Travel and Adventure: Best State Park
Perfect lake of the woods.
- By: Joshua F. Moore
- Photography by: Joshua F. Moore
In the summer of 1853, a traveler from Massachusetts described his first view of Moosehead Lake, from Indian Hill on the south side of Greenville, as “a suitably wild-looking sheet of water, sprinkled with small, low islands, which were covered with shaggy spruce and other wild wood.” For this articulate traveler the lakeshore was literally the end of the road; the only path farther was a winter road, “passable only when the deep snow covers its inequalities” up the twelve miles to Lily Bay.
Four years later, Henry David Thoreau returned to Moosehead and found the area largely unchanged, with “boundless forest undulating away from its shores on every side, as densely packed as a rye field, enveloping nameless mountains in succession.” Even in pre-Civil War New England, the great naturalist recognized that the wildness to be found in the forests surrounding Moosehead was a rarity, a holdout in a nation where man “not only clears the land permanently to a great extent, and cultivates open fields, but he tames and cultivates to a certain extent the forest itself. By his mere presence, almost, he changes the nature of the trees as no other creature does.”
But if Thoreau were able to return to Moosehead today, he would still find one place where nature retains the upper hand over mankind: Lily Bay State Park. Here, where the winter road has long since been replaced by an asphalt one (albeit broken in spots), visitors have spent the past half-century taking in the same wildness that Thoreau believed was so swiftly vanishing. These 925 acres of public land offer a vantage point into the largest undeveloped area east of the Mississippi, a massive quarter of Maine that includes the Allagash, Baxter State Park (in truth a state park in name only, as it’s managed by its own three-person authority), and countless miles of logging roads and timberland. While not really wilderness — logging companies have cut scores of roads across this six-thousand-square-mile area and people have built enough houses to render that term inappropriate — this northwestern chunk of the state represents Maine’s largest remaining parcel of wild land. And for many people, Lily Bay State Park, located just fifty miles off Interstate 95, is the pristine doorway to that final remnant of wildness.
“Lily Bay State Park provides people with a place where there aren’t any other attractions — the attraction is the great outdoors,” remarks Jim Glavine, who lives in nearby Beaver Cove. “State parks have a tendency to be an oasis in suburbia, places where people created the state park to protect a spot from development. Camden Hills, for instance, is a beautiful state park, but a lot of what you see from the park is developed. In Lily Bay you can feel like you’re in the Allagash or the backwoods somewhere, but really you’re just ten minutes outside of Greenville.”
Today that deep woods feeling faces its greatest threat since lumbermen first began venturing beyond Greenville in the nineteenth century. Plum Creek Timberlands, the largest landowner in the United States and owner of virtually all the private land visible from the park, has been granted the right to build an 1,800-acre resort with 404 housing units on the shore of Lily Bay. Whether the resort will be visible from the state park is uncertain; at the very least it would be in plain view of the canoers, kayakers, and even swimmers setting out from Lily Bay State Park. Conservation groups are currently weighing their options to fight the resort, including legal challenges.
Almost from the moment you leave behind the handful of camps and bed-and-breakfasts north of Greenville and pass through the gate at Lily Bay State Park you can’t help but feel that you’ve suddenly immersed yourself in the great North Woods. Whether you choose to turn right, to the forty-three-site campground at Rowell Cove, or continue straight down the two-lane paved road to the larger campground and boat launch at Dunn Point, the impenetrable forest presses in from the sides of the road, reminding you that this land was woodland before contractor Harold MacQuinn’s crews cut the roads and campsites for the park in 1961 and that it would swiftly return to a wild state if humans were ever to turn their attention elsewhere.
Unlike at some campgrounds, sites here are separated by stands of tall pine and spruce trees for privacy. Those on the lakefront sport a thin arbor screen that keeps lake breezes from blowing out a campfire while still affording stellar views of Sugar Island (the largest island on Moosehead, and managed as public reserve land with a few primitive campsites) and the many tiny coves that punctuate the shoreline. For paddlers, these coves and islands provide much-needed shelter from the winds and waves that can turn the lake into a daunting and dangerous inland sea.
Along the rocky shore, trees whose roots have started to give way lean over the water, leading your eye like an outstretched arm to the lake and the shore of the Lily Bay peninsula, for the moment, at least, still largely as much “an unbroken wilderness” as when Thoreau first visited. Other than the brown picnic tables at each site, the pit toilets strategically located away from nearby campers (flush toilets and showers are consolidated in a single building off the main road between the two campgrounds), and a few trash cans sprinkled throughout, the park feels distinctly organic, as if the clearing happened by some freakish natural occurrence.
“Growing up I traveled several times to beautiful Moosehead Lake and the Lily Bay area to spend amazing summer vacations on and around the lake,” explains Lisa Gilmore, of Belfast, opposing Plum Creek’s plan for Lily Bay in a letter to the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC), which oversees the unorganized townships of Maine. “There was no running water, no electricity, no street light, and no noise. It was silent at night, but for the call of the occasional loon or other wild critter.”
Gilmore’s fascination with the celestial display at Lily Bay, due in large part to the lack of houses and resorts in the immediate area, is shared by virtually everyone who visits. “My fondest memory of all our trips would have to be the first, when we were all at the water’s edge one night just stargazing. My oldest child, then six years old described the sky that was full of shooting stars and so bright as ‘better than TV,’ ” says Wendy Lampro, of Otis, Massachusetts, also in a letter to LURC protesting the resort proposal.
A two-mile-long hiking trail connects the park’s two campgrounds. Roots crisscross the rough path, wrapping over and around massive granite boulders as they spread out. Signs marking the trail are largely unnecessary, as the dense forest on each side of the trail keeps hikers from wandering off. Rangers have added just one subtle man-made touch, unobtrusive four-inch-square varnished wooden blocks identifying whether a particular tree is an American beech, balsam fir, or hemlock.
For many families living around Moosehead, Lily Bay State Park has been a place to come together since the Scott Paper Company donated the land to the state in 1954. “I remember asking my mother to take me camping there for one of my birthdays,” remarks Greenville nutritionist and chiropractor Christina Akliros Pritham, whose family ties to the area go back four generations. “There are very few places for the public to go inexpensively around here, but the loons, the stars — it all adds up to a wonderful place. I feel lucky to have grown up with such a place nearby.”
Others say that the natural attraction of Lily Bay State Park is the seven-hundred-yard-long beach that draws day-use visitors to Dunn Point, a wise purchase the state made for only $150,000 just before the park opened. “When I was between high school and college, my future husband was one of the lifeguards up there, and I would take the kids I used to babysit up to spend time with the lifeguard,” laughs Candy Russell, director of the Moosehead Historical Society. “But it’s definitely the best public beach around.”
And though the massive wooden gate to the park swings shut around Columbus Day and prevents automobiles from entering, dozens of hikers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and even a local dog musher take advantage of the park during the off-season. “Locally, the higher use is probably in the wintertime,” remarks Jim Glavine. “It’s not heavily used by snowmobiles.”
Thoreau, of course, would likely not have approved of even the gentle impression mankind has made at Lily Bay State Park. But if he could look past the few modern amenities and gaze out at Carleton Point, for instance, its shoreline still currently as devoid of human intervention as when he first visited, he might take heart in the fact that his description of the scene is as fitting today as it was back in 1857. “It was a perfect lake of the woods,” he wrote.
For the moment, at least, it still is.150 years after Thoreau passed through Moosehead Lake, Lily Bay still provides a unique vantage point for peering into the wild heart of Maine.
Lily Bay State Park, 13 Myrle’s Way, Greenville, ME 04441. Off-season: 207-941-4014; May 15 – October 15: 207-695-2700. www.maine.gov