Maine Wilderness (Rant)

In New Hampshire, there is a wonderful tourist destination called Lost River Gorge.  They’ve taken a magnificent gorge filled with flumes, waterfalls, and caves, and carved a pathway built with a complicated set of staircases and safety railings so people of all ages can explore this natural wonder.  It allows people who might never be exposed to nature a chance to discover nature’s joys and miracles.  But – – the horror! – – it’s “developed.” (You can see pictures from a previous blogpost here.)

The “holiness” of wilderness is often taken to extremes in Maine. You can see similar gorges and waterfalls not far from where I live, and I enjoy them tremendously.  But unless you have some serious safety equipment or 4WD, they aren’t easily accessible and few but the most avid and experienced hikers and climbers even know about them.  With today’s eco-correctness, development of natural areas like Lost River Gorge will never happen today.  I guess that’s the point – – restricting access to keep things pristine – – but ultimately I believe it to be self-defeating.  I believe that HaShem gave us a world of amazing wonders, and it was created for all of us to cherish, respect and enjoy.

This year I found out that the Forest Service intends to restrict access to my two most favorite nearby places:  Great Brook, and Virginia Lake.  Readers of this blog know how much I enjoy fishing and kayaking at Virginia Lake, and that will not change, but the beach there will soon be closed to campers and the so-called  dirt “access road” will be made inaccessible to anything but foot traffic.  Even walking the 1/2 mile to the beach will be difficult, however, since they will be removing the culverts, allowing the road to wash out and those persistent wild trees, brush, bushes and thorns to grow right in.  Essentially, if you have a family with young kids and are shlepping towels, sand pails, and a picnic lunch, you have your work cut out for you if you want to enjoy a day at the beach, because just getting there will be an ordeal. (You can view pictures of Virginia Lake from a previous blogpost here.)

The other place –  Great Brook – – is an amazing place to camp, and I took my grandchildren there this summer for an overnighter.  Great Brook has a series of clear, pristine pools, water-filled potholes, and waterfalls that make it ideal for cooling off on a hot day (in fact, before our house had plumbing or a drilled well, we used to go there to bathe!).  Salmon and wild brook trout spawn there in November.

4 grandsons were in the orange tent; my husband and I slept in the green tent

4 grandsons were in the orange tent; my husband and I slept in the grey tent

The kids loved building a fire.  Behind them is Great Brook, with its natural falls, pools, and flumes.

The kids loved building a campfire. Behind them is Great Brook, with its natural falls, pools, and flumes.

The huge swimming hole with its icy water.  My 8-year-old granddaughter was the only one brave enough to jump into the water, which even in August was freezing cold.

The huge swimming hole with its icy water. My 8-year-old granddaughter was the only one brave enough to jump into the water, which even in August was freezing cold.

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The pool is fed by a waterfall

Another beautiful section of Great Brook

Another beautiful section of Great Brook

There is no sign from the road or at either site telling you of their existence, or that there are campsites there (and the campsites are free of charge!)  – – it’s mostly a locals’ secret.  Consequently, you might see one other person using the area on a “busy” day.  That’s because the area is designated as “wilderness” – – so signs are a no-no and maintenance is minimal.  Eighty-five percent of the times I’ve visited, I’ve been the only one there.  Hardly a case for “overuse,” as the Forest Service claims.

So why does the Forest Service want to shut these places down by restricting use, even though it’s public land?  There are several reasons:  1.) the Forest Service hopes to do some major logging in the area,  to generate revenue from cut trees that will be sold for lumber; 2.) to clear 25 years of accumulating brush and fallen trees which are a forest fire hazard; 3.) to clear-cut some areas so new meadows will encourage  growth of beech and establish more moose-friendly habitat; and 4.) the other reason for limiting use – – much more unfortunate – – is that a few people have abused the campsites.

By “abuse” I mean the worst possible things:   trash left at campsites, as well as – – ick — the presence of human feces, which besides being unsightly and disgusting, is a health concern.

You see, these areas are “wild” – – so that means whatever you bring in, you must take out the resulting trash.  Also, there are no bathrooms – – so if you have to go, you need to dig a “cat hole” in the earth some 6″ deep with a small shovel and poop in the hole, and then cover and bury your poop.

I can guarantee that whomever did not treat the campsites with respect, were not locals.  Locals view the wilderness as their very own backyard, and they will not trash their own backyard.   The campsites will be as pristine, or more so, when they leave as when they first arrived.   Now, I don’t blame the rangers for being really, really mad.  It should never be the job of a ranger to clean up after someone’s dirty business.   So how to prevent this from happening in the future?  Is closing down the campsites really the answer?

I don’t believe that people who leave trash and feces at a campsite do so out of maliciousness, but rather, ignorance at best and laziness at worst.

But how can one educate in the wilderness?  Clear instructional signs would help; that addresses the ignorance part.  How many of you reading this had ever even heard of a “cat-hole” (or would want to!)?

But what about laziness?

Let’s face it.  There are going to be people who will, if the road is really bad or non-existent,  consider it to be too much trouble to pack out their trash when they return to their cars.  But there are solutions!

1.  Provide a bear-proof dumpster (but the Forest Service doesn’t want to pay for trash removal, even though the amount of trash generated on site would require only monthly service), or,

2. Improve rather than remove the dirt access road, so people could actually park their cars at the edge of the beach, and would be more inclined to put the trash into their nearby car, rather than being overwhelmed at the thought of walking  a .5 mile bushwhack back to the car  with their garbage.

3.  Provide a composting toilet at the site.  Unlike outhouses, which stink and require weekly emptying, a composting toilet does not smell and requires maintenance only 1x – 2x year.

Alas, the Forest Service’s interpretation is that the area is designated a “wilderness area” and therefore no signs, no composting toilets, no roads, and no dumpsters are allowed.  And since a few irresponsible people can’t take care of it properly, better to shut it down completely.

Another example of “wilderness area” short-sightedness:  climbing Speckled Mountain.  You can climb it from Rte 113 in Evans Notch, on the Maine-NH border.  But if you climb it from the side near my house, you are suddenly in “wilderness” (the Caribou-Speckled Mountain wilderness, to be exact) and suddenly trail signs and blazes on trees showing the way, disappear, and the trails themselves are poorly maintained, or not maintained at all.  If you are lucky you will see cairns (piles of stones) that mark the trail, left voluntarily and charitably by a previous hiker.  Apparently trail signage is thought to desecrate “wilderness.”  Does the forest service prefer spending scarce funds on costly rescue operations for lost hikers, rather than a few dabs of paint on a tree trunk to mark a trail?

Does this make sense?  Are we really ensuring an appreciation of wilderness for future generations by making it inaccessible – – and dangerous! – – to the average person, perhaps precluding them from the chance to experience what wilderness is?

While I am by no means an “expert” outdoorswoman (if I had to rate myself, it would be “advanced beginner”), I have, thankfully, acquired skills and knowledge that allow me to venture forth and explore and enjoy wild places that are basically off the usual maps.  It seems foolish and short-sighted to discount novices who are no less enthusiastic about experiencing the joys of the great outdoors, without giving them the tools and accessibility that will make it easier for them accomplish this.

There are going to be many people reading this post who will disagree with me about making wilderness more accessible to the public, especially life-long Mainers who are very protective of “their” outdoors.  By clicking on the highlighted items you can see some interesting links that discuss the Forest Service’s plans for my immediate area, known as the Albany South project,  as well as the strong feelings in the debate about keeping Maine’s wilderness wild.

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