TOWNSHIP 4, RANGE 8 — Travel corridors used for centuries by Indians and more recently loggers are being repurposed as recreation trails for mountain bikers, hikers, Nordic skiers and horseback riders.
Along the East Branch of the Penobscot River here, the Old Telos Tote Road carries a section of the International Appalachian Trail and offers non-motorized access to Grand Pitch and Haskell Rock, two of Maine’s finest natural places.
These travel corridors run through the new Katahdin Woods & Waters Recreation Area. It has been assembled by Roxanne Quimby, one of Maine’s most ardent conservationists, and her Eliotsville Plantation Inc., a private, Maine-based foundation.
Quimby and her family want the area to become a 150,000-acre destination, split equally between a new national park and national recreation area. It’s a bold vision that has been met with both praise and scorn. Nowhere is the discourse more intense than in nearby Millinocket, where the collapse of its century-old paper-making economy has forced area residents to confront an uncertain future and consider a greater role for recreation and tourism.
Debate over the pros and cons of a national park is likely to continue for years. But slowly, outdoor enthusiasts are discovering these access points into what would be the park unit, with mountain bikes at the vanguard. For the trails to become a true destination, though, local businesses and park advocates will need to step up with rentals and repairs for bikers, and introduce more people to the region with guided tours.
Some of this is starting to happen. Last month, the Natural Resources Council of Maine brought up a trailer with 20 bikes and took 40 people on a tour of the park unit’s loop road and trails to Barnard Mountain and Orin Falls.
Other adventurers are discovering the area on their own.
The July morning was hot and sunny when we met Reinelle Robinson and her son, Cordell Guptill, at Haskell Gate, an entrance that’s four miles from the paved road at Matagamon Wilderness Camps.
Robinson lives in nearby Mount Chase. She and her husband had done some hiking and cross-country skiing to the river, and that led to an interest in mountain biking. Guptill is a junior at the University of Maine, in the school’s parks, recreation and tourism program. Both were pedaling here for the first time.
The trails are well-marked, with national park-like, brown-and-white direction signs. We set out for Grand Pitch, which sends the river tumbling over 30-foot-high cliffs. It’s 3.6 miles from Haskell Gate.
With the old logging road closed to motorized vehicles, the primary means for most people to see Haskell Rock and Grand Pitch these days are by portaging around the waterfall in canoes or walking in on the International Appalachian Trail. Mountain bikes, and Nordic skis in winter, offer alternatives to bring more people to this spectacular landmark, a high point of visiting Katahdin Woods & Waters.
The trail to the river was easy-going, much of it a mix of gravel and overgrown grass. Most hills are moderate. Some areas are rocky, but typical mountain bikes can handle them. Robinson, who was pedaling a hybrid-style bike with standard tires, had some trouble gaining traction on the dewy grass.
The trail reached Haskell Rock pitch in two miles. The view upriver on a clear day was memorable, with water cascading in steps over the rocky pitch. Horse Mountain, on the shores of Grand Lake Matagamon, framed the scene in the distance.
“I love this spot,” Robinson said. “We come here quite often to take pictures. The view is worth the ride or the walk.”
Haskell Rock sticks up midstream below the rapids, a 20-foot-high conglomerate formation pocked with pebbles and stones. On this day, the water level was low enough that Greg Rec, the Press Herald photographer, could scamper to the base and climb to the top to take pictures.
Back on the bikes, we rode another mile-and-a-half to Grand Pitch. The last stretch to the river’s edge was rocky and slippery, so we finished on foot. Peering carefully over the ledge, we were immersed in the sound and sight of the river rushing over the 30-foot drop into a boiling cauldron.
Nearby, the Grand Pitch Lean-to provides shelter for an overnight experience. The last entry in the guestbook was from three weeks earlier, when a Boy Scout troop camped here. They were on the final leg of a five-day adventure in which they encountered a rainstorm on Grand Lake.
“Extremely windy and huge chop in our faces,” they wrote.
The network of old logging roads and overgrown trails makes the area great for discovery, says Eric Hendrickson.
A retired schoolteacher from Presque Isle, Hendrickson and his wife, Elaine, have pedaled nearly 100 miles in the park unit. They’ve seen moose, bear, deer and even lynx on the roads. They use Google Earth to study potential routes. They searched for and found the sites of two old airplane crashes, posting photos on Facebook.
“It’s totally different than traditional mountain bike trails,” he said. “People do them to go fast, but we mountain bike to explore. You never know what’s around the next corner.”
Other visitors need a bit more structure, and that’s why the Natural Resources Council of Maine organized its bike ride. Forty people came, from as far away as Massachusetts and as near as Sherman. Some went home at the end of the day, but others stayed overnight in Millinocket. Organizers provided paper maps of the recreation area and an online list of area restaurants and accommodations.
“People need to know it’s there,” said Eliza Donoghue, the group’s North Woods Policy Advocate. “One of the biggest responses we got was, ‘Thanks for the guided trip. We know it’s here and we’re coming back.’ ”
Mountain biking is a growing sport, Donoghue said, as is destination biking. A good example is Kingdom Trails in Vermont, a nationally acclaimed network of biking and skiing trails that has brought visitors to an economically depressed corner of the state.
“People are starting to look for experiences similar to that,” she said.
A missing piece of the puzzle here is the lack of mountain bike rentals nearby. That limits the area to visitors who have their own rides.
But that may change. Matt Polstein, who owns New England Outdoors Center, said he wants to introduce mountain biking at his resort on Millinocket Lake and is planning a trail network. He also has bought a downtown Millinocket building with the idea of opening a bike rental shop.
Long range, Katahdin Woods & Waters could become the starting point for an ambitious effort called the Bike the Maine Woods Trail. It’s being proposed by Fred Michaud, who coordinates the state’s Scenic Byways Program at the Maine Department of Transportation.
The route would run 125 miles, from Matagamon to Greenville. Much of it follows existing snowmobile trails across conservation land and working forests. Michaud says landowners have given permission for the trail, and the next step is to get local bike and snowmobile clubs interested in managing it.
“The trail is designed to provide the user with accommodations (food, lodging, hot showers) along its entire length that are less than a day’s ride apart,” Michaud says.