Meet the Monument
And the man who led the drive to conserve 87,563 acres of the northern Maine woods.
Esker: that’s a new one to me. I’ve just met Lucas St. Clair and he’s said the word twice already. We’re standing outside of a hilltop cabin; I can see the peaks of the Turner mountains to the west, and Mount Katahdin juts into the sky just beyond. The cabin is one of several at Lunksoos Camps, an old logging compound about 100 miles north of Bangor. It’s surrounded by woods, and the final few miles of roads I took to get here skirt river beds and cross wooden bridges. The few cars and trucks coming through kick up dust clouds on roads lined with woodlands and wildflowers.
Baxter State Park borders the property, but these 87,500 acres east of Baxter are new territory to me. So are the eskers, which are the snaking ridges of gravel and sand that I’d asked St. Clair about. I wondered if they were bunkers, but no. They’re a geologic feature left by streams under melting glaciers, probably 12,000 years ago.
Fast forward from the tumult of the ice age to the dilemmas and opportunities of northern Maine today, stung by the loss of jobs from the closure of paper mills. For five years, St. Clair has been advocating for the land around the headwaters of the Penobscot River’s East Branch to be a new national monument or national park, with the hope that a boost in visitors could provide the region with a path forward. The idea originated years earlier with his mother, Roxanne Quimby, who earned her fortune as co-founder of Burt’s Bees. She used proceeds from the sale of the Maine-born lip balm and skin care empire to buy up tens of thousands of largely contiguous acres in the northern Maine woods. Instead of timbering, Quimby and her family created a private foundation to maintain the land as a public recreation area, and she offered to donate the tract to become a national park. Her bold moves made her a lightning rod for criticism, and several years ago, Quimby moved quietly out of the public spotlight on this issue. By 2011, bearded, outdoorsy St. Clair had taken on the lead role.
Born in Maine, St. Clair, 38, was raised in northern Piscataquis County in a log cabin without running water or a TV, and he developed a keen interest in the outdoors. After graduating from Gould Academy, he traveled to Patagonia for a semester of National Outdoor Leadership School. He also trained as a chef at Le Cordon Bleu in London, and then as a sommelier—focusing on food and wine that bring “the taste of a place.” He’s traveled extensively and visited many national parks, including childhood trips with his family to the Everglades and Glacier National Park. These days, he lives in Portland with his wife, Yemaya St. Clair, where they’re raising two young children.
WHO’S JUMPING IN?
When I arrive on a humid August day last summer at Lunksoos Camps at the heart of the recreation area, it’s still a waiting game to see if President Barack Obama, with just a few months left in his term of office, will approve and create the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
Besides me, St. Clair has a small entourage that day—a film crew happens to be following along. From the Maine-based Timber and Frame video production company, they are Alex Sutula, who lives in Brunswick; Alexandra Morrow, a Bates College grad from Lebanon, Maine; and Ben Severance, who grew up in rural New Hampshire. The trio is collecting footage about the national monument effort for a feature-length documentary, The Mountain and the Magic City. Besides following St. Clair, they’re filming natural scenery and interviewing people in the surrounding communities who are for and against the creation of this monument.
Like any change, especially one that involves land use and the federal government, the push for park status has been a divisive issue for Maine. On the drive here, I passed cars with “National Park YES!” bumper stickers and saw “National Park NO!” signs posted along some of the entry roads to the property. Among the vocal opponents to the idea is Governor Paul LePage.
I’m not here looking for controversy, though. I’m here to see and experience some of the land’s natural beauty and recreation opportunities deemed worthy of national monument status. To begin, St. Clair suggests that we follow a three-mile trail to a scenic streambed—and he means three miles each way. (His zeal for walks in the woods once led him to collaborate with his wife and co-author the AMC Guide to Winter Hiking and Camping.) As we start walking, I notice toads and frogs, white pines, and yellow wildflowers. The well-worn gravel logging roads lead to wooden timber bridges and narrower paths, and St. Clair walks at a purposeful, speedy clip. The destination is Orin Falls on the remote, wild Wassataquoik Stream.
Minutes before I see any of the cascades, pools, and huge boulders, I hear the rush of water. The sound becomes increasingly louder as we follow a narrow path through the trees—it’s so punctuated and erratic that I imagine I’m also hearing human voices, the shouts of a loud crowd. But when we arrive at the streambed strewn with massive boulders, no one else is there. St. Clair barely pauses. Still wearing his shirt and shorts, he continues on until he’s plunged right into a deep pool of the cool water. This is his ritual whenever he visits this spot, he says. It’s a hot day for northern Maine, and the rest of us end up jumping in, too. Then, in a spectacular flourish of wings and flight, a great blue heron flies overhead and lands in the very top branches of a tall tree.
WOODS AND WATER
Only about 1,000 people live in Patten and about 800 in Sherman—two of the nearest towns. Inside the monument acreage, the feeling of solitude is striking. The sky is dark enough at night to see displays of the aurora borealis, and wildlife is abundant. Seventy- eight bird species are known to breed in the area.
We rarely come across other people during this summer visit, except when near the Lunksoos Camps, which St. Clair’s family foundation purchased in 2011. The caretakers are Susan and Mark Adams, who are well versed in what there is to see and do here. A father and son from Massachusetts stop by to ask about hiking to the site of a 1950 plane crash in the woods—the legendary disappearance of a Royal Canadian Sea Fury. Susan Adams nods and pulls out a map. “The ridge is so remote,” she says, “it took 18 years to find where the plane went down.”
As we watch hummingbirds darting just outside the window of the main lodge, Susan, who grew up on the midcoast, says this region is so vital because “it’s all about the watershed. When the East Branch is healthy, that improves the Penobscot River all the way down to the clam flats at Sandy Point.”
A few hundred yards away, kids on an overnight canoe excursion from the Kieve Summer Camp for Boys in Nobleboro are reading and napping in hammocks they’ve strung between trees in sight of the East Branch. When St. Clair says hello and introduces himself, one of the boys mentions that his uncle is a congressman from West Virginia, and he’s going to urge him to support the monument.
The river is wide here, and slow-moving. St. Clair suggests that we take out one of the property’s motorboats tied to the landing dock. We’re soon in the boat and underway. Large hardwood trees on the banks give the peaceful, undeveloped scenery the look of a Hudson River School painting. St. Clair brought a fishing pole, and he lets the boat drift while he preps the tackle—he’s got a two- inch popper lure and casts a few times until one of the river’s small mouth bass is hooked. It’s a beautiful fish. We release it, and we pass no other boats as we make our way back to the landing.
By car—and still with the film crew in tow— we head out to see other natural highlights. The property of mountains and hills, streams and lakes already has a network of longtime timber roads and hiking trails, including the recent addition of an 18-mile loop road with scenic overlooks and stops. From a northern entry point off Grand Lake Road, we come to a gate. St. Clair calls out the code: “2016.” “That’s the year this place becomes a monument,” he says with confidence. “That’s how we remember it.”
Following that rutted roadway, we reach Haskell Rock Pitch on the East Branch. The water is truly roaring here, and the rock formations are towering. Tree roots wrap around and cling to boulders on the banks. The whitewater rapids are downstream from the broad Haskell Deadwater, and the effect is a mighty one. The August day is suddenly cooler here, and I smell balsam fir and fresh air. St. Clair is clambering on the rocks—one is the Haskell Rock—and I see that he’s looking out, too, breathing it all in.
Before we depart from that early-August trip, St. Clair tells me he’s optimistic that President Obama will agree to create the monument, and he believes that Maine will one day have a full-fledged national park in these woods. After all, he notes, a century earlier on Mount Desert Island, Acadia National Park got its start as a national monument, too. “I think this will be a real turning point for the whole region,” he says.
St. Clair’s hope is that the monument status will bring people from around Maine and around the world to experience the kinds of things we’ve just had the privilege to do on these summer days, “climb on Haskell Rock, swim in the Wassataquoik, paddle on the East Branch, and maybe see a bright orange salamander hanging out on the side of the trail.”
Within three weeks, the wait is over. On August 24, 2016, the president signs into law the creation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, following the foundation’s donation of the 87,563 acres to the federal government, along with $20 million for initial operational and infrastructure costs, and a pledge of another $20 million in future funding. The approval comes almost exactly 100 years after President Woodrow Wilson established Sieur de Monts National Monument, which eventually became Maine’s treasured Acadia. Supporters of the new Maine monument are jubilant. St. Clair calls it “the highest level possible of conservation and recognition.” In the flurry of media attention, the Washington Post reports “Obama creates what could be the last large national park site on the East Coast, in Maine.”
“I loved that headline,” St. Clair admits when I call to ask his reaction to the monument announcement. His personal plans? To celebrate, to hit the road on a family vacation, and to dream about what’s ahead—about the campgrounds and the trails, and all the rest that’s possible. “Now we can start looking at the future and at making Katahdin Woods and Waters the best that it can be,” he says. “And we need to make sure that people feel they’re a part of the future—a future that didn’t exist before.”
Not long after the November 8 election, I catch up with St. Clair by phone one more time. He and Yemaya and Ella, 5, and Waylon, 2, are traveling for a couple of weeks in a small, rented RV. Where to? A slew of state and national parklands, wildlife refuges, and monuments, including stops in the Berkshires, the Catskills, and at the battleground at Gettysburg. They’ve been to the Great Smoky Mountains and the Outer Banks of North Carolina; and to Fort Sumter and the Congaree Swamp in South Carolina. He talks excitedly about a visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, a granite tower marking the sand dune hills where Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first successful airplane flight. Experiences on this remarkable road trip, he says, have “put into perspective what parks can mean for us, our families, and for the country.”
St. Clair dismisses the idea that as president, Donald Trump would aim to reverse the status of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, an idea that some opponents have suggested. “Not only would that take an act of Congress,” St. Clair notes, “but the positive momentum and economic benefits are already happening. People are visiting. Support of the monument is higher than it’s ever been. Why would anyone want to undo that?”