The Maine thing

The Ramble Report


I spent seven months of 2011 bush-whacking, boulder-rolling and timber-hauling my way through some of the most inaccessible and gorgeous parts of Maine.

It was a strangely disjointed and financially treacherous period of my life. The trail work I did with the Maine Conservation Corps (MCC) was perilous, arduous and exhausting. I am convinced there is no better way I could have spent that spring, summer and fall.

During my first week in Maine, I did not once see the sun because of clouds and rain. Two of my friends rented a car and we made the trip from the Chicago suburbs to Old Town, Maine in three days. The one person in the entire state I knew was going to school there for forestry, so that was where my buddies dropped me off before heading back to the Midwest.

Right as he was getting into the rental to drive away, one of my friends turned to me and asked, “Are you sure about this, man? I mean, it hasn’t stopped raining since we crossed the state line two days ago, you don’t have a car…” he let the question hang.

I was not, in fact, sure about this. It was too late to turn back now though, so I shook his hand and watched the pair drive off through the drizzle.

Three days later, I was in MCC orientation, signing up for food stamps for the first time in my life. It had never really stopped raining. I was still not really sure about this.

That certainty never truly hit home until our six-person trail crew pulled into it’s first work site: Scraggly Lake.

Deeply embedded in the sparsely-populated timber lands of Aroostok County, Scraggly Lake is about as far as you can get from civilization east of the Mississippi. Unlike the lakes I was used to in Michigan or Indiana, no houses dotted its shores. No jet skis whined and thumped their way across its surface. At night the only lights were the stars, the only sounds the mournful cries of loons and the soft slapping of waves meeting dirt.

It was a place of quiet, reserved beauty, and I loved it immensely. Even when the blackflies swarmed. Even when the rain wouldn’t quit. Even when bears and moose snuffled around outside my tent. I loved Scraggly Lake, and miss it still.

Our team’s next assignment was (if possible) even further into the boonies. Deboullie was about as far north as you can go without hitting Canada–and 3.5 hours from a hospital as well. Here, our work was more spread out, and thus even more physically demanding. Many days we hiked four or five miles to our site, sometimes humping rock bars or chainsaws too. Then, at the end of the day, we’d hike four or five miles back. We probably ate 2,500 or 3,000 calorie dinners–and I would still have my belt notched two holes tighter after a nine day work hitch.

Our skills had grown with our appetites, and we got a huge amount of work done, cutting brand-new trails and throwing down stone staircases in half the time our Forest Service sponsor thought was possible. Maybe the moose burgers he gifted us one hitch gave us special powers–or maybe we were just slowly turning into forest creatures ourselves.

Whatever the case may be, it was in Deboullie that I decided to sign on for a second three-month stint with the MCC. Near the end of a nine-day hitch right around this time of year, we hiked to a 50-foot-tall abandoned fire tower perched on the highest mountain in the area.

Climbing the exposed ladder to the observation cabin was one of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences of my MCC service. Unobstructed by trees or land, the wind howled and moaned around me as I ascended rung by rung, knuckles clamped white on each bar. By the time I neared the top, I could detect the slightest sway in the structure and hear strange groaning sounds coming from the wooden enclosure above. Nevertheless, I steeled my nerves, pushed open the trap door and hauled myself into the little wooden room.

The sight from inside was well worth the butterflies in my stomach. I saw no roads. I saw no buildings. I saw no motorboats, or cars. All that lay before me were dark green stands of pines, the long white fingers of birch trunks and lake after lake after lake, with waters so clear and blue I could make out submerged boulders in them from miles away.

I don’t remember how long I was up there. I do remember that as soon as I got down, I told my crew leader to let the office in Hallowell, Maine know that I wanted to stick around for the next three-month trail season, too.

This trail tale will be continued in my next column in the August 3 edition of the Saratoga Sun.


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