(Photo by Steven Hyde)
(Photo by Steven Hyde)
Stair Falls is about as predictable as white water gets. There are no holes to suck in a canoe, no unusual pitches, nothing that is likely to flip a boat and pin its occupants until they go round and round like wet jeans in a washing machine.

From the air, Stair Falls look like a set of shallow steps, evenly spaced and very wide, as if they were engineered among the deep northern forest spooling out across millions of acres, punctuated by lakes connected to rivers, and rivers running and tumbling through it all on their way to the sea.

“Are you ready?”

I am standing on a ledge just upstream from Stair Falls with a certified Maine Guide who agreed to take me down the East Branch of the Penobscot River through what is considered to be some of the finest white water in the state. He’s holding onto the gunnel, waiting for me to get in the canoe.

There are ten of us in five canoes: a lawyer who wants to be a Maine Guide, two photographers, one of whom wants to be a guide, and his girlfriend who has never been camping and has not yet shown any particular interest in being a guide, two 60-year-old guys who have been friends since college days, and three card-carrying Maine Guides, including the tall man who is steering the stern of the canoe and who just genially suggested we get in it and run through the first set of rapids.

We’ve paddled about six easy miles down from the put-in, just below Grand Lake Matagamon at the bridge on Grand Lake Road.

He starts easing the canoe into the river.

I do not usually panic.

When I do, I do it very, very quietly.

The stepped waterfalls are, in fact, geologically unique for all their regularity and lack of plunging drops. Sitting 90 degrees crosswise to the river, Stair Falls are formed of ancient bedrock whose origin is a volcano that blew up an unimaginably long time ago.

The story written across this northern land is long and violent — erupting volcanoes, crushing ice, rising seas, and turbulent molten rock twisted and solidified into stone.

As the land was released from the ice, mammoths and mastodons roamed here and our ancestors followed to hunt them, scraping by in a fur-and-bone kind of life while learning how to dance and play music in between chipping rocks into spear-points. Time slipped on. They hunted musk ox and caribou, then moose and bear, and learned to navigate this river in birch canoes. 

Before it was the East Branch, native Wabanaki people   called it the stream of light. 

And that is even before the loggers with their axes and cross-cut saws took to the woods and then to the river in a  bateau to poke at tens of thousands of newly cut logs to get them on their way downriver to the Old Town and Bangor sawmills to create the lumber to build a nation.

The history of the East Branch — of all the northern Maine forest — is capable of putting the short arc of our lives into perspective, but there is nothing in it to heat the blood, unlike the current political fight over the piece of land this river runs through: a tract of 87,500 acres that the owner, Roxanne Quimby, wants to give to the National Park Service.

 The controversy over whether there should or should not be a national park has grown for over a decade and has now reached a critical point. This year, on the hundredth anniversary of the National Park Service, Quimby wants to give the land to the park service to commemorate the anniversary. 

Ideally, she wants President Obama to declare the East Branch country as a Maine Woods National Monument on the official date of the park service centennial: Thursday, August 25, 2016. 

Those in favor of a national monument — which is essentially a national park in all but name —  argue the land has special historical, cultural and natural features that make it worthy of designation and will attract commerce. Among those who are opposed, a common argument is that the place is nothing special, just a tract of uninteresting forest with a distant view of Mount Katahdin that is no better than what one sees from the highway. 

A year ago, I reached the summit of The Traveler in Baxter State Park on the hottest day of the summer and looked down into the cool river valley of the East Branch country. The valley stayed off my right shoulder, beckoning as I crossed the high, exposed rock ridge for miles. 

The eastern slopes of The Traveler and North Traveler and Billfish mountains sit outside of Baxter State Park. From the state park boundary near the mountain summits to the river valley, the land that I had come to think of as the East Branch Country fell within the boundaries of Quimby’s proposed national monument. 

I decided if I was to get a better sense of the East Branch Country — its natural science, the quality of its forests, how the land had been used, its history and its wilder side, its overall scope — I had to see it for myself.

During a five-day skiing and snowshoeing trip in mid-winter I had seen both the special and the very ordinary. Some of the land had been cut hard two decades ago and was now growing weedy poplar trees. Other areas seemed well worth the effort to protect.

 The eastern slope of Billfish Mountain, with its large, old sugar maples in an undisturbed and complex forest, was one of those places. The toppled old trees and talus slopes were the kind of place where pine marten were likely to frolic and rare purple clematis flower in summer. Higher still, on the upper cliffs of Billfish, the rare fragrant cliff wood-fern sprouts in pockets among rock solidified from ancient volcanic ash.

Dean Bennett, University of Maine science and education professor emeritus and author, noted that a steep, rocky slope east of Baxter Park had a small prime example of   northern hardwood forest in original condition, with sugar maples exceeding 240 years old that had escaped the wildfires of 1805 and 1825.

 I have not yet had the opportunity to ask if it was Billfish Bennett was referring to. 

During that February trip, I had come down to the river and stood on a bluff a short distance from here looking down at Stair Falls. The East Branch drains the whole of the proposed national monument and the river wouldn’t be what it is without the forest surrounding it to clean-filter the water running off the slopes. 

The river and the forest are intimately connected — and are connected to the wider landscape. South of here, the East Branch and the West Branch join at the town of Medway to create the main stem of the Penobscot River.  

By the time the river flows into Penobscot Bay at Bucksport, the river has drained a watershed that covers a third of the great state of Maine.


There was no effective way to tell the story of the landscape without going down the river. 

But, how? I had been in white water exactly once.

And then, by chance, I met a Maine Guide with serious white-water cred. I?asked if he would take me down the East Branch from Grand Lake Matagamon on the north, where the river proper begins, right through the length of the proposed national monument, and 26 miles downstream to the Whetstone Falls bridge.

I knew he supported the proposed national monument. 

I was neutral and could just as easily argue for it as against it. I wouldn’t use his name. I wouldn’t promote his point 

of view. 

I expected he would say no.

He said yes.

Somehow, in all of that, I?had managed to forget that I came as close as I ever want to come to drowning in a Wyoming river.

I had forgotten it until I stood next to the guide, looking down at Stair Falls on the East Branch and the fear of that long-ago river started rising up through my chest.

My U.S. Forest Service companion and I had one major river to cross in an 11-day backcountry survey in the Wyoming mountains. We were three days in from the road when we reached it. Unwisely, we decided to cross rather than turn back, even though snow was melting fast off the high peaks. We scouted the river and picked what looked to be a good spot and started crab-stepping across, facing upstream. 

Water rose to my thighs, then to my waist and then up to my rib cage. By then, it was too late to turn back. We unbuckled the waist belts of our heavy backpacks to let them go. 

Fear is a pure emotion. Reason doesn’t enter in. Not really. Logic seems a far remove, like a calculus equation scribbled on note paper, interesting at some other time and place, totally irrelevant in the middle of a panic. But people react differently to fear. Some flee, some flail, some fight, some blame. For me, in that river, fear turned to determination and determination turned to stubbornness and stubbornness turned to absolute focus. Focus turned into split-second calculations that came closer to logic than seemed possible. 

We linked arms, took turns planting one foot and moving the other, and step by crab-like step we reached the opposite riverbank and crawled out into a muddy patch of marsh marigolds. 

It is seasonably warm on the East Branch for late May, even though it was snowing at the beginning of the month. Seventy degrees, maybe. The water, while not warm, is far from glacial. 

This wasn’t Wyoming. This was the nice and tidy Stair Falls stepping neatly down the East Branch of the Penobscot River in the heart of Maine’s northern forest, birch buds just beginning to burst, blackflies just hatching, songbirds arriving from the tropics to gobble them up and to raise their young and sing their lungs out in an exuberant display of life. 

I was with one of the most experienced white-water guides in Maine.

Below Stair Falls, the river poured out calm and unremarkable. If I ended up in the water, it might feel good. 

For two seconds, I?consider telling this white-water expert that I will walk around on the old tote road and meet him below the falls.

For the two years I had been coming up to Millinocket and the north woods to write about it, the effort hadn’t cost much except patience on my part to flounder through the economic pain of the formerly prosperous paper mill towns — towns that were still reeling from a Detroit-style collapse and the effects of a globalized economy and the paperless digital revolution.

The credit union and banks and the movie theater, the car dealerships, even the thumping paper mills that racketed through the night are gone. The jobs are gone, too. Millinocket’s main street was once the heart of the town known as the Magic City in the Wilderness. Now, the town with the big personality that could close a deal with a firm handshake and a smile thirty years ago seemed caught in misplaced nostalgia. Empty store windows stared out at empty streets, as disconsolate as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, even while the mill whistle still sounded on time to remind the town to get up and go to work in the morning. 

I had seen a lot of passion over the past two years, a lot of raw emotion.

Over a year ago, on a deep winter night in a season of relentless cold, I had gone to the Millinocket High School to see a school play about a young soldier who had accidentally triggered a mine in a field in a far country when he sat on a tree stump. As soon as the soldier stood, he knew the bomb would detonate. He didn’t stand. The play, Booby Trap, wound through his childhood, marriage, the birth of his young son and then went forward into the future when the soldier’s boy was grown. The scene went dark with the soldier still there in the field, sitting. The auditorium was packed and two-thirds of the audience had either served in the military or had a family member who had. In the row in front of me, five teenage boys wiped tears away in the dark.  

The town wasn’t empty. The people in it could not have been more present.

But the empty streets held a question: Who are we, now that the mills are gone? 

Who are we, now? 

Now that the world has shifted. 

None of that had much to do with the practicalities of whether the East Branch Country and the river running through it should or should not be a national park or a national monument, little to do with the economic benefits it might bring or whether or not the presence of a federal agency in Maine’s northern forest would keep the struggling timber industry from thriving, as had been argued by those opposed to a national monument.

The tears in the dark, the once-proud  houses now worth less than a dented used car, the glum reality of the quiet streets, the as-yet unmappable future of these paper towns — that had nothing to do with logic at all.

The proposal for a national park or monument had focused the emotions of those in the former paper mill towns, whether they were for or against it, but at the core of it all, there was something not much different than the tightness in my chest. 

 I hadn’t planned to be part of this story, but I?had unwittingly paddled right into it. I didn’t intend to try to answer those deeply personal questions — Who are we, now? What do we value? What are we willing to work for to achieve it? I could only frame the questions, then get out of the way and get on with the job of trying to tell the story of this landscape. 

Maybe the only way to move forward is to simply move.

I get in the front of the canoe and pick up my paddle. 

The guide pushes the canoe out into the river. The muscular current grabs it and he aims us towards the first vee of dark water slicing though the white, steering us down the steps and through the doorway into the heart of the East Branch.