The Silver Maple Floodplain on the East Branch in May. Click on the dots below for more photos.
The Silver Maple Floodplain on the East Branch in May. Click on the dots below for more photos.

A kingfisher rattles and swings out over the river where it curves smooth and green around a pine bank, flies overhead and disappears as we beach the canoe on a gravel bar across from our temporary camp.

My first impression on following the kingfisher into the silver maple floodplain is that my companion and I, two slightly grubby canoeists smelling of wood smoke and bug dope, have stepped into the wrong story.

This story is about the East Branch of the Penobscot River, which runs through a controversial piece of the northern Maine woods that the owner, Roxanne Quimby, wants to give to the National Park Service to turn into a national monument — which could occur  as soon as August 25, the centennial of the National Park Service.

But this spacious floodplain is unlike the doghair spruce and fir forests of the northern Maine woods or the young poplar and birch growing back after a clearcut. With its stately silver maples and extensive carpet of sedges, coiled ferns and yellow trout lilies, it looks nothing like the older hardwood forests of sugar maple, yellow birch, and beech, either.

The floodplain is broken up by small isolated ponds that are so regular in shape and size they look like part of a landscape design. In two weeks, the arching branches of the silver maples will shade a knee-high garden of ostrich fern, maiden hair, royal, and sensitive ferns. 

This is an idealized version of nature. 

 Years ago, when I worked in exile in Washington, D.C.,  I went to see the grand landscapes of the Hudson River School by mid-nineteenth-century painters who popularized and dramatized Yosemite, Yellowstone and Acadia with transcendent and almost Biblical light.

 I feel as if I have stepped into just that kind of romanticized wilderness. Frederic Church, one of the Hudson River School painters, made several trips to paint Katahdin. As far as I am aware, though, Church did not capture the magical spring light of the silver maple floodplains on the East Branch. 

We set to work snapping off fiddleheads to fill gallon containers. It’s fast work among the acres of ferns. Later, Glen will cook some in a pot over the fire, then dress them with vinegar and butter. The rest will make their way back to civilization to be turned into cream of fiddlehead soup.

A local selectman from the small town of Patten, which is located near one potential entrance to the proposed national monument, told National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis there was nothing special about Quimby’s land that gave it national significance. He had been all over that land, all of his life. He knew what was there. 

Jarvis was in East Millinocket at the first of May, listening to concerns from local people about the proposed Maine Woods National Monument, which is located to the east of Baxter State Park and north of Millinocket and East Millinocket.

“Have you even been up there?” the man from Patten asked Jarvis, with undisguised disgust. “There’s nothing but cutover land with truck ruts so deep you could catch trout in them.”

Nothing but truck ruts? The man from Patten can’t have been here; not here beneath the silver maples on the floodplain in spring.

There is a lot of big forest in Maine and it is easy, at times, to assume it is all the same. We have been cutting it for centuries. It keeps growing back. Earlier in the spring I had a long conversation with Lucas St. Clair, the spokesperson for the Quimby family effort to give their land to the National Park Service. 

I asked St. Clair why he thought the East Branch country was special.

Surprising me, he said he had heard so many people say that it was just a bunch of trees, over and over and over again, that sometimes he started to believe them.

“Yeah, I do. I start to believe them,” said St. Clair. “Yeah,  you’re right. It’s just a bunch of trees.”

“And then, I think of the history of what it is and what it was and what is there and I think, ‘No, it’s always been more than a bunch of trees.’”

The river has impressed me, it’s true. How could it not?  With its series of rapids and long isolated stretches, deep history of logging and historical significance in American literature and politics, it makes a hell of a story and one well worth telling in the way the National Park Service is capable of doing well. 

Still, if the river has made a convincing argument for its recreational value, it has not necessarily made one for being under the management of the National Park Service. 

The uncommon beauty of the floodplain forest poses questions in a way that the river hasn’t thought to ask.

This floodplain is more than beautiful, it turns out. 

It is rare. 

My companion fills one gallon container with fiddleheads and starts filling another, while I keep getting distracted by other ferns and flowers. The morning bird chorus of cascading flutes and high-pitched violins tapers off as the day grows hot. Wood ducks nesting about thirty feet above the camp kitchen in a snag have settled down, too, but the squawking baby crow in the pine above our tents that started yelling for food at four in the morning won’t shut up.

Beyond the fiddleheads and silver maples an even more uncommon forest grows. There, in natural terraces also prone to flooding, multi-trunked grandfather oaks, silver maples, and American elms grow among interrupted fern, silvery spleenwort and the rare wild ginger and leek. Wood turtles and silver-haired bats, which are both listed as species of special concern in Maine, likely live there, too; it is their kind of forest.  The terraced forest itself is so rare that Maine Natural Areas Program considers it imperiled. 

Ecologist Bart DeWolf, who spent three field seasons collecting data in the East Branch country with field teams, concluded that the floodplain forests there make up about 1,700 acres. All of the intact ecosystems, including the floodplain, make up just nine percent of the land surveyed by DeWolf. (The Quimbys have bought additional land since he concluded his studies in 2014). Across the Quimby ownership, it isn’t much. About 40 percent of the land DeWolf and his team surveyed is forest that has been logged, to one degree or another.

It turns out that nine percent is enough.

DeWolf fills in the story at the landscape level.

 It is the relationship between the small number of intact ecosystems and the larger surrounding forest that is most important, says DeWolf. It is the connectivity between them that counts. The 202,000-acre “forever wild” Baxter State Park sits on the western border of the 87,500-acre  East Branch country owned by the Quimbys. Taken together, these properties encompass an enormous block of diverse habitat, reports DeWolf, with the sheer size unparalleled in Maine and allowing for the movement of large wildlife, including moose, bear, lynx, and fisher, along river and stream valleys and horseback ridges. And the rare species, like the endangered Atlantic salmon and the fragrant wood fern, are buffered by the undeveloped forest of varying complexity that surrounds them. 

After my canoe partner fills his second container with fiddleheads, he starts helping fill mine. The whitewater is behind us and smooth green river ahead. This is our fourth and last day on the river and we have many river miles between here and our take-out point at Whetstone Bridge. 

I absolutely refuse to let the outside world crowd in with its manufactured urgencies. I am chucking my phone in the river. I am going to yell back at the crow and watch the ferns unfurl and stay in this Frederic Church painting with the stately trees and the dark river sliding by the gravel bar  for just as long as my literary imagination allows. 

Or at least until my fingernails turn green from picking fiddleheads.

While DeWolf provides a far less romanticized if still Churchian birds-eye view of the landscape, philanthropist and scientific entrepreneur David Shaw tends to see beyond the scenery to the deeper beauty where knowledge resides at minute levels.

In June, Shaw initiated what will turn into a game-changer for the National Park Service by linking the agency to scientific research institutions. He also provided seed

money to fund the new program at Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park. Abbey Paulson, the first scientist funded under the new Second Century Stewardship; Science in America’s National Parks program, will use DNA extraction and computer language to catalogue and analyze her findings from a cup of Acadia National Park stream water.

Shaw has in mind general science research in the parks, including social science, paired with effective communication. It promises to push forward a change that is already under way in park policy that will lead to land management decisions being more firmly underpinned by science. 

A century ago, the National Park Service was founded to preserve scenic places. For the better part of the 20th century, the land under National Park Service authority was managed to a pre-European settlement ideal. By the late 20th century, however, the lack of science-driven policy led to an expansion of scientific research that now includes 270 parks. It also led to the development of non-profit research and education centers like the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park, which work in partnership with the National Park Service but do not rely on park service funding.

This December, the National Park Service will go further. It will adopt a more flexible approach to allow the agency to adapt policy to the different types of national parks that have been added to the system and manage the properties more effectively for the four-fold increase in the number of visitors over the past 50 years. 

The most radical part of the change is that the National Park Service plans to use the best available science and scholarship in order to address fast environmental change including invasive species, loss of species, and the impacts of drought and climate change, and it plans to get out in front of problems using science as its guide.

While the agency is not going to touch the legal definition under the 1916 Organic Act that established the National Park Service to keep the lands under its authority in an “unimpaired” state "for the enjoyment of future generations", it is essentially about to redefine what that means by embracing resiliency. In effect, it plans to officially set aside managing the parks so that things don’t change and manage for change, instead. 

To do that, the new 2016 policy will require all staff at all levels of the 22,000-employee agency (and presumably the 221,000 volunteers in the national park system, too) to be trained in basic science and in stewardship; that is, responsible planning and care-taking of national park resources. The new approach will take an adaptive, rather than a reactionary, approach to managing parks. Instead of waiting until there is a problem before identifying and fixing it, the approach will be to identify a potential problem and prevent it from happening in the first place.

Embedded in the policy are actions to update the workforce and to establish how new programs will be funded, particularly through partnerships.

This National Park Service policy overhaul — away from  a museum-style view of fenced-in national parks to one of science-based management that is able to move swiftly and bolster its effectiveness through strategic partnerships — doesn’t sound like old-fashioned big government bureaucracy.

It sounds like business management.

Last night, just a couple hundred feet away across the river on the opposite bank, I lay awake in my tent on the drier bluff among the pines listening to the gurgling river. At some point I got up and walked down to the shore and looked west across the river, towards the floodplain and Lunksoos and Deasey Mountain beyond.

 The full moon dimmed the stars. Last winter,when I was on the other side of the river a few miles upstream, I walked out into the brittle silence and looked up into a dark sky so bright with stars that it was easy to feel the depth of it overhead and my insignificance on the surface of the planet below. There were no lights from the highway. No lights from a city. No lights at all. 

The rivers running together, the dark sky, the rareness of these floodplain and terraced forests connected to a landscape larger than their footprint on it, the small mysteries that may hold hidden knowledge — the sum of what it is outweighs the pieces of lesser value. Together they overturn any argument that this land is simply a cut-over woodlot with truck ruts deep enough to breed trout.

Sometimes luck and opportunity just whisk by, leaving us looking back and wondering how we missed it. The National Park Service, like the paper towns, now seems finally willing to look at its past and some of its failures and attempt to change to meet the times we now find ourselves in.

They aren’t going to arrive with Big Daddy answers. They are soul searching, too. And finding some answers as they move forward, just like the towns of Millinocket and East Millinocket.

One thing is clear: it takes work to step away from the presumption that we know the values of the Maine forest.

It requires both the approach of DeWolf and Shaw to look at the landscape as a whole and to consider its possibilities at a minute scale. It requires resiliency in our thinking. 

At the University of Maine they are crafting ways to make jet fuel from wood, and maybe they will succeed and it will become a viable industry. 

But is it any stranger or more unrealistic to think that 

this landscape, under the ownership and scientific management of the National Park Service, might yield more than tourists? 

After all, it was one microbe that lives in just one hot 

Yellowstone geyser that unlocked the information that led to effective DNA fingerprinting and testing for HIV. 

Sitting on the riverbank while the rest of the canoe party sleeps soundly enough for their snores to compete with that of the leopard frogs, it occurs to me just how much we take for granted. We take the forest for granted. We take that dark sky for granted. Not just its planets and beauty, but its humanizing vastness that can scale our egos to an appropriate size.

* * * * 

Field Expedition: Into the Proposed Maine Woods National Monument series will continue until Thursday, August 25.