Floatplanes, lake houses, pickled dilly beans, Canadian whiskey, mythical cities, timber, ashen lodges, Henry David Thoreau, billiard halls, 100-Mile Wilderness, emerald carpets, snowmobiles, swamp donkeys, flailing deer, tin ceilings, Debsconeag Deadwater
& the North Woods.
Photos: Sara Fox
The woods come first, then water. The trees are evergreen and endless. They hug the road like an emerald carpet. From the sky, Maine’s twelve-million-acre North Woods extend to the horizon in every direction. From the woods, you can’t see the sky.
We follow the west branch of the Penobscot River north from Interstate 95 and enter the town of Medway. The Penobscot’s east and west branches merge there. At 264 miles, the river is the second longest in Maine. The watershed it drains is 8,570 square miles. The Penobscot Indians, who have lived on the river for thousands of years, could once access half the state by paddling and portaging lightweight birchbark canoes.
Europeans had never seen a canoe when they first arrived. They thought the Penobscot was a route to Norumbega, a mythical Indian city of jewel-encrusted turrets, bountiful farms and rivers north of the forty-third parallel. French navigator Jean Allefonsce reported in 1542 that he found the city along a massive river, presumably the Penobscot. “The people use many words which sound like Latin,” he wrote in his log. “They worship the sun. They are tall and handsome in form.…”
There is no jeweled city up the Penobscot, but there is a paradise. Thousands of miles of rivers, streams, lakes, hiking paths, canoe and kayak routes and snowmobile trails crisscross Maine’s North Woods. Mount Katahdin towers 5,267 feet above the woodlands, the jewel of Baxter State Park. The nearby Allagash Wilderness Waterway cuts 93 miles through remote lake country, and whitewater rafts file down the Kennebec River by the thousand every summer.
Back in the 1800s, grand hotels and sporting lodges popped up all over the North Woods. Maine was the Wild West back then. Henry David Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt and business titans of the nineteenth century traveled to Maine to hunt, fish, play cards and drink Canadian whiskey. Ladies and gents visited hotels in the summer to hike, boat, hunt, draw and fish.
They traveled on the State of Maine overnight sleeping car from Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Spurs from Portland accessed hotels deep in the wilderness from Greenville to Rangeley to Millinocket. Hotels offered gourmet cuisine, metropolitan orchestras, dancing, billiard halls, telegraph service and post offices. Dining rooms seated four hundred people at a time. The seasonal migration marked the beginning of domestic travel in America. And until the invention of the car, it was the only place to be when you weren’t at home. Since the advent of jet travel and modern highways in the 1970s, though, the North Woods have been quiet.
That is, except for a few intrepid travelers looking to explore one of the last true wildernesses in America. We headed north to rediscover the North Woods by traveling in a long arc around Katahdin, Baxter, Chesuncook Lake, Allagash Wilderness, Greenville and Rangeley. We wanted to see the northland the way the first travelers to Maine saw it, and visit whatever hotels and sporting lodges were still standing. We had heard that the ones that have endured were experiencing a resurgence; our hope was to document this second coming of Maine’s golden age.
The east and west branches of the Penobscot meet at Medway and spread like a Y toward Twin Lakes and Mount Katahdin’s winding summit ridge. Sunlight was dim in the forest. Only a few rays made it through the canopy. We passed the bright-blue flash of Dolby Lake, white colonial homes and weathered gray barns on the way into Millinocket. You can miss the old mill town in a blink if you’re not careful. Millinocket was a boomtown in the 1870s when the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad brought tourists in and carried lumber out. The concrete smokestack of the Great Northern Paper Company mill took up a quarter of the town. The Great Northern Hotel was just as grand then: pale yellow with white trim, a massive covered porch and guests in late-Victorian attire wandering the grounds.
The hotel has long since been razed, so we followed Poplar Street to the Golden Road, a 96-mile double-lane dirt road that offers some of the best, and only, access to the northern reaches of the North Woods. A few miles up the road, we pulled over at a log cabin with a sign out front that read “Katahdin Air.” Jim Strang met us at the dock next to his Cessna 122 floatplane. He was wearing a baseball hat and a bushy gray mustache. “The scale is broken, so don’t worry about the bag limit,” he said as he loaded our gear onto the back of the plane.
Jim started flying in the early 1970s, taking hunters and fishermen into the woods and then guiding them on the lakes. The North Woods are more than twice the size of Massachusetts and represent the largest block of undeveloped land east of the Rockies—thanks to the efforts of groups like the Bangor-based Forest Society of Maine, who has helped conserve one million acres of the region. The only way into many lakes, wilderness areas and lodges—like the Chesuncook Lake House that we were headed to—is in a plane. “I took folks fishing and hunting everywhere in the North Woods,” Jim said. “Then I got sick of staring at my plane all day and wishing that I was flying.”
It was the end of September and a bizarre heat wave had settled on northern Maine. It was 85 degrees when we showed up at Jim’s dock. A light eastern breeze textured the lake. The sun hung low in the eastern sky. It didn’t get light until seven in the morning and night came on around 6:30 p.m.
The sun was blinding on the lake at 1 p.m. when Jim nosed the Cessna into the wind and hit the throttle. The engine roared and the plane bucked up. The skis rose to the surface of the water and skipped over a few waves. Then the Cessna sprang free and arced over the forest.
Thoreau slept in the neighboring field when he paddled through in the mid-1800s. His guides offered him a shack, but he thought the accommodations were beneath him, so he slept under his canoe.
A rich green apron rolled out in front of us. To the east was Mount Katahdin and Baxter State Park. North was the Allagash Wilderness and Saint John River. To the west was Greenville, Moosehead Lake and the green humps of the Longfellow Range. Southwest was the Bigelow Mountains and Flagstaff Lake and due south was the Appalachian Trail and its primitive 100-Mile Wilderness near Rangeley.
We flew over Ambajejus Lake and the Debsconeag Deadwater, which links to a half dozen other ponds, streams and headwaters before becoming the west branch of the Penobscot. From the air it looked like Alaska—an endless blue-green swirl of water, woods and peaks.
Jim pointed down at the Penobscot. “It used to be all logs,” he said. “The last log drive was in the mid-’70s.” He pointed out a couple of dams on the river on the way north and a dozen of his favorite fishing lakes. His friend was summiting Katahdin that day and texted him as we flew by. The air was hot and hazy and transformed the summit ridge into a gauzy silhouette.
Jim flew a couple hundred feet above the water the entire length of Chesuncook Lake. The lake is eighteen miles long and took us about ten minutes to cover. A gray line of stone hemmed the shoreline. There was more hardwood than pine there, making the forest more valuable to timber companies. The water was midnight blue—it is 120 feet deep in the main channel—and the leaves were just starting to turn. “The colors were a week ahead of schedule for most of the month,” Jim said. “Then the heat dried them out, so they’re a week or two behind now. Sometimes when it gets this hot, they’ll dry up and fall off still green.”
Jim touched down at the end of the lake, and the skis skidded over the water. David Surprenant was waiting for us on the Chesuncook Lake House dock. He was wearing khaki shorts and a denim button-down shirt. His wife, Luisa, waited at the walkway near a John Deere Gator, ready to carry our bags.
The Surprenant family has run the lake house for twenty years. It had been around for eighty years before they bought it. Thoreau slept in the neighboring field when he paddled through in the mid-1800s. His guides offered him a shack, but he thought the accommodations were beneath him, so he slept under his canoe.
The same storms had been funneling through the valley for thousands of years, carving the mountains, feeding the forest and pushing Native Americans, settlers, sports and their guides into shelter to warm up and listen to the blow.
Not much had changed in the hundred years the house had been around, besides the tremendous amount of work the Surprenants put into it. Propane gas lights still lit the living room. Most of the ceilings were tin. A harvest table that was cut in half with a chainsaw by the previous owner sat in the dining room, and a pair of binoculars rested by the window. That week, Luisa had stacked two hundred jars of pickled dilly beans, sweet-and-sour cabbage and pickled beets on the kitchen table.
Butterflies circled each other in the front yard and Katahdin stood up off the horizon in the distance. The lake house was the center of all things around here, David said. In the winter, it gets 250 guests a day snowmobiling through. In the fall, he hunts ducks on Black Pond. “You don’t need a blind or decoys,” he said. “They just fly in. There are moose up there too, and just about every other northern Maine animal you can think of.”
We unpacked and David took us out on the boat to see for ourselves. The lake was a mirror, with just a few ripples from a breeze. The air was sweet and warm, humid like in the Caribbean. Two little dots stood in the water near Black Pond. We drove closer and saw it was a cow moose and her calf. They were eating algae off the bottom of the lake, but then they saw us and trotted away. “Once they get into the woods, they feel safe,” David said. “They’ll stay there and you can walk right up to them.”
David drove us up the west branch of the Penobscot. The landscape was massive, not a house or soul anywhere. He said that you can still spend a week on the west branch without seeing another person. “My cook drives through here on a snowmobile in the winter to get to work,” he said. “His wife lives in Augusta and he spends most of his time up here. He’s getting old. He shows up in the morning frozen solid.”
The river was low and long sandy beaches angled toward the water. We saw long streaks where deer and moose leaned over for a drink and slid down hard mud embankments into the water. Around the corner was a campsite. There was a picnic table and fire ring there that looked out at the river and mountains. There were grassy embankments all around it and a few tall maple trees shading the area. It was one of the most beautiful campsites I had ever seen. “You’ll never see anyone up here,” David said. “It’s all yours.”
As it turned out, 100 years was all the Chesuncook Lake House had in it. David sent us an email the following winter to let us know that tragedy had struck. The house had burned to the ground in the middle of the night. Thankfully, no one was hurt. To most, the fire would have spelled the end of a tradition. But not to the Surprenants. As of this summer, they were already getting approval on drawings for the new lake house. This one, David said, would be angled slightly more toward Katahdin to make the view better.
We spent our last morning at the old house riding down the lake to the Ripogenus Dam with David and Luisa. David’s son Zach manages the Abol Bridge campground, convenience store, cabins and a gorgeous wedding venue that looks up at Mount Katahdin. The Appalachian Trail passes through nearby, and a dozen hikers with massive backpacks were milling around the store when we arrived.
We got a slice of pizza from the store, bid farewell, then followed Thoreau’s journey in reverse for an hour and a half. Blue sky turned to dusty yellow and yellow turned to red and gold as we wrapped north and west through Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area and the Nahmakanta Reserve. We passed Kokadjo Lake and a half hour later saw the sparkling ripples of Moosehead Lake—what Thoreau called “a suitably wild looking sheet of water, sprinkled with small, low islands…covered with shaggy spruce and other wild wood.”
The North Woods are more than twice the size of Massachusetts and represent the largest block of undeveloped land east of the Rockies. The only way into many lakes, wilderness areas and lodges—like the Chesuncook Lake House that we were headed to—is in a plane.
We drove straight into town and ordered seared scallops and Baxter Brewing Stowaway IPA at Kelly’s Landing on the waterfront. There were two floatplanes tied to a dock across the way, a wooden runabout and a few dozen skiffs and ski boats. It was still 80 degrees outside and we took a dip in the lake at the adjacent state park, then swam alongside a dozen mallards for twenty minutes. After an ice cream at the dairy bar and a solid hour of browsing tchotchkes at the “Indian Store at Kamp Kamp,” we headed back to the Lodge at Moosehead Lake for the night.
Linda and Dennis Bortis took over the lodge nine years ago. They redecorated and renovated much of the building that looks out over the lake. The ambiance today is one of a fancy hotel set in the middle of the wilderness. The reading room is paneled with tongue-and-groove pine. White linen tablecloths cover the tables in the dining room; antique fly-fishing rods hang on the walls.
Later that night, a forty-plus-year registered Maine Guide named Bob Howe wandered into the lodge after taking some guests to find a moose on the lake. “It’s the most popular thing to do,” he said. “People fly here from all over the world to see them.” Bob calls the six-foot-tall, 1,400-pound creatures “swamp donkeys.”
Maine had become such an outdoor destination by the late 1800s that the legislature passed a law in 1897 requiring all guides to get a license. More than 1,300 guides registered that year. The first was a woman named Cornelia Thurza Crosby, or “Fly Rod.”
Maine Guides were the most talented woodsmen in the country at the time. Guides Joseph Attean and Joe Polis showed Henry David Thoreau around the North Woods while Thoreau took notes for his book The Maine Woods. William Wingate Sewall and Wilmot Dow guided a young, sickly Teddy Roosevelt around Maine’s northland, changing the future U.S. president’s life forever. “The job is changing, though,” Bob said. “People want non-producing sports these days. They want to kayak and paddleboard. They don’t want to shoot and catch things like they used to.”
I had seen some of this change myself at a camp my family has owned in northern Maine since 1909. My great-great-grandfather first came to Maine in the 1880s as a sport. He took a train, wagon and canoe to a resort in the western fringe of the state. One day he and his guide hiked over the mountains to fish a mile-long pond. By the end of the day he had bought several cabins and secured a 99-year trapper’s lease on 18,000 acres surrounding them. (For $500 a year.)
Henry David Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt and business titans of the nineteenth century traveled to Maine to hunt, fish, play cards and drink Canadian whiskey.
My family still maintains those camps, and I spent most of my childhood summers paddling and fishing the lakes just a few miles from the Canadian border. The next day we drove to them and sat in rocking chairs on the covered porch, watching reds and yellows in the hardwood trees deepen in color at sunset, then vanish under a starry sky.
A thunderstorm moved in from the west and streaks of lightning shot through the sky, reflecting off the surface of the lake. A rush of wind howled down the lake and sheets of rain followed. We cooked dinner in the kitchen cabin as powerful thunderclaps ricocheted between the mountains. It struck me then how much had changed in the world, yet how the North Woods remained the same. The same storms had been funneling through the valley for thousands of years, carving the mountains, feeding the forest and pushing Native Americans, settlers, sports and their guides into shelter to warm up and listen to the blow.
The following afternoon, we drove south to Carrabassett Valley then west through New Vineyard and Phillips Sandy River. It was dark when we turned onto Main Street in Rangeley, our last stop of the tour. The Rangeley Inn, built in 1877, was still open, and had been completely renovated recently. We ordered martinis and lake-to-table brook trout for dinner at a bar that could have passed for an upscale Manhattan watering hole before checking into one of the original rooms on the first floor.
The next morning we perused photos of the old days over coffee. The Rangeley Inn is the last of more than a dozen great hotels in the area that trains from Boston, New York and Philadelphia once ran to. The sporting tradition is still alive and well here, though, we learned at the Rangeley Region Sport Shop—the oldest fly-fishing store in Maine. Guests have been fishing the area since the turn of the century, a guide there told us, and many visitors still do.
We followed Route 4 south that afternoon and walked the Appalachian Trail to Pizza Rock. The trail winds two thousand miles up the Appalachians and ends on Mount Katahdin. Slender birch and alder trees frame the trail and pine needles carpeted the forest floor. It was sunny again but cold—forty-eight degrees at the foot of the falls. That afternoon, we packed up and drove west and south along the North Shore of Rangeley Lake, around Pleasant Island and down toward Richardson Lake and Lincoln.
Maine had become such an outdoor destination by the late 1800s that the legislature passed a law in 1897 requiring all guides to get a license. The first was a woman named Cornelia Thurza Crosby, or “Fly Rod.”
The landscape around the tiny hamlet of Wilson Mills looked like it had been taken from a Winslow Homer painting. The Magalloway River flows from the U.S.-Canada border through town, winding through a series of small hills. The river was deep and black. Six fly-fishermen stood near a bridge tossing their lines into the current. Hundred-foot-tall maples leaned over the water, their broad branches and leaves shading the river. The sky was bright blue and a few misty clouds slid over the hills.
You could see the top of Rangeley Mountain a dozen miles away. It felt like a corner of the world that had been frozen in time—once the jewel of the Northeast, now left to its own. This wasn’t a story of abandonment, we realized. The wild lands of the North Woods were the same, as are most of the people who live there. It was simply a secret that we had discovered, one that we would be returning to very soon.
Porter Fox is the editor of Nowhere Magazine and the author of NORTHLAND (W.W. Norton, 2018).
Sara Fox is a travel, lifestyle and architectural photographer. Her work can often be found in The New York Times‘ travel section, as well as in The Paris Review, National Geographic, Outside, Hemispheres, Artful Living, Outdoor Life and Time Out. She is also the art director of Nowhere. (All photos © Sara Fox)