy power were incredible; with just a slight squeeze of my thumb on the throttle, I could push the sled to 40, 50 mph (which is allowed outside the park). I’d never experienced the winter like this, and I wasn’t cold at all — though it may have just been the adrenaline at work.
There were lots of others on the trail, enjoying themselves. Our time in the park had been marked by solitude, but now we were surrounded by packs of friends and families joking around at the gas pumps or riding single file through the woods. On the trail, we discovered a friendly communications system to help groups pass each other safely. The lead rider in a group would hold up fingers indicating how many others were behind him, and the trailing rider would hold a fist to indicate the end of the group. It took us newbies a while to catch on, and so the first few times we encountered these signals, we just waved back, obliviously.
We saw the same kind of enthusiasm in snowmobilers on the trail that we had seen in skiers like Sarah Hunter at Matagamon the day before. I’m not sure I found any answers to the question of how to break down Maine’s entrenched stereotypes, but I was proud that the monument provided a place for different kinds of people to experience similar joy.
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Still, we bird dads were out of our element. We were unused to our new helmets, and Ed’s and my visors fogged up and froze solid from the inside. We realized our lack of visibility was a problem when, at one point along the trail, a pickup truck passed us in the other direction, the driver giving us confused looks: We had missed a trail sign and accidentally turned onto an actual road. We eventually got back on track and decided to head back to Shin Pond to try to fix our visors. Michael and I were in front, and we stopped at a trail intersection to wait for Ed. A few minutes turned into 10, and we were getting nervous. I turned around to look for Ed, hoping he hadn’t blindly collided with another rider. I finally found him shakily inching his way up the trail. Coming around a tight corner he had mistaken the gas for the brake and shot off the trail and into the woods, he said, flying between two trees and slamming into a snowbank. A passing family of snowmobilers pulled him to safety, unharmed and without a scratch on him or his sled. He was grateful, but ready to be done with these machines.
We were all ready. The exhilaration of a guys’ weekend had faded a bit, and we were starting to really miss our families. Maybe it was seeing all the other families on the trail, or maybe it was just the relentless, numbing cold, but nothing sounded better at that moment than a hug from my wife and son. Our adventure was coming to an end.
Back at Shin Pond we returned our sleds, slid into our plush minivan and took stock of our last-minute weekend. In just two days, we had hiked 10 miles through breathtaking woods, survived 1.5 near-death experiences, seen 10 species of birds (and one lifer for Michael), braved freezing temperatures, hit 50 mph on a snowmobile and sampled several types of beer around a toasty wood stove. Ed and Michael had ventured into a part of Maine that they’d never seen before, and I’d returned to one I knew years ago but was now experiencing in a completely new way. We vowed that we’d come back in the summer, when we could leave our handwarmers behind. Then we peeled off our wet socks, cranked up the heat and started heading south toward our families.
About the author
Nicholas Lund Former Senior Manager, Landscape Conservation Program
Nick is a conservationist and nature writer. He is the author of several forthcoming books, including the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of Maine (2022) and “The Ultimate Biography of Earth” (2022). His writing on birds and nature has appeared in Audubon magazine, Slate.com, The Washington Post, The Maine Sportsman, The Portland Phoenix and Down East magazine, among others.