North Maine Woods offers respite, perception

By Fred Hastings

It took about 40 minutes after leaving paved highway in Portage to reach our cabins in the Deboullie Public Reserved Lands near the northern Canadian border, kicking up the dry dirt as we navigated the gravel byways that left our rear window covered in dust. A few miles in we encountered a moose and her calf traversing the roadway, just as an oncoming log-filled tractor-trailer plunged its way toward us. We were told that logging trucks stop for nothing, having the right of way. We eagerly sought the shoulder several times as the huge mechanical dragons, snorting black vapors from their stainless steel smokestacks, roared toward us at rapid clips. The clouds of dust left in their wake also coated the leaves on both sides of the thoroughfare with a lunar-like ash.

A little background: Deboullie’s 21,871 acres are part of the 3.5 million acres of forestland open to public use and managed by the North Maine Woods (NMW) organization. NMW is a nonprofit consortium of those holding title to the property, more than 90 percent of which is privately owned, including by family groups (39 percent), corporations (33 percent), institutional investors (17 percent) and conservation organizations (6 percent). The state of Maine holds title to 5 percent.

Our three-day visit began shortly after registering at the NMW’s Portage checkpoint, where you pay a day-use fee or are welcomed free of charge if you are a senior. The fees, none of which may accrue to the landowners, help maintain the 350 campsites and voluminous miles of tote roads and hiking trails. First and foremost, the North Woods is an active logging operation, a vital part of Maine’s economy. Bicycles, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, tractors and horses are not allowed in the interest of road safety and avoidance of fire hazards, although in winter, snowmobiling is a thriving activity. Small campers are permitted but not large motorhomes. Tents are the most popular accommodation in addition to long-established family-owned log cabins, some dating to the 19th century.

As with all our treasured adventures, it is the people one encounters in such settings who often prove the element that renders the occasion transcendent. There were just nine adults in four lakeside cabins, along with two yellow Labs, a border collie and a Jack Russell. We all got to know each other and enjoyed morning coffee and late afternoon happy hour together, sharing our hiking, swimming and boating adventures of the day, before having our socially distanced supper in the lodge. A woman with long experience in running a remote campsite (she had owned her own bear hunting lodge) managed the daily operation and prepared the meals assisted by two young female summer helpers.

There were several “it’s-a-small-world” moments as we made connections with people we each knew. Another nice touch: Our cells and laptops being inoperative proved a good palliative, particularly in these disordered COVID/election year times. These topics were never raised in our conversations, intuitively seen as just too real-worldly and totally inappropriate while sojourning in paradise.

There are moments, often experienced while on vacation, that bespeak something uplifting, even as it is uncommon and fleeting, and we savor its respite from the norm. “Astringent grace” comes to mind, a phrase locked in my head for years since encountering it in an article describing a venerable Maine summer community of multigenerational families that gather annually on a coastal island, one where motorized vehicles are banned and dogs range freely over the landscape along with the residents. What is it about a pristine natural setting with little human embellishment, an established tradition of deep affinity with and appreciation of the natural beauty and the sense of splendid isolation that generates so easily and naturally the shared good spirits of everyone present?

I have known the coastal island experience, but this recent multiday visit to the small lodge and cabins at Deboullie offered the insight that an offshore summer community isn’t the only place in the state that offers such an opportunity. It can be replicated in the North Maine Woods — Maine much deeper in. And while “astringent grace” seems apt for the offshore island enclave, “astringent simpleness” seems more appropriate for the extremely remote cabin milieu, one consciously free from ostentation or affectation. For me, the two terms, seemingly at odds, are equal in every important respect given that “grace” and “simpleness” are both arrived at studiedly. It is “astringent” that is controlling, emphasizing the estimable element common to both.

Although we who shared these few spontaneous summer days together probably won’t see any of each other again, life’s imperatives being what they are, we all departed thinking how nice it would be if we should for having shared a rare moment of heightened humanity.

Fred Hastings is a retired journalist. He lives in Cutler.

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