Katahdin Lake at Last
The newest jewel in Baxter State Park was the hardest won.
It’s not easy getting to Katahdin Lake. It’s not supposed to be. But the trip is worth it.
“You don’t hear any motorboats. You look out on the lake and see no one else,” says Holly Hamilton, who manages the Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps. “The view alone of Mount Katahdin just looming over the lake is enough to make you go, ‘Wow!’ ”
Nor was it easy reaching an agreement to protect Katahdin Lake. Yet the controversy surrounding its acquisition may in the long term lead to improvements in the way the state approaches future purchases. It already has brought about a new rapprochement between sporting groups and the conservationist they’ve long considered public enemy number one, Roxanne Quimby.
Sitting less than a mile outside the eastern boundary of Baxter State Park, the lake is known for both the landmark views of Mount Katahdin that have drawn artists to its shores for more than 150 years and its tantalizing location just out of reach of previous efforts to add it to the park, starting with Governor Percival Baxter himself in the early 1900s.
But a new era began in 2003 when Governor John Baldacci asked Department of Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan to open negotiations with the lake’s owner. The final deal in 2006 involved trading 7,400 acres of public lots and 14,000 acres of private timberland to the Gardner Land Company for 6,691 acres of land, including the 649-acre lake, The Trust for Public Land acted as a necessary intermediary, both to hold the purchase option and to raise the funds needed to acquire the private land. But the complicated agreement — one of the most complex public land acquisition operations ever seen in Maine, according to McGowan — turned out to be the easy part. Plans to close the property to hunting and motorized recreation, such as snowmobiles and ATVs, sparked a furious reaction from a coalition of sportsman’s groups, the Maine Snowmobile Association, and local municipal officials in Millinocket and East Millinocket who saw the deal as yet another attack on the lifestyle and interests of rural Maine by the urban-dominated state government. [Down East, July 2006].
After a highly public battle in the legislature over the state’s role in acquiring the lake — and a compromise that broke out 2,572 acres for hunting and other uses under state ownership — the Trust for Public Land’s campaign to raise $14 million in eight months to complete the purchase turned into a nail-biting and record-setting race against time. “This project nearly died a dozen times,” says Sam Hodder, the trust’s senior project manager in Portland. “In the end, the campaign was a remarkable success, but we didn’t know until the last two weeks that we were going to make it.”
The campaign also elevated the profile of a group of quiet park supporters, the Friends of Baxter State Park, which for years has been a small but persistent volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the wilderness values Percival Baxter cherished. “We collaborated with the fund-raising effort by providing guides for walks into the lake,” explains Barbara Bentley, of Hope, the group’s president. “We worked with the Baxter Park Wilderness Fund [an endowment created to help manage and maintain the park] to raise money for the park’s maintenance budget, and we testified before the legislature about the need to bring the lake into the park.”
Bentley says the Friends will sign up its five-hundredth member this summer, in part because of the new attention the group has earned. “It has broadened our scope in the public arena,” she notes. “The park’s staff necessarily focuses on what’s happening inside the park’s borders. The Friends can look beyond that.”
By all accounts, the prize is worth the contentious meetings and frantic fundraising. “I do a lot of conservation-oriented photography, so I see a lot of great scenery,” says Jerry Monkman, who has visited Katahdin Lake three times in the past eighteen months. “After walking miles through the woods, you come out on this little sandy beach on the lake and there’s Mount Katahdin staring down at you. It’s absolutely awe-inspiring. Katahdin Lake is one of those treasures of New England that nobody knows about.”
The lake itself is three miles long and one and a half miles wide, one of the largest water bodies in the park, and is surrounded by old-growth white-pine forest. The only man-made intrusion is the Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps, a long-established sporting camp at the south end of the lake owned by well-known Maine conservationist Charles FitzGerald. (There is also a two-hundred-acre private inholding covering some four thousand feet of shoreline in the southeast corner of the lake, although the owners allow public access.)
“The acquisition is a win-win solution for us and the lake,” says camp manager Hamilton. “I felt right along that it was important to protect the lake, and the best opportunity for that was for it to go to the park.”
“The light across the lake is constantly shifting,” remarks Monkman. “After you’ve been there a couple of days, you realize how wild it is. We saw otters playing with their babies, bald eagles, ospreys fishing, and moose browsing for water lilies. And the view of Katahdin is unique.”
Maine’s highest mountain is barely three miles from the lake, “close enough that Katahdin is a large part of the landscape,” Monkman offers. “There are really great views of the northern and eastern sides of the mountain. You get a new appreciation for just how massive and impressive the mountain is.” Indeed, looking to the west from the lake, the entire Katahdin range rises along the horizon. The Turner mountains mark the north end of the lake, and Traveler Mountain can be seen in the distance.
Ironically, Katahdin Lake was the base for the original trail to the top of Mount Katahdin, cut back in 1848 by the Reverend Marcus Keep. A few years later in 1855 artist Frederic Church made the first of many visits to Katahdin Lake, drawn by the mountain’s power and the lake’s beauty. The lake has attracted scores of artists since, and artists played an important role in the Trust for Public Land’s fundraising campaign. More than a dozen created and sold artwork depicting the lake and mountain. “I credit the volunteer landscape painters with getting us over the edge,” Hodder explains. “They were painting, donating the proceeds to the campaign, getting their stories into media outlets like the Boston Globe and the New York Times.”
The first sporting camp at Katahdin Lake was built in the 1870s. In 1879 future president Theodore Roosevelt visited and climbed Katahdin from the lake. The trails fell into disuse in the 1920s after logging roads opened up easier routes from the south, and plans to build a road to the lake never materialized.
“That isolation helped protect the lake,” notes Baxter State Park director Jensen Bissell. Governor Baxter mentioned the lake in his papers several times, and his early maps of the proposed park included Katahdin Lake within its boundaries. Bissell says it will take years before the park can completely absorb the lake and the thousands of acres of land that surround it. “We recognized early on that this would be more complex than many people realized,” Bissell says. “It will take time to sort through it.”
At the same time, Bissell recognizes that people want to visit the lake now. The existing 3.2-mile trail from Avalanche Field already saw increased use last summer from day hikers, and he expects more interest this year as news about the acquisition spreads. “Eventually we want to build an additional ten miles of trails through the parcel,” he explains. The park already has 218 miles of trails. “We’re building two miles of trail this year, and next year we want to add a couple of lean-tos for camping.”
Oddly, perhaps, Bissell says he doesn’t expect the lake’s addition to have much, if any, impact on the park’s overall visitation figures. “This is one option among many in the park, and [Katahdin] will always be the biggest attraction,” he notes. “Besides, I think there are other factors at work in visitor numbers.” The park counted 61,000 visitors last year, part of an upswing that began in 2005 after a decade of decline.
Katahdin Lake’s impact is more likely to be felt in Augusta than in the North Woods, by some accounts. Conservation Commissioner McGowan says there was a number of “lessons learned” in the wake of the Katahdin Lake controversy, chief among them the need to involve all the players immediately. “We had such a short time to get this done,” he offers. “It would have been much more sensitive to include some of the people who felt pushed out by the process. It became such a big symbol for hunters and snowmobilers.”
George Smith, the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and a leader of the deal’s opponents, says the brouhaha has had several positive results. “First, Roxanne Quimby reached out to her adversaries, including us, and we’re forging a new partnership on land-use issues,” Smith declares. Quimby, the multimillionaire founder of Burt’s Bees health-care products, is a longtime supporter of a North Woods national park, and she has had a history of buying large tracts of woodland around Baxter and closing them to hunting and motorized access. Shortly after the Katahdin Lake deal was consummated, she announced that she had bought almost 5,000 acres nearby to add to the 54,000 she already owned.
Another offshoot was the creation of what Smith calls the “Conservation-Recreation Forum,” a coalition of conservation and outdoor recreation groups that Smith hopes will meet three times a year to reduce conflicts among the various land-use philosophies. The first meeting was in May, and the luncheon speaker was Quimby.
Smith is also trying to formalize the impromptu group of organizations that coalesced against the original Katahdin Lake proposal. His Natural Resource Network is an umbrella of fifteen forestry, farming, commercial fishing, and sporting groups that he hopes will speak up in defense of such rural hot topics as land use, development, and environmental regulation.
“We all depend on natural resources and have common causes and issues,” he explains. He says the group met weekly during the last legislative session. “I call it a rural coalition,” Smith adds. “Maine hasn’t had that in the past, and rural Maine is just getting hammered. We’re just trying to give it a voice.”
But it’s the silence that speaks loudest at Katahdin Lake. “There’s this wonderful solitude,” Jerry Monkman offers. It may not be easy to get to Katahdin Lake — or to get it, for that matter — but the journey has been worth the price.
- By: Jeff Clark