It's a typical late-September scene in northern Maine.
A blanket of light fog hangs over the roadway; the brilliant yellows, reds, and golds of the changing leaves are muted in the pre-dawn light. Car traffic is minimal. In fact, traffic isn't the right word for the few vehicles that travel into Patten at this time of day. Any obvious sign of early morning commuters disappeared onto I-95 in Bangor, 100-plus miles to the south.
The light traffic is both good and bad news. It's good, because the moose lounging in the grass along the highway would have induced a lot more anxiety had there been more cars on the road.The bad news is what you don't hear. Logging trucks once rumbled through Patten night and day, shaking walls and rattling windows. But with the closings of lumber mills in this ruggedly beautiful region — due east of Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin — the roads have grown increasingly quiet. And for the first time in the town's long history, people in Patten are planning for life after logging.Patten was a town built on timber. In 1828 Amos Patten, a Bangor businessman, bought 35.5 square miles of woodlands in this stretch of northern Maine, simply for its rich supply of wood. As he'd never laid eyes on the land, he sent three Lincoln-based surveyors to the area — via canoe, and then on foot — so they could inventory what was there and report back.
The surveyors were so enamored by what they found — a rolling landscape covered with vast, stunning stands of towering 150- to 200-foot-tall white pines — that their report contained an unusual request: the surveyors wanted to establish homes there. Patten agreed. Other families followed, and the town, bearing Amos Patten's name, was officially incorporated in 1841. Early residents tapped the region's natural resources, a healthy timber industry developed, and, as a result, the town flourished. Over the next hundred years it grew into an almost suburban community. Small ranch- and Cape-style houses were erected on Patten's side streets. Neighbors chatted about high-school basketball, visited the circa-1848 church that has since become Veterans Memorial Library, or watched from their porches as their children rode bikes on the sidewalks. They tinkered on the snowmobiles parked in their driveways. And they worked alongside one another in the woods, in paper mills, or at the lumberyards.
But in recent years Patten has changed. Neighbors still chat, and kids still play basketball, but timber is no longer king in this town of 1,100 souls. The 1999 closing of Sherman Lumber Company, just ten miles to the south, and the bankruptcy of Great Northern Paper in Millinocket in 2002 were harsh blows to an area so dependent on those industries. The loss of jobs — and lack of suitable employment opportunities in the area — meant many people had to leave Patten. School enrollment has dropped to the point that there's talk of closing Katahdin High School and sending students to schools in Medway, Island Falls, or Dyer Brook. When students graduate, few parents expect their children to build lives in Patten.
"There aren't any young people moving to the area," says Doris DeRespino, who ran a taxidermy business with her husband before taking control of Patten's oldest public building when she became the town librarian. (DeRespino's own children moved away years ago.) "People come here now to see the foliage, or to go hunting. Tourism is the big industry; people hunt here, go sightseeing, or they spend summers here and winter in Florida."
walk around town, and the sense of place, and of love for this place, is almost palpable. The signs are everywhere, from the gigantic deer mural on the wall behind the diners at Downtown Deli & Pizza, to the camping supplies alongside the NASCAR memorabilia on the shelves of the General Store, to the various hunting supplies in the Ellis Family Market: Patten is inextricably connected to the northern Maine woods. It's why people fight to stay, despite the hard times.
The short walk down the broad sidewalk along Patten's Main Street takes you past a small grocery store, a bank, a deli, a general store, a library, and various other shops. The streets are rarely crowded, yet a smattering of patrons wanders between the Ellis Family Market and Richardson's True Value Hardware, across the street from one another. Friendly banter between store workers and customers is commonplace — people know each other, and their families. It's like taking a step back in time: when a customer at the general store finds himself short of cash and the credit-card reader is down, the owner kindly directs him to the bank down the street, simply assuming that he won't drive off without paying. Perhaps it's this good-natured feeling of community that adds to the sense that Patten is, at its heart, a wilderness outpost. It's the last real stop before the twenty-four-mile drive along Route 159 to Baxter State Park. Continue north on Route 11, and as you leave town a sign simply states, "Next Services — 39 Miles."
But stop and listen to the conversations between neighbors in Patten and you'll discover that, if they aren't talking about potential employment opportunities in town, then they're discussing what happens next. What happens now. For many, the answer lies in the beauty that brought them to Patten in the first place — and sharing that beauty with others.
"Mount Katahdin is a magnet," says Ron Blum, a physician at the Milliken Medical Center in Patten. "That view from Mill Hill is probably the best view of Katahdin that there is. It really is overwhelming."
Blum should know. In 1973, he and his then-future wife traveled to Patten on the first leg of a post-medical-residency road trip across the country, in search of the ideal rural community to call home. The couple meant to spend only a few days in Patten while they waited for their general-delivery mail to arrive. They ended up staying for the entire month of December, enjoying the holidays with their newfound friends.
A year and a half later, the road trip was over and the couple was about to settle in Santa Barbara, California. A friend had started a medical practice there, and Blum was going to join. Before the final decision was made, a letter arrived from one of Blum's acquaintances in Patten: "We've started a clinic, and we're looking for a doctor," the letter stated. "Have you ever thought of moving back to Maine?" Blum accepted the offer, and he's been a resident of Patten ever since. The magnet had drawn him in.
The shift from timber to tourism in the everyday life of Patten residents is perhaps most evident at this time of year. Though the occasional logging truck still rumbles through town and the Patten Lumbermen's Museum on Route 159 offers a glimpse of the time when axes ruled the North Woods, a more-constant rumble is made by trucks carrying groups of blaze-orange-wearing hunters. In autumn, hunters are everywhere — in the supermarket aisles, at the long folding tables set up in the deli, at the general store's gas pumps. In Patten, the fall hunting season for moose, deer, bird, and bear is big business, as the town's proximity to unspoiled Maine woods makes it a major attraction for hunters of all stripes, both from town and from away. Even the grocery store sells hunting licenses.
"I take some people on photography tours at this time of year and do some canoeing," explains Tom Chase, a retired Baxter State Park ranger who's now a full-time guide in Patten. "But hunting is bigger."
The area's dependence on hunting explains the wave of relief that swept through town when last November's bear-baiting referendum, which would have banned certain types of bear hunting, was voted down. This year, the bear hunters are back — and even local shop owners are grateful.
"Bear season is my busiest time of year," says Robin Davis, owner of the Red Moose Trading Post, where you can buy everything from clothing and antiques to souvenirs and ammunition. Though Davis' business isn't based solely on hunters, they make up a large piece of the pie. "All year, people come through here," she says. "Fishermen, deer hunters, bird hunters, tourists on their way to the park, or to take pictures. Outdoor recreation is important for us."
However, even outdoor recreation is changing. The decline of the timber industry has had an impact on more than just the local economy. It has changed the way that landowners view their lands.
"Over the past few years, we've been faced with something completely new," explains Terry Hill, who, along with her husband, Craig, owns Shin Pond Village Resort, ten miles west of the center of Patten on the way to Baxter State Park. "Timber lands are being sold to new buyers who do not want to cut wood or allow recreation."
The most prominent of those new landowners is Roxanne Quimby [Down East, July 2005], cofounder of Burt's Bees, who in late 2003 purchased 24,000 acres — an entire township — between Patten and Baxter State Park. Shortly afterward, Quimby announced that, among other changes, campfires, hunting, ATVs, and snowmobiles would no longer be allowed. Locals feared the resulting economic impact; Hill and other area residents formed a coalition to work with Quimby and other landowners to help ease the transition.
"If regrouping from the shrinking timber industry was the big issue of the last ten years," Hill says, "then this is going to be the big issue for the next ten years.
"People say to me, 'You should sell and bail out now,' " she adds. "But we're in this for the long haul. I love this area."
It's that strong connection that makes residents like Dr. Blum confident that the various, disparate outdoor groups fighting for a piece of the outdoor-recreation pie here can reach a consensus — and that Patten will benefit if they do.
"As much as the different groups — the hunters and snowmobilers and cross-country skiers and hikers — may be at odds over different things, they all have one thing in common," Blum says, as he sits in his office on Founders Street, just a block from the crowds of orange-wearing hunters milling about downtown Patten. "They all want to see nature."
And that's one resource Patten can always supply.