Haskell Deadwater campsite (Photo by C. Parrish)
Haskell Deadwater campsite (Photo by C. Parrish)
All I need to do is a slight draw now and then to pull the canoe away from a submerged rock in a quiet stretch on the upper East Branch of the Penobscot River.

The birch, sugar maple, and beech trees are just beginning to show the first soft greens that will soon cover the river valley and the lower mountain slopes.

When National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis was in town a week ago, on May 16, it was snowing. Now, it is 70 degrees and cooling almost to the point of threatening rain as the afternoon stretches out long towards evening. The air smells muddy, like rangey moose have been wallowing around, stirring things up.

My companion hums from the stern. And then he’s singing a melancholy river song. 

By the time we reach the end of this four-day, 26-mile canoe trip, flowering trees will be blooming on the riverbanks. Wild lily of the valley and star flowers will be blooming in the woods by June. It will happen fast. 

I’ve lost track of the other canoes. Are they behind us? Ahead?

Other than the handful of canoes in our group, no one is on the river. No hikers on river right, no ATVs on river left. The newly emerged blackflies are not yet serious about drawing blood, either. 

Best of all, there is no cell phone coverage. 

We float past sentinel white pines on the riverbank and then the channel broadens into a flowing lake. Bare-limbed silver maples arch over muddy banks on a point where beavers have been busy gnawing off stout saplings a foot above the mud and leaving rows of sharp stubs behind.

The main channel continues on. To the left, the water  winds out of sight into an orphaned part of the river where a marsh is forming in what appears to have once been a vibrant river channel.

The Haskell Deadwater.

The singing sternman breaks into a different song as the canoe slides into the middle of the calmer water, startling two common mergansers who run across the surface before lifting from the river. 

All the snow has turned to water

Christmas days have come and gone

Broken toys and faded colors

Are all that’s left to linger on

He can’t really sing. 

Not that it matters, particularly.

The snow has turned to water. The river was almost frozen in February when I was last here.

After unstrapping my skis and setting them out in front of the Haskell Deadwater cabin now hardly visible up on the bluff, I made coffee, lit the gas lamps, fed the woodstove and shoved piles of pro-national monument brochures and pleas to write my senator under a map so I could settle in to read the camp diary.

It was a nice cabin, perched above the river. EPI, Elliotsville Plantation Inc., the non-profit formed by Roxanne Quimby and whose staff now manages the land that she wants to turn into a national monument, had restored the cabin just enough. Skylights had been installed, wide plank beds were bolted to the floors, the woodbox was full and the roof didn’t leak.

The first diary entries were a recent account from a group of six adventurous women who had endured 40-degree slushy skiing with humor the first week of February.

They favored turning the East Branch country into a national monument.

I feel it’s time for a historic change, rich with vision, wrote one member of the group. Preserving simplicity is a fine priority. 

The big, historic change in the complicated recent ownership of Maine’s north woods over the past half century didn’t happen when Roxanne Quimby bought the East Branch country with the intention of giving it to the National Park Service. 

One of the big changes that indicated a new kind of Monopoly game was going to play out in the northern forest happened in 1988, when timber company Diamond International sold almost a million acres of Maine forest to real estate developers intent on creating vacation house lots along the lakes and rivers.

The Diamond sale wasn’t the beginning, either.  

Twenty years earlier, in the 1970s, the smaller timber companies started consolidating under bigger corporations or were simply taken over. Global markets were changing and the pressure was on to cut more wood to make paper faster.

Those were the days of Mow ’em and Grow ’em forest management — mow the forest down in an efficient clear-cut and grow the trees back as fast as possible, using herbicides and pesticides to make it happen.

Unfortunately, the crop-type of forest was a tasty enticement for the budworm, a pest that occurs naturally in great numbers every 30 to 60 years. 

 In the 1970s and ’80s the budworm ransacked the forest, killing trees faster than loggers could reach them. Forestry managers sprayed pesticides, heedless of consequences to other life, including human, then cleared big swathes of forest in an attempt to salvage the wood for market, with little regard for environmental impacts. 

Today, the changes in state forestry policy that resulted from the outcry against insecticide spraying and massive clear-cuts in the 1980s is being overseen by a forester who used to adhere to the Mow ’em and Grow ’em philosophy back in the day. 

Of course, people can change.

I twist around in the canoe seat to face the sternman, set down my canoe paddle and stretch my legs and look across the Haskell Deadwater to The Traveler to the west. Snow still sits high on its shoulder. 

Black-and-white warblers squeak like sticky shopping cart wheels deep in the woods on the far side of the river, joined by a bird that sounds just like a zipper being zipped up. 

I hate graveyards and old pawn shops

For they always bring me tears

I can’t forgive the way they rob me

Of my childhood souvenirs

I hope he’s memorized the whole songbook; otherwise, it’s going to be a long four days.

In 1998, it ratcheted up, reflecting global economic changes.

Within the course of a year and a half, two of the largest timber industries and mill owners in the state had sold their properties and over three million acres of the north woods had new owners. The Millinocket and East Millinocket mills were sold. International Paper and Georgia Pacific sold land, too. New to the Maine game, Plum Creek wanted to develop vacation real estate on the almost one million acres of timberland it had bought. The game board players were trading properties out so fast that no one could miss that the north woods was entering a new era.

By 2005, most of the traditional timber industry owners were gone. The new owners were investment companies, real estate investment trusts, and land conservation groups new to learning how to manage forests.

Budworm memories faded. The forest started growing back.

In all of that, public access to the land for recreation remained available.

New owners continued the tradition of leaving the northern woods mostly open to hunting, fishing, camping and snowmobiling. Four-wheelers went mudding in spring.  Maine hunting guides relied on access to the privately owned land to set out jelly donuts as bear bait and bring high-rolling Massachusetts bear hunters to the woods. 

It brought commerce in to the lodges and guide services, restaurants, stores and gas stations. Snowmobiling alone was huge. People continued to treat all that private timberland that was pretty much free of any but the most rudimentary regulations as if it were public land.

But the new companies didn’t have long-term relationships to the paper towns and the people they had employed, or to the sporting camps and lodges. The relationship was no longer about loyalty. It was about investment returns.

It was at about that time that Quimby started buying and consolidating forest land in the East Branch country. She wasn’t looking for a payout and she wasn’t interested in timber company traditions, either. She initially banned snowmobiling and hunting — decisions that were reversed on her property on the east side of the river last year, which is now intended to remain open as part of the deed to the National Park Service. 

Bear hunting was out, period.

She also told the tenant camp-owners they had to go. The Haskell Deadwater camp on the bluff above the river was on the demolition list.

Starting in the 1930s timber companies began leasing out plots of land on northern lakes and rivers as an enticement to mill employees. Camp lot leases in prime locations, it is rumored, were offered to men with powerful connections.

 Paying a few dollars a year for a leased lot in a place where you could tie a bead-headed nymph or a wooly bugger on a line, toss it in and pull up a couple of 15-inch brook trout for supper wasn’t unusual. Families used their own money to build cabins on the leased lots. 

The years slid by. The kids stayed out at camp all summer while mom and dad commuted to the mills.  The camps became a tradition, but not a legal right. The year-to-year lease was a bit of a risk, but not much of one. 

As forest lands changed ownership, though, some of the new owners charged road access fees and told lease holders they had to buy the land underneath their camps.

The Haskell Deadwater camp was built at the edge of the river on a leased camp lot in the 1970s, at a guess, after driving logs down the river in spring ended and logging roads were built to more efficiently haul timber to the mill by truck.

Quimby decommissioned the logging roads and gave camp lease holders a year to move out. They could dismantle the cabin and take it with them, if they chose. After the year was up, she intended to demolish the camps.

She had, except for two. 

One was the Haskell Deadwater cabin.

The first entry in the camp diary about the loss of the Haskell Deadwater camp lot lease was dated July 6, 2013. It was from TG. 

“This camp log was started by Barbara Goodyear in 2006. Barb religiously maintained logs at camp visits since we acquired it in delapidated condition in 1986. She died in February 2007. The log was maintained by her sister-in-law Pat Marshall until the lease was cancelled in 2009. Only Patty’s last entry was left in the log on the last day.” 

That last day was August 29, 2009. 

Patty Marshall’s entry read:

“Jon and Patty Marshall took the last of the Marshall/Goodyear belongings from Haskell Deadwater. It has been the tradition of the camp for those who use it to make note of their activities and to comment on the wildlife seen. We hope those who follow enjoy it as much as we have.”

Three canoes catch up, river right, as we veer left towards the silver maples. We wave them on. They’ll stop and set up camp at a small field on the edge of an alder thicket downstream, where a camp used to stand.

“Can we go into the back into the deadwater?”

“Sure. There’s a whole back pond you can’t see from the river.”

I had wanted to see it during winter, but the river never froze solid while I was here.

We paddle through a narrow channel past marsh shrubs whose tips have been gnawed by moose. A kingfisher rattles from a nearby branch and flies out, scouting. The zipper bird — it’s a Parula warbler — trills over and over and over from an unseen perch. It is one of the tiny little snowbirds, up from the Caribbean for a feeding-courting-singing-mating-family-rearing frenzy during the short summer of the northern forest.

 As we go farther into the deadwater, bog rosemary and leatherleaf crowd the edges, shrubby plants that grow in oxygen-poor water. Bog plants.

And then the back part of the deadwater opens up; the backwater of the deadwater. It is a quiet, isolated pond.

This is still, still water.

Someday, this stranded channel where the river once flowed will fill in and be solid ground.

The forest off to the river right and left was shaped by centuries of changing ownership and land practices.

Loggers went for the big pines, first, for ship masts and lumber. Neil Rolde tells the story well in his book The Interrupted Forest.

By the 1820s, Maine was a state and a lumber capital. Timber barons were snapping up whole townships of Maine forest. Land speculation followed, with tracts of forest changing ownership several times a day, at one point, and then the prices crashed, leading timber barons to buy upwards of a million acres for pennies on the acre.

The barons fought for control of the forest, the dams, the mills, and pulled  political strings to keep taxes on timberland low and settlers from moving in to create towns. Farmers worked the winter woods and seasonal low-wage mill jobs,  gaining a reputation for legendary strength and self-reliance that didn’t pay the bills while their bosses built grand Queen Anne and Italianate houses on Broadway in Bangor with the profits.

Political maneuvering two centuries ago still shapes the region today. 

The barons fought to block public money for roads, dams and railroads that didn’t serve timber interests and keep the farms from modernizing. A culture of clannish self-reliance and near poverty for those working the woods developed, while fights in the woods sometimes became bloody between agents of competing timber barons vying for access to big trees. 

By the time the pines that were three and four feet across at the base were gone from the Wassataquoik Valley in the East Branch country and Henry David Thoreau had made his well-documented trip to Katahdin and the East Branch in the 1850s, the timber beasts were cutting and running big spruce and hemlock downriver to the mills, dynamiting log jams and blowing up rocks in the river to get them the hell out of the way.

 The legacy of the timber boom led to forest soils eroding off slopes stripped of trees, which a young Teddy Roosevelt would have clearly seen in 1879 when he was hunting with Maine Guide Bill Sewell and they crossed the East Branch together to go up to Katahdin by way of the Wassataquoik.

Forests are never static and while they take a long time to grow in Maine, change can be dramatic.

Five years after Roosevelt’s visit, tree slash left in the woods ignited, perhaps by a careless pipe from a logger or a lightning strike, setting off a 22,000-acre fire that burned across the East Branch country.

Fires can rejuvenate a forest, adding nutrients to the soil, opening up patches in the woods for new, young trees to grow, but fires fueled by piles of dried branches and tops are something else, entirely. 

In 1903, another fire burned through 132 square miles  — three times the size of the proposed Maine Woods National Monument. It burned so hot, it stripped the forest down to the mineral soil in places that had burned 15 years earlier, leaving a landscape not so very different than what the glaciers left behind 12,000 years before.

By then,Teddy Roosevelt was president and taking on the big trusts who controlled railroads, oil, canned goods, textiles, and other commodities and services. The trusts fixed prices and exploited their employees by offering long hours, low wages, and poor conditions, while pulling political weight. Child labor was common and brutal. Workers hurt on the job were shoved out the door, while what we would now call the one-percenters got richer and richer.

Roosevelt pushed forward anti-trust legislation and added enforcement to existing laws, then tackled Standard Oil, which was controlled by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. 

Roosevelt busted the Standard Oil trust into 33 separate companies — an outcome connected to Roosevelt’s promise of a Square Deal for every American, including fair wages and treatment for fair work, industrial regulation, and land conservation for all.

Meanwhile, in the East Branch, another fire burned through in 1915.

Myron Avery’s account of the Wassataquoik river valley fires in the lower part of the East Branch country a decade later sounds like raw material for a John Prine song: 

... bared rocks, burned soil, a scraggly growth of popple and birch, ... ruined dams, tumbling down camps and overgrown roads.

By then, loggers in the northern forest were sending millions of short logs down the river during spring river drives to the pulp and paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket.

There is irony to spare in this corner of the Maine woods.

Roosevelt, the great conservationist who championed the national parks also used adroit political skill to bust the trusts and break the stranglehold of the political bosses while not losing his populist appeal. His efforts led to worker protections and, over time, to high wages in union jobs — including those at the Great Northern Paper mills in the nearby paper towns.

Meanwhile, oil baron John D. Rockefeller, Jr., whose Standard Oil company was the largest American monopoly of the time, is well known in Maine as the patron of the carriage road system in Acadia National Park, and as the first philanthropist to use his money to develop national parks. 

Of more particular interest to the Quimby proposal for the East Branch country, however, is what Rockefeller did in Wyoming. 

During a 1926 visit, Rockefeller became concerned at the commercialization of the greater Yellowstone area. Secretly, he started buying ranches that were for sale, eventually spending $1.5 million on land he wanted to turn over to the National Park Service — an amount worth over $20 million in today’s dollars.

It was Teddy Roosevelt’s distant cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt, that declared a national monument in Wyoming in 1943 that included the 33,000 acres bought by Rockefeller. 

The national monument would later become Grand Teton National Park.

One of the Millinocket town councilors dismissed Quimby as an opportunist.

“Quimby is no Rockefeller, I can tell you that,” he told National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis last week.

He’s right, of course, though probably not in the way he intended. As far as records indicate, Quimby paid fair wages to the employees of Burt’s Bees, the company she co-founded in Dover-Foxcroft.

But, in some aspects, she is just like Rockefeller. Quimby wants to give land she bought with her own money to the National Park Service, then boost it with $40 million to help set it up and maintain it.

There’s a new camp back here.”

All I see is shrubby edge. In a week or two this backwater of the deadwater will be as buggy as hell. As we get closer, the building is suddenly visible. It’s not really a camp. It’s a regular house, with electricity, it seems, and it’s not on leased land, either, apparently. The camp owners hold title to the ground beneath. 

A small boat is tucked in the shrubbery. Then I see the driveway.

“There’s a road?”

“Does it matter?” he asks. 

Not really. Maybe. It changes the picture I had in my head of a remoteness that was an illusion. But it doesn’t matter in telling the overlapping stories of a changing landscape.

And then he’s singing, again. 

Memories they can’t be boughten

They can’t be won at carnivals for free

Well it took me years

To get those souvenirs

And I don’t know how they slipped away from me

He’s driving those oddly optimistic lyrics of change and loss and loneliness right down to the base of my brain.

A hundred years have gone by since the fires burned through the Wassataquoik. The valley that once grew big pines and spruce and was used as the entrance to climb Katahdin has largely been left untended.

Few go that way, now.

The forest that has grown up after those harsh fires is a different forest. Simple and still young. Like the rest of the north woods — including the one percent of the Maine forest that makes up the proposed national monument — it faces new challenges: different pests, erratic storms, and heavy weather.

 The National Park Service is about to change, too, in response to the uncertainty of the warming trend that is now impossible to ignore.

In an almost complete reversal of the policy to manage natural and cultural landscapes to the approximation of a pre-European settlement ideal, in December 2016 the National Park Service will begin managing the lands under its control for “continuous change that is not yet fully understood.”

It’s an oddly optimistic and ambitious change.

TG came back to the Haskell Deadwater cabin on September 2, 2015, and wrote another entry in the camp diary.

With tears barely choked back, I’m here again after two years’ absence. It is nice, however, to see the new roof, the yard being maintained and all the nice comments in this, Barbara’s log. While I’ll always resent Roxanne, I am glad I managed to keep her from burning the place down (as she did the other camps along the river), and that it endures to provide so much pleasure to so many.

And then, in postscript, TG wrote a practical note about the hand-operated water pump inside the cabin over the sink. The old metal kind, with a lever that needs to be primed with water and pumped up and down to pull the water out of the river. The kind that needs patience and practice. 

I’d bet that the pump still works if you soak the leathers for a while, he wrote. Pumping saves erosion on the bank.

Smoke from the cook fire drifts across the deadwater as we paddle back past the silver maples and pull the canoe up on the shore. The boys at the Haskell Deadwater campsite near the alder thicket have already set up camp. The other half of the crew is already portaging gear below Haskell Rock Pitch for tomorrow’s run through a series of rapids.

Glen is putting shrimp scampi together for dinner. Beech pours me a cup of boiled camp coffee then turns back to baking bread on the edge of the fire. 

Steve hands me a glug of blueberry moonshine and laughs when I wince it down. 

It’s like being on the river with old friends who you never didn’t know.