Katahdin Woods and Waters Finds Its Footing

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

Photograph by Jamie Walter

Two years in, after a rocky start, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument has found a clearer path forward — and so have the communities counting on it to drum up business.

So rough and ready were Katahdin Woods and Waters’ early days that before worrying about creating, say, trail maps or public restrooms, one of superintendent Tim Hudson’s first tasks was to print a brochure telling drivers how to safely navigate active logging roads. Then, within a year, President Donald Trump ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to reassess some 20 years’ worth of national monuments, including — at the request of Governor Paul LePage — Katahdin Woods and Waters. Only now, two years after its designation by President Barack Obama and eight months since Zinke recommended that designation remain intact, have park administrators and local residents begun to get a handle on what the future of the monument and region might look like.

For these 87,500 acres along the East Branch of the Penobscot River, the pen stroke that bestowed monument status didn’t instantaneously confer infrastructure. Roads in and around the monument are mostly dirt, Governor LePage wouldn’t let the Maine Department of Transportation install signs on state roads leading to entrances, and there are few resources, like reliable maps or interpretive centers, to help visitors figure out how to explore.

And yet, despite all that, more than 30,000 intrepid travelers have visited the monument in these first two years, coming from 45 different states and nine countries. Most drive the gravel Loop Road, pausing at scenic outlooks and parking to venture on trails through second- and third-growth forest. Others traverse the International Appalachian Trail — the first 30 miles of the U.S.–Canada thru-hiker thoroughfare lie in the monument. The Park Service expects visitor numbers to continue to grow, and so — with help from partner organizations — it’s expanding services and amenities.

Read Down East‘s guide to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument‘s from our September 2016 issue.

This past winter, Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters teamed up with Caribou’s Outdoor Sport Institute to groom cross-country ski trails and offer free rentals and lessons. Now, the Park Service is planning a wheelchair-accessible trail, improved signage within the monument, a survey of wildlife populations, and interpretive programs about Wabanaki history, logging and sporting camps, and successional forest ecology.

Outside the monument, the Park Service has held listening sessions for input on park management, helped with a Millinocket Memorial Library project to gather oral histories from residents, and started a local ecology program for Katahdin High School students. On 5,000 acres adjacent to the monument, the nonprofit Butler Conservation Fund is hoping to further grow recreational interest in the area, building Maine Waterside Trails, an outdoor-education center and trail network.

Three KWW Essentials

1 DeLorme’s Maine Atlas and Gazetteer, because the closer you get to the park, the weaker your cell signal.

2 Map Adventures’ new and quite comprehensive foldout, showing trails, facilities, and roads inside the new monument.

3 Provisions. Once in the monument, the only food and water is what you bring in.

In a part of Maine that’s seen few economic prospects since paper mills closed, the energy around the monument has begun to stir up activity on the local business scene. In Patten, the fourth-generation owner of Richardson’s Hardware (10 Main St.; 207-528-2235) doubled his floor space to offer products monument visitors might need, like kayaks, coolers, fishing rods, and a local couple started Flatlanders Smokehouse & BBQ (51 Main St.; 207-528-1021), dishing up ribs, pulled pork, and brisket. In Mount Chase, Shin Pond Village resort (1489 Shin Pond Rd.; 207-528-2900) added a gear rental business, while the new owners of Mt. Chase Lodge (1517 Shin Pond Rd.; 207-528-2183) renovated their cabins. In Millinocket, where the Park Service opened a visitor information center (200 Penobscot Ave.), a real estate firm hired more staff to keep pace with the uptick in the market, and several new businesses have popped up: the former Pelletier Loggers restaurant is now a wine bar and bookstore called Turn the Page (57 Penobscot Ave.; 207-385-8008), and the new Woods and Water Shop (102 Penobscot Ave.) sells locally made souvenirs, crafts, and foodstuffs.

Katahdin Woods and Waters is still in its infancy, but there are signs of good things to come. Literally. In May, even stalwart naysayer LePage dropped his opposition to park signage on state roads. Another step in the right direction.