Inland Maine: the best reasons to leave the coast

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We know, we know. Most of you equate Maine with lobsters and lighthouses. But look at a map and you’ll see that the jagged coastline is just a tiny part of the puzzle that makes Maine, Maine. The heart of the state – with its stone peaks, moose, lumberjacks, français-speaking locals and float-plane rides – is up north in the Maine Woods and is practically as wild as Alaska.

It’s an area with few roads, and locals enjoy repeating the mantra ‘can’t get there from here’. Except the point is you can: by hiking, biking, skiing, paddling, snowmobiling…and on a few very rough roads. Here we present the highlights.

Lilly Bay I - Moosehead Lake, by Dennis Redfield. CC BY 2.0

Moose

Maine moose rule, and the further into the woods you go, the more moose you get. It’s hard not to see them. Go in after dawn or at dusk on side roads (slowly and with both eyes open), and you’ll find moose lingering around water-logged meadows. In spring, they carry their ugly winter hair; in fall the distinctive horns come out – this is also when males can be at their most testy.

A bull moose in Baxter State Park, Maine. Image by Paul E Tessier / Photodisc / Getty Images.A bull moose in Baxter State Park, Maine. Image by Paul E Tessier / Photodisc / Getty Images.

Hike or ski cabin-to-cabin

Ski slopes such as at Bethel near the New Hampshire border offer powder without all the New York City crowds who head to upstate New York or Vermont. Further in, Maine becomes cross-country ski-central on trails that get hiked the rest of the year.

In recent years, a series of hut-to-hut networks have made these trails more accessible for ‘soft adventurers’ (like me), who enjoy the wild, but also enjoy having luggage forwarded and hot showers waiting. Appalachian Mountain Club (www.outdoors.org/lodging), 20 miles east of Moosehead Lake, has a network of three lodges connected by hiking/cross-country ski trails. Their Gorman lodge, on the waterfront of Long Pond, has canoes for exploring nearby islands and beaver dams. You can also arrange a float-plane from the Bangor airport to the pond for under $100.

Red barn, by B K. CC BY-SA 2.0Red barn, by B K. CC BY-SA 2.0

Rafting the big three

The Dead, the Kennebec and the Penobscot are the main rivers that offer summer visitors a chance to tackle 4.0 to 5.0 white-water rapids.

Northern Outdoors (www.northernoutdoors.com) is a pioneer, lively operation at the Forks, midway to the Québec border up US201 (the Benedict Arnold Highway). It offers cabins, meals and well-guided trips down the Dead and the Kennebec – and their own tasty beer, which certainly helps break down barriers between the bevy of groups that hang out in the homey lodge.

Follow Thoreau

Little-known fact: the last words of the author of Walden were ‘moose’ and ‘Indian’. Thoreau was likely thinking back to the few trips he took by water with Native American guides through Maine that make up his travelogue Maine Woods – which turns 150 in 2014.

You don’t have to eat moose lips like he did, but the trip is still wild. Much of it looms north of Baxter State Park. New England Outdoor Center (www.neoc.com), with cabins looking lakeside towards Mt Katahdin (the terminus of the Appalachian Trail), and an excellent restaurant, can arrange multi-day canoe trips that follow Thoreau’s paddleways.

Maine fog and foliage, by Anathea Utley. CC BY 2.0

Fall foliage drives

Vermont and New Hampshire steal the thunder when it comes to fall foliage tours, but Maine has more than double the forest than both those states combined.

Northern Maine has a network of scenic drives that wind through the multicolor schemes of fall. We like Hwy 11 from Fort Kent on the New Brunswick border towards I-95; Hwy 201 (aka Old Canada Scenic Byway; byways.org/explore/byways/11510) towards Québec; or the Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway (byways.org/explore/byways/13830), a 35-mile scenic ride between colonial-era villages.

Leaves broke out with 'fall rash', by Chris Darling. CC BY 2.0Leaves broke out with 'fall rash', by Chris Darling. CC BY 2.0

Lumberjack roads

Looking at a map, you’ll be amazed to see how much of northern Maine has no roads – it’s like a Wild West back east that forgot to be settled. Broad areas are accessed only via ‘lumberjack roads,’ most of which anyone can use. They’re made of dirt or gravel that cross wide berths of forest, rivers and lakes. Expect bumps.

The highlight is the ‘Golden Road,’ a 96-mile unpaved road that connects Greenville (at Moosehead Lake) with Millinocket (near Baxter State Park). It’s quite the scenic ride, but a bit of an adventure, so go slow. If it’s not a lumberjack around the corner – bringing out tens of thousands of pounds of logs – it’ll likely be a moose. And avoid the spring, when the dirt becomes mud soup.

For a more easygoing lumberjack fix, head to the Ambajejus Boom House (ambajejus.mainememory.net), a restored lumberjack hut run by real-deal lumberjack veteran Chuck Harris. It’s on Ambajejus Lake, north of Millinocket.

Lumberjack, by Justin Henry. CC BY 2.0

Le petit ‘France’

Bet you didn’t know that bonjour is answered before ‘hello’ along the St John Valley. The local mix of Québecois and Acadian traditions live on in towns like Madawaska, whose Acadian Restaurant (342 Main St) serves ployes (thin buckwheat pancakes cooked on one side, usually served with paté or chicken stew).

Just south, in Lille, the memorable Musée Culturel du Mont-Carmel (www.museeculturel.org) is an Acadian museum fashioned, by one guy, from an enormous cathedral (look for the concealment shoe, buried in walls to protect a home from evil spirits – the curator found one in his home too).

Further north, Fort Kent Blockhouse (www.nps.gov/maac/planyourvisit/blockhouse.htm) is a squat fort that dates from the forgotten 1838 Aroostook War, a battle-free conflict between the USA and British Canada that’s sometimes called the Pork and Beans War. (Definitely my kind of war.) The biggest event of the year is August’s Acadian Festival (www.acadianfestival.com). Locals bring out oversized Mardi Gras masks and drift down the St John River in handmade canoe-like bateaux.

Fiddleheads galore

The best-named vegetable of all time can only be found fresh in pockets of New England. Upper Maine is riddled with the curling violin-shaped fern vegetables, and you’ll find cute handmade signs for ‘fiddlehead stalls’ on back roads: freshly picked ones go for $3 or $3.50 a pound – a far cry from Whole Foods’ prices.

If you’re up in Aroostook, look for Fort Kent’s button-cute Fiddlehead Focus (fiddleheadfocus.com), a print paper that’s still flourishing.

Crazy fiddlehead, by John D. CC BY 2.0

Solar system highway

The country’s easternmost north–south highway, Route 1, is a pleasant-enough ride past farm towns with distant views of rolling hills – and a closer look at Uranus (sorry, couldn’t resist). Built with local donations only, the Maine Solar System Model (pages.umpi.edu/~nmms/solar) recreates our galaxy at a 93-million-to-one scale, starting with tiny Pluto at Houlton to the south, and capping off with the sun at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

The very entertaining man behind it, university professor Kevin McCartney, also organizes a Planet Head Day in February (participants raise money for cancer by shaving their head and painting their scalp like a planet). His B&B in Caribou (www.oldironinn.com) is filled with old irons, just because.

Robert Reid (reidontravel.com) still doesn’t know what to do with his bag of fiddleheads. But if he shaves his head, he’s going with Pluto – you know, small brain.