March 18, 2010

Trailing Thoreau


— By

Staff Writer

As of this writing, photographer Bridget Besaw is traveling around the Andes on horseback on assignment for The Nature Conservancy.

If she weren't taking photographs in the mountains of South America, Besaw very likely would be doing the same in the North Woods of Maine.

Besaw, a photojournalist and fine art photographer, recently self-published a book of images and essays about the Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail in Maine, ''Wildness within, Wildness without.''

The trail commemorates the journeys of Henry David Thoreau and the Penobscot Indians who guided Thoreau during his exploration of the Maine woods in the mid-1800s. The trail, dedicated earlier this year, is an interconnected series of waterways and hiking routes from Greenville and Mooshead Lake to the East and West Branches of the Penobscot River.

Besaw began documenting the area in the fall of 2005 when she accepted an assignment from a regional magazine to profile the North Woods. That project quickly expanded. Besaw befriended Roxanne Quimby, the wealthy land conservationist, who funded a traveling art exhibition of Besaw's photos.

The exhibition, also named ''Wildness within, Wildness without,'' has shown across Maine and will open at Bates College in Lewiston on Jan. 18 before moving to the Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset in the spring.

The exhibition documents how people are using the trail today, and following the blaze set by Thoreau and the Wabanakis.

The book is an extension of the exhibition, with essays by those who use the trail and others who are concerned about the future of the North Woods.

The goal of the project, Besaw said, is to raise awareness of the natural resource so it can be better protected in the future. Many people, including Besaw, are concerned that residential and recreational development in the region will detrimentally affect the North Woods and that its remote character will be lost forever.

''We are at a pivotal moment,'' Besaw said. ''In 10 years, the North Woods could be a very different place. I wanted to document a moment in history, to show people what it's like. One hundred and fifty years ago, Henry David Thoreau came to Maine and thought it was beautiful in every way. People today can have the same experience he had. The remoteness of the Maine woods is pretty special. It's still so wild, and is one of the few places left in the country, let alone the world, still untouched by development.''

We caught up with Besaw by e-mail, during her South American journey.

Q: You were familiar with the North Woods before you began this project. Now that you have completed it, I am curious about what you learned about the region during your research, and how your appreciation for the North Woods has grown.

A: Yes, I was a bit familiar with the region after covering it as a staff photographer for the Bangor Daily News, but this book gave me the opportunity to spend much more time on the story of this one aspect of the region -- the question of the ''value'' of its wilderness character. My appreciation for the North Woods grew as I became more aware of the remote wild beauty there, and subsequently what I learned is that wilderness is very fragile. Prior to working on the book, I believed the wild and scenic identity of northern Maine to be a given -- a solid aspect of the personality of Maine. But I now realize that is not at all the case. In only one or two decades, northern Maine could look and feel very different, and the experiences I had there may no longer exist.

Q: How has the region changed since you have known it?

A: I remember covering the stories about the mills slowing or closing in the late 1990s. Now we rarely see those stories, since it seems obvious to most everyone that the forest industry is moving to other parts of the world. In the past decade, over 7 million acres of these huge paper company land holdings have been sold. This is a major change for the region. The history of large companies owning this land and having multigenerational commitments to the people and the land of Maine is gone. More recently the people of Maine have begun to come to terms with this change and to ask the question, ''What do we do now?'' This marks an exciting but extremely unsettling moment.

Q: Tell me about your affinity with Thoreau. When you are in the North Woods and on the trail, how do you sense his presence?

A: The times I feel his presence most are when I am on a very remote stretch of the trail that he traveled over 150 years ago, and I realize that it must look and feel much the same as it did for him. Last fall I took three days to travel from Lake Mattagamon down the East Branch of the Penobscot with a friend. We took our time, as there are many carries and the river was low. We were able to just poke our way along, passing moose just a few feet from the canoe, seeing eagles overhead and observing so much more wildlife. After three days when we came to the take-out, we realized we had not seen another person or a structure until that moment. We had the same experience Thoreau had a century and a half ago. Thoreau drew from those experiences to write some of the prose that has inspired an appreciation for nature in generations of people all over the world. So when I travel the same areas in northern Maine he did, I feel connected to something much greater than just that moment.

Q: You write in the book, ''I believe that if you venture into the remote, wilder places on earth, you will be rewarded with a deeper connection to the remote, wilder places in your heart.'' Tell me how your experiences in the remote, wilder places of Maine have rewarded you.

A: I think most people would say that some of their fondest memories are of times spent outdoors. This is a common story -- especially for people who grow up with nature close by, as Mainers do. Why are these memories so dear to us? What is different about them as opposed to our experiences in, say, school or work environments? I am lucky in that my work takes me outside, so I have a chance to remember how rewarding it is almost everyday. These times outdoors have constantly reminded me of what is important to me, they have guided me toward my own path of doing what makes me happy in my life. But I believe we have lost an appreciation for the importance of having these guiding experiences on a regular basis. If we could find ways to reconnect, especially young people in Maine, with this amazing region, might we see fewer of them seeking opportunities elsewhere? I wonder if the time spent in wilderness adventure would spark a desire to find a way to stay here?

Q: Your book makes a case against the development of northern Maine and, specifically, the Plum Creek project. A lot of people would benefit from the development, in the form of jobs and sustained economic activity in what are difficult economic times. Why is it such a bad thing?

A: In my essay in the book, I say that ''I am not opposed to thoughtful economic development for northern Maine, as long as it takes into consideration the long-term benefits of protecting the wild and scenic character of the region.'' I question whether a lot of people will benefit from the Plum Creek plan, and I also disagree that most of the jobs will be sustained. Sustained for how long? Until the trophy vacation homes and beautiful lakefront property is subdivided and built upon so that Mainers can no longer enjoy it? How long will that take? A few years?

And these people who will come for a few weeks a year to enjoy their summer homes and golf courses and marinas along our previously undeveloped lake shores, how much money will they be leaving behind for existing local businesses as opposed to the dollars that tourists would bring if the region offered the kind of wilderness experience they were looking for?

I just do not see how this equation works. We sell a piece of lakefront to someone who will close it off to public recreational use. That public access is gone forever, so that the company that builds the house can make money briefly and the store down the road can make money for the two weeks a year people spend in their summer home. Or, we keep the integral character of that piece of land, and we encourage bird watchers -- the fastest-growing nature-based tourism business in the world -- canoeists, hikers, snowmobilers, snowshoers, cross-country skiers and all other forms of outdoor enthusiasts to come to Maine and enjoy that plot of land all year round, and leave their tourism dollars all along the way.

When I say ''thoughtful economic development'' I am speaking of strategic support for nature-based tourism businesses including lodging, dining, outfitting and guiding. I'm no economist, but doesn't this make a bit more sustainable sense? There are examples all over the world of economically successful, well-planned eco-tourist facilities that attract business because they have preserved the wild character of nearby areas. Even in Maine, we have figured out how to capitalize on tourism on the coast. Why not in the interior? We have something so few other states have. We have one of the largest wild areas left in the world. Why not protect it and value it as the economic jewel that it is? 

Q: How and when did you become a committed outdoors person?

A: I grew up on a small farm in New Hampshire. My wooded backyard was my playground, and I have sought out jobs in the outdoors ever since. I'm not sure that I'm actually that accomplished outdoors. I have no certification or special training, I just love being out there and am open to the hardships, adventures and lessons it holds.

Q: You are now in South America working on another photography project. What are you working on?

A: I am traveling for several months in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina on assignment for The Nature Conservancy and other conservation organizations photographing some of their community projects here. Interestingly, most of the projects I am documenting are parallel to the issues we have in the North Woods of Maine. They have beautiful places and they want to know how they can grow their economy by keeping them beautiful. So these organizations help the citizens and businesses to expand their existing programs and to learn from other areas that have been successful in harnessing their eco-toursim resources.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge


Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)