Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Northwoods Traveling

Hi-Ho, off we go to the expansive and vast Maine North Woods. Three Million plus acres of forest and timber lands, a massive commercial working forest with public access controlled by North Maine Woods Inc., who also manage and care for over six hundred campsites throughout. With hundreds and possibly thousands of miles of gravel roads, it has become a goal of mine to drive through and see these lands and since I have started riding a snowmobile, it's added a new twist to scout out areas where I can ride and link up roads and waterways for long adventures and amazing back country travels. I like to drive, so I don't really think too much about spending 10-12 hours behind the wheel traveling these roads and taking it all in. If only we were able to ride bicycles in this area, wow how amazing would that be? Sadly, unless the forestry industry completely pulls out of the NMW or the landowners, management and public users can come to some agreement on how to charge for and allow expanded access for other shared uses like cycling, it's unlikely I or anyone will ever be able to ride these roads. I can only think the Maine North Woods would certainly benefit from the added economic benefits of expanded multi-use access. 

On this trip the main goal was to get to the St. John river at Red Pine campsite. My trusty copilot Mike always secures his spot quickly, so the planning began. We had started an email thread about where to go, what to see, so I really started developing a good driving plan. I had traveled with my Uncle back in my teen years and we had been to a place called Spider Lake off the Churchill Dam road, so I set this as our first nights camp. I methodically summed up that we should head in at Oxbow and travel the Oxbow road for scouting Libby Camps main entrance as well as campsites along the way. We arrived at the Oxbow gate and we were warmly greeted by Lisa Sherman, gate operator and self proclaimed writer. She was a spit fire of a woman, with an amazing wealth of knowledge on where we had told her we intended to travel. She had quite a few opinions on the way things run in the NMW, good, bad, interesting and funny. I probed and pleaded to her my thoughts on allowing bicycles into the NMW, but as per above...that's a negative on the topic. 

Lisa had warned us about commercial traffic within the first six miles of the Oxbow gate and to be careful, but as we were talking with her at the gate house most of the workers drove out, including the foremen, so she predicted they were done for the weekend. We didn't see any log trucks, but only minutes from the gate, in one of the operations zones, we were greeted by our first 'mud hole' of the trip. That was a deep one, but we got through and rolled on. A few miles down the road we spot two big cow moose running off into the forest, yup, Maine. 

Munsungan Falls at the headwaters of the Aroostook river. Munsungan Falls campsite is also at this pretty little spot. 

We stopped off at a few campsites to scout for future journeys and just in case it's a not to be missed spot. From the Oxbow road it was a few clicks north and east on the Pinkham road and then a left hook back north and west on the Pell & Pell road. Off Pell & Pell is a beautiful little campsite on Chase Lake, which was where we had to clean up the fire pit after some careless visitors left their paper plates and plastic forks, including a few other pieces of trash in the fire pit. I plan on ranting about this nonsense further down the post.

Yes! Camp for the night.

After a little more than 500 miles of driving from Kittery, Maine, it was nice to get out of the car and set up camp. Eating was a second priority and we started with the warm up course of veggie chili, homemade from my lovely wife Stephanie. It was so.damn.good as camping food usually is when you are miles and miles from civilization. 

Does this fire look like a kitty?

We also brought kayaks and since we were camped at Spider, we paddled there. It was a cold morning and probably the coldest conditions I have paddled in, but dressed appropriately we were fine. Spider had a lot of rocky shoreline and not many options for popping out of the boat. From the campsite we paddled out left around the cove we were in. This went on for a bit then between a couple of islands for a little shelter from the winds, then we kept paddling up the inlet from Upper Portage Pond before getting into a little ice jam. 

Winter's icy grip is showing early. Spider Lake ice - Maine North Woods - 10/25/13

Just so some of you who may not know can get an idea of where the heck I was, here is some of the GPS track from my Garmin Connect account. I started it about 8 miles after the Oxbow gate, then it stops at Kelly Brook Campsite. I would encourage every Mainer to visit even the smallest part of the North Maine Woods. It's amazing to me to be in such vast wilderness.

We had around 45 miles to drive before getting to our next camp spot for the night at Red Pine. A few notable spots along the way included Churchill Dam on the Allagash Waterway, Clayton Lake, yup, that place far and away where the weather reports come from and as always Mike was calling out landmarks and side roads like the finest Rally Car Co-Pilot would. Arriving at the junction of Realty road and the Ross Mountain road, I choose to take the road less traveled which actually wasn't too bad, a few rough spots, but the Subaru Forester was handling everything so far extremely well. After making our way through the hardest sections, we actually kept joking that we would get to within feet of the destination and would be forced back by an overflowing beaver dam, stream or washout of the road, but we rounded the bend at the site of the former bridge to Daaquam and then it was the sign officially for Red Pine Grove campsite. 

The Red Pine Airfield along the St. John river

Arriving at Red Pine, I proceeded to blast down the airfield to the opposite side. I see how they could land a pretty large plane here, it's almost a mile long and fairly wide, but probably not wide enough for most commercial airliners. 

The Dubie is not the fastest vehicle out there, but I did get up to 70 mph before backing off for a taxi into the campsite.

Just a little rant...

I'm an outdoors person, whatever it is, riding bikes, hiking, climbing, snowshoeing or skiing, snowmobiling, camping you get the point. What I am not is a hunter, but I have complete respect for hunters who like to enjoy the outside and their sport, or thrill of the pursuit of game or the benefit of feeding your family. What I can't really understand is how some hunters, bird hunters in this case, can be so ruthless and gross. As I pull into the site we decide would be ours, it wasn't ideal and there were other folks who had a camper set up just a few cells away. I noticed what looked like a dead bird on top of the tarp pole over the picnic table, sure enough as I walked over for a closer look it was a dead grouse and they had just left it, so carelessly in an area one would camp out and perhaps make a meal. How unsanitary! A little further away was the headless body of another bird who had been skinned from the spine and neck up, lower body still intact and full of feathers. To say we were disgusted was an understatement and I sort of felt let down by the complete lack of respect for wildlife and other folks who also like to enjoy these areas, so and we decided to at least check out the river then move on to another campsite. Ok a little more ranting about people who leave trash at campsites? What is wrong with you?

The beautiful St. John river, so peaceful and unaware of the crudeness man can relent upon nature. 

I recently started reading Nine Mile Bridge a book of a woman's journey to teach school and live in the woods of Maine for three years, so part of our plan was to try and visit the site of the former bridge. Since we were headed away from Red Pine, I went against Mike's voice of reason and decided to make the effort to possibly set up camp at the site there.  Off we go, left turn on the Thibodeau road due north when all of a sudden the road just dropped to the valley floor and this...

14% grade on either side of an amazing gravel road - gravel riders dream.

Another view a little closer to the valley floor. 

At the top of that hill was another man made road cut through a valley just like this one. I was in absolute awe and thought about riding bikes, but the closest I'll get could be a winter snowmobile ride if it's not plowed....hmmm...

Getting close to wrapping this one up, but not before we get into the epic part of the trip and since it was a close one, no pictures were taken! We took a left on East Nine Mile road heading for another spot on the St. John river. We figured it was about 8 miles to the end and we soon put the easiest miles behind us passing Nine Mile Bruce's house just before the road narrowed to two tracks and some taller grass up the center. I noticed his door was open when we went by and if he saw us he must have chuckled thinking two things, we'll either be back to visit needing a tow truck or he'll see us turned back having come to our senses. The road description above, how it narrowed down to two tracks and tall grass up the center is just the kind of road I had wanted to travel on in the MNW, which we had done, but this one was getting technical and difficult and I kept going against my better judgement approaching every difficulty with optimism and confidence. We actually got out to walk as we had in other sections in our travels and I quickly announced I thought I could get through it. Back in the car and down the trail, one obstacle at a time, into the mud hole I had walked alongside and probed with a stick, suddenly it became deeper under the weight of the car and we got close to getting stuck, I even heard a few bumps and grinds from something hitting the earth and I though it couldn't possibly get worse until I began a drop off three sets of small logs that eased you down a steep incline and I hit my trailer hitch at the bottom, I kept trying to ride the high side of the double track since it was much wider than the contact patch of the Forester, but due to the muddy conditions the tires wouldn't hold the line and I kept getting sucked in and very close to bottoming out the undercarriage of the car. Not good to rip critical parts out of the car and have to get a tow truck to get us out. With my heart rate accelerated we quickly scout out an area to perform a five point turn. With the fresh scent of clutch coming from the air vent I quickly became only determined to get the heck out of there and fast! I turned the beast around and arrived at the mud hole. Mike got out and guided me through a different line which apparently was deep and from his perspective everything appeared as if we'd be camping right there...stuck in the mud! I am happy to report the scent of burnt clutch quickly went away and we just left the area, not even considering parking the car and taking a hike to the river, what now turns out to be a regrettable lack of thought, clearly disturbed by the muddy holes we encountered on East Nine Mile road. Someday I'll get there and be redeemed, maybe from the official Nine Mile side of the riverbank, I am always thinking about another woods road drive.

Just a couple more pics from the woods of Maine. 

Cold fall morning light on McNally Pond, along the Realty road, North Maine Woods

The mountainous view from the western shore of Pratt Lake.


mark boucher said...

I like a lot the photos and the text. I would like to go there on bicycle but like you say, it is not possible.

I grew up in Saint-Cyprien Dorchester(Québec). The St-John River and the North Maine woods were 1km behind our house. We used to have a bridge in our town to go to maine but they destroyed it last fall.

Steve said...


Thanks for the comments. What bridge did they remove? Was it US or CA that did that? What part of ME are you close to?