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The Secrets of New England’s Last Great Old-Growth Forest

The woodland preserve around Big Reed Pond has become a quiet monument to what we've lost and a potent reminder of what we might recover.

Big Reed Preserve
By Will Grunewald
Photographed by Brian Kelley
From our October 2021 issue

The Maine woods have not been treated gently these past 400 years. Once European settlers had a toehold, they set to felling trees to build homes, open up fields, and make money. White pine was “the first gold that New Englanders struck,” the naturalist Donald Culross Peattie wrote in his seminal 1950 text, A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. “Pioneers used to say that a squirrel could travel a squirrel’s lifetime without ever coming down out of the white pines.” The actual abundance of pine wasn’t quite so dramatic, but the outsize impact on the colonial mind was real, owing to how an old tree’s tufted upper branches towered over the canopy and how its furrowed trunk, wide as a man was tall, punctuated the forest floor. Shipbuilders immediately prized the high, straight pines for masts, and the wood’s favorable ratio of strength to weight made it a sought-after building material along the Eastern Seaboard and abroad.

Big Reed Preserve

Sawmills sprouted along the Piscataqua, Saco, and Presumpscot rivers starting in the 1620s, but running conflict with Native tribes and the French confined cutting to the coastal south and curbed the pace. Following the American Revolution, though, the woods were thrown open. When lumberjacks finished with one stand of pine, they found another, chasing the trees farther up the coast and inland along rivers. Cutting was selective at first, then less so: oak became valuable for shipbuilding and barrel-making, the tanneries wanted tannin-rich hemlock, and various hardwoods were burned for fuel as far south as Boston. The efficient crosscut saw replaced the plodding ax. Dams improved log-driving conditions on the rivers. Mills grew bigger — the F.W. Ayer mill, in Brewer, stretched for a mile along the eastern bank of the Penobscot River, which had developed into the timber trade’s main artery by the 1850s, powered by a class of men hell-bent on moving trees out of the woods and famously inured to the perilousness of the task. “For Death, he does not fear it,” Fannie Hardy Eckstorm wrote in Penobscot Man, her 1904 history. “Sometimes he courts it, sometimes he scoffs at it, sometimes he defies it; but always, always his work comes first.”

By the late 1800s, that work was nearly complete. A survey commissioned by the federal government concluded that high-value trees — mature white pines and their nearest substitute, red spruces — were gone from Maine, with scant exception. “For untold ages Maine had been one unbroken forest,” the 19th-century historian Francis Parkman Jr. wrote. “The woods . . . had their aristocracy; but the axe of the woodman has laid them low.” The logging industry might have bottomed out if not for the timely arrival of a new technology for making paper out of wood pulp instead of cotton. When trees are destined to dissolve into fibrous sludge, it doesn’t much matter their age, size, or shape, and so harvesting intensified again. In the 1920s, trucks capable of hauling logs faster and farther than draft horses entered the woods. The chainsaw was adopted in the 1950s, followed by the mechanical skidder in the 1960s. In subsequent decades, clear-cutting evolved into common practice, as did spraying herbicides to suppress competitors to spruce. The timber companies entered the 21st century cutting at an unprecedented scale.

As a generalization, it’s fair to say that four centuries of logging spared nothing, but by some combination of whim and accident, a very little bit indeed remained intact. Of some 18 million acres of Maine forest, only 10,000 are known to have evaded ax and saw — one half of one tenth of a percent. Most such examples of old growth — physically undisturbed by harvesting — are scattered about in small stands, a disparate collection of isolated anachronisms. Improbably, though, half of Maine’s remaining old growth resides in one uninterrupted block of 5,000 acres, hidden in plain sight in the middle of the north woods, around Big Reed Pond.

There’s no particularly direct way into Big Reed, though a floatplane is probably the easiest. Igor Sikorsky and his wife, Karen, run Bradford Camps, a sporting lodge on Munsungan Lake, and they maintain two backcountry cabins on Big Reed. Bradford is a long and bumpy drive down logging roads from Ashland, 45 miles away, but after that, Big Reed is only a few miles of flying from the dock on Munsungan. Viewed out the windows of Igor’s Cessna, the forest is an undulating expanse of green partitioned into odd configurations by a crisscross of logging roads. When my wife, Heidi, and I looked down at it, we noticed plumes of dust billowing above the trees, the product of trucks trundling through, along with an occasional open patch tinged the shade of straw — clear-cuts, or at least something very near them. The state’s 1986 Forest Practices Act limited the size and frequency of clear-cuts but didn’t ban them. After a few minutes in the air, Igor announced from the pilot’s seat that we’d crossed the invisible boundary between active timberland and the Nature Conservancy’s Big Reed Forest Preserve.

Most people come to fish, Igor said, as the glint of the pond came into view. Big Reed is one of only a handful of waters in Maine — and Maine is the only state in the lower 48 — to host blueback trout, a type of arctic char. Ten years ago, an elaborate intervention by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, with logistical support from Igor and his airplane, saved the char from invasive smelts, and in the past couple of years, the fishing has gotten good again. “But not everybody wants to ruin a good vacation by bringing a rod,” Igor joked. Fish can be fickle. Trees are a steady presence. “The preserve itself flies under the radar,” he added. “It only happens once or twice a year that someone comes who just wants to tromp through the woods.”

Igor tracked along an outlet stream and over a deadwater to Little Reed Pond, to give us a more complete look at the preserve. As he cut a low arc over the smaller pond, we buzzed an unperturbed bull moose standing chest-deep in the water, browsing lazily on grasses. A few minutes later, Igor, whose grandfather was also Igor Sikorsky, the early-20th-century Russian émigré and helicopter pioneer, set us down on the glassy surface of Big Reed. The plane puttered over to a faded wooden dock tucked in the back of a shallow cove on the south shore. On a rise above the pond, the geometry of two small cabins was barely discernible through a stand of sharp-scented evergreens.

Big Reed Preserve

For the cabins, which the Sikorskys lease from the Nature Conservancy, drinking water and firewood are flown in. There’s a woodstove and a gas cookstove, plus a sink, with a bucket for carrying dishwater up from the shore. The outhouse yields a lovely view of the pond if you prop the door open. When the thrum of the Cessna’s engine had faded back in the direction of Munsungan, Heidi and I found ourselves alone in late afternoon, and we went out for a paddle, sharing the water with a pair of loons appearing and disappearing as they chased fish.

The low-angle perspective, looking up at the forest from the pond, exaggerated where individual trees exceeded everything around them. Most of the tallest trees were white pines, but they were few and far between as we scanned the 360-degree sweep of the basin. That dearth of pine probably begins to explain why these 5,000 acres were left alone — it wasn’t worth the trouble to go after such little quantity in the early days of cutting timber. Plus, Big Reed Pond is something of its own watershed, buffered by the bowl-like contour of the land, making for a long and hilly haul out to the nearest drivable stream that could connect to the Penobscot.

There was always a rumor of a township in Maine that had never been cut, but that would have been a real eureka.

Still, other remote and un-piney segments of the north woods managed to make it into the early 20th century mostly unscathed, only to be cut as harvests became increasingly mechanized and indiscriminate. The decisive chip that fell in Big Reed’s favor was the affection of its longtime owners, the Pingree family. David Pingree, the “merchant prince of Salem,” was a Massachusetts shipping magnate in the early 1800s. When Maine split from Massachusetts and public lands in northern Maine were divided and sold off to pad state coffers, he bought up many of them, including, in 1844, the area around Big Reed — as of last year, the 820,000 acres of Maine timberland still held by his heirs made the family the eleventh-largest private landowner in the country. It was likely some hundred years ago that a few of the family members started camping and fishing at Big Reed, according to Hannah Stevens, land-use director of Seven Islands, the company that manages the Pingrees’ timber. Those family members made sure the growing network of logging roads avoided the pond until, in the mid-1980s, Seven Islands approached the Nature Conservancy about making a deal for the old-growth forest around Big Reed.

Virtually no one in Maine knew anything about the Pingree family’s deep-woods haven, and to staff at the Nature Conservancy, the prospect of so much uncut forest in one place in the north woods sounded far-fetched — it would be the largest extant piece of old growth in all of New England. So the conservancy contracted historical ecologist Charlie Cogbill to look into it. He’d been to Big Reed several years before as part of an effort by the state to document remaining old growth. An absence of stumps, the clearest indicator of old growth, had suggested something special to him at the time, but he’d only been given a glimpse of the place by Seven Islands representatives, who were wary of the attention a large, previously unknown tract of old growth might draw, whether from regulators or environmental activists — the state registry wound up listing the area as 10 acres of hardwood. Now, Cogbill was diving into archives to compare the observable composition of the forest with what he could glean from presettlement land surveys, housed on microfilm at the state archives in Augusta. “There was always a rumor of a township in northern Maine that had never been cut, but something like that would have been a real eureka,” Cogbill says. “I came to think that rumor was based on Big Reed.”

The acquisition occurred in stages, part in 1987 and part in 1990, and involved a complex series of payments and land swaps between the Nature Conservancy, the state, and the Pingrees. Shortly thereafter, the conservancy went back to Seven Islands to see about purchasing more of the Pingrees’ surrounding forest, where additional old-growth stands may have existed. This time the offer was rebuffed, which drew the ire of the radical group Earth First!, whose activists drove metal spikes into hundreds of trees just outside the new preserve in order to deter anyone from taking a saw to them. Despite the ugly dust-up at the end of the process, preserving those 5,000 acres was a significant win, Cogbill says: “A lot of the best old-growth areas that went on the registry in the early ’80s have been cut by now. That’s the much more typical story.”

Our second day in Big Reed began on the porch with coffee and oatmeal as a female wood duck and her brood dawdled along the shore below. Once we shoved off in a canoe, the mother and ducklings dashed away, churning the water, drowning out the early-morning quiet with a frantic clamor. The pond, about two-thirds of a mile long and a third of a mile wide, is small despite its name, and the canoe slipped easily through the still water, heading toward one of the canopy-topping pines we’d noticed the previous day. All along the pond, the shoreline was a tangle of fallen trees, bleached and bald from water and sun, clogging the shallows. Since the bank was steep, we simply left the boat in the water, wedged in the fork of a downed tree.

We set out in the general direction of the pine. The earth was soft and hollow, often compressing several inches underfoot, a sensation a little like walking in snow, reminding us at every step how easily the landscape can be disturbed. That’s largely why the Nature Conservancy hasn’t made a trail network, built visitor facilities, or allowed camping at Big Reed. “We’re not trying to keep people out,” Nancy Sferra, the group’s Maine land-management director told me before the trip, “but we’re also not encouraging people to go.”

Of course, people have been walking in Big Reed for a long time. Native Americans must have at least occasionally passed through over many millennia — cliffs just a few miles away were a much-frequented quarry site since prehistoric times. Cogbill once came across an old pine in the preserve with an enigmatic blaze cut into its bark by some unknown person at some unknown point in the past. Foresters, researchers, fishermen, and the merely curious have all had a look around in recent years. But at a time when the pandemic is inspiring new interest in outdoor recreation and reports of natural spaces suffering from overuse and misuse are manifold, the lack of any heavy, regular human presence felt all the more important.

We’re not trying to keep people out, but we’re also not encouraging people to go.

The white pine we were after probably wasn’t more than a couple of hundred yards from our canoe, but detours around fallen logs and thickets of young growth — and, quite possibly, our inherently spotty sense of direction — made for slow going. All of a sudden, though, a little left of where we thought the tree ought to be, we could see that the forest floor opened up, and there it was. We stood on opposite sides of the trunk and wrapped our arms around, a nonscientific form of measurement — we couldn’t nearly touch hands and guessed the tree must be 12 or 13 feet around. Everything in its orbit felt puny. We felt puny. Barbara Vickery, the Nature Conservancy’s Maine stewardship director at the time of the Big Reed purchase, later told me that she had a photo of her and colleagues similarly embracing a massive tree in the preserve. “I’m guilty as charged of romanticizing,” she said. “You just can’t help it in there, because you’re awestruck.”

The Nature Conservancy’s acquisition of one of the rarest of forests had, beginning in the late ’80s, triggered a wave of research interest. Because Big Reed was never harvested, the forest has been sorting itself out uninterruptedly since the end of the last ice age, some 13,000 years ago, when the glaciers had stripped Maine down to bedrock. In their retreat, they left only thin deposits of sediment, and that was enough for mosses, grasses, and shrubs to take hold. Hardy tree species like poplar and jack pine came next. The climate continued to warm, and maples, oaks, and white pines migrated slowly from the south. As average temperatures kept fluctuating, so too did forest composition in various geographic niches across Maine, from wet bogs to dry barrens to windswept mountains.

In Big Reed, pollen analyses done by paleoecologists found that for the past 1,000 years, the relative abundance of tree species hasn’t much changed, a conclusion aligned with Cogbill’s finding in his land-surveys research. In other words, walking through the forest now should feel a lot like it would have 1,000 years ago. “Big Reed is the epitome of what the north woods was in the past,” Cogbill says. “Sometimes, in a place like that, I have to pinch myself.”

But even though the forest is old, its constituent trees are mostly young, at least in relative terms. As a graduate student in the early 2000s, current University of Maine forest-ecology professor Shawn Fraver spent three summers boring pencil-thin core samples from trees around the Big Reed preserve. Core samples pull out a cross-section of a tree’s rings, and in Big Reed, he used them to understand patterns of natural turnover in the forest. “Think of the trees as a biological archive,” he says. “If you can interpret that archive, you can make inferences about past events.”

Big Reed Preserve

The median age of canopy trees, determined by counting rings, was only a little more than 100 years, Fraver found, although he cataloged plenty of outliers. One northern white cedar had 329 rings, but its center had rotted away, and he suspects there could have been as many as 200 years missing from the record. Periods of rapid growth represented in the rings provided evidence of disturbances — when a large tree falls, smaller trees waiting in the dim understory use the sudden infusion of sunlight to try to photosynthesize their way into the canopy. The patience involved in that generational succession is why, in an old-growth forest like Big Reed, shade-tolerant species thrive. Fraver’s work revealed a forest in slow, steady churn: small-scale disturbances, mostly from wind, clearing bits of room here and there for new trees. It’s a glimpse of how the wider north woods would work in an undisrupted state.

A consequence of all that churn, and one of the defining features of old growth, is a mess of a forest floor, mounded with fallen trees all in various states of mossy decay. “A lot of people yawn when we start talking about dead trees,” Fraver says, “but I love working with them.” They’re an important source of habitat, they play a key role in the carbon cycle, and their presence is a major difference from harvested forests, where trees rarely get the chance to grow big enough and old enough to die.

But what happens in those cut-over areas isn’t deforestation — the trees grow back until they’re worth harvesting again — and today, Maine is the most forested state in the country, with 90 percent tree cover. The condition of those woods is another matter, a question of quantity against quality. Unlike in old growth, hard-worked forests send up homogenous stands of trees, both in terms of age and species. They’re less diverse and less resilient ecosystems, often favoring light-loving trees that would otherwise play only a minor role in the forest. There’s hardly a poplar in Big Reed, for instance, yet poplars now abound through the rest of the north woods.

After we’d visited the towering pine, we zigzagged our way along the shore, past yellow birches, hemlocks, maples, spruces. In all, there are more than two dozen species in Big Reed. Eventually, we arrived at the preserve’s lone footpath, a mile-long trail used by fishermen traveling in from the logging roads in search of arctic char. We followed it out to a small, empty parking area. Behind us was the old forest, in front of us, something entirely different.

That afternoon, sweaty, mosquito-bitten, and tired of being harassed by various other biting and stinging insects, we jumped into the pond and floated in the cold, deep water. The prized char presumably swam somewhere beneath, and metallic-blue dragonflies flitted above, sometimes taking pause in our hair. Often, the time Heidi and I spend outdoors is spent getting from one point to the next — trailhead to mountaintop, boat launch to island — but we felt no such linear drive here. We saw what we saw during the days, mostly by way of aimless wandering, and we wound up back in the same place in the evenings. On our last night, we fell asleep as the loons whooped across the water to each other, their calls jumbling together in echoes off the surrounding hills.

Sometime in the wee hours, though, I woke to the far-off but unmistakable clatter of a logging truck’s engine brake. An invisible line in the woods doesn’t hold all outside influences at bay.

“We often think that going into the preserve is like going back in time,” Fraver says. And it largely is, he adds, but he also points out that beech-bark disease has been cankering and killing its namesake trees in the preserve since the 1920s or ’30s, after the culprit fungus first arrived from Europe. The list of other invasive threats already circulating within the state is long — from the emerald ash borer to the hemlock woolly adelgid to the browntail moth — and the trees of Big Reed are susceptible to all of them. Then too there’s anthropogenic climate change. The Maine forest’s mix of deciduous and evergreen trees owes to a peculiar niche it fills at the intersection of the boreal forests to the north and the temperate forests to the south, and so it’s always been a scene of transition — 23 tree species meet their northern or southern terminus in Maine. But how exactly the Big Reed forest might change in response to an abrupt spike in temperatures and shifting patterns of precipitation remains an open question.

We often think that going into the preserve is like going back in time.

Cogbill especially worries about massive blowdowns cutting short the window to develop long-term data on Big Reed. Although the forest has avoided catastrophic natural disturbances, several other significant old-growth forests in the Northeast haven’t been so lucky during windstorms. “Big Reed is the major reference stand in Maine,” Cogbill says. “There’s nothing else like it. The more data we can collect over a long period of time, the more we understand.”

The Nature Conservancy uses data on Big Reed — things like the density of large trees and the volume of rotting debris on the forest floor — as a comparative tool for gauging the maturity of its Maine properties that are in various stages of post-harvest recovery. “An old stand of trees is very different from an old-growth forest,” says Mark Berry, the conservancy’s Maine forest-program manager. “To become an old-growth forest, it has to get past being an old stand of trees — some of those old trees have to start falling over in order to get every other age class of tree growing into that forest.”

Some researchers and foresters have tried measures to accelerate the restoration of old-growth characteristics — removing species that wouldn’t normally appear in a shady, old forest or killing mature trees for the sake of increasing the amount of debris on the ground, the latter practice known as morticulture. But such methods are uncommon, and regardless, time remains the crucial element — time for new trees to grow old, time for dead trees to decompose and for still more to decompose atop them.

Big Reed Preserve

On our last morning in Big Reed, we went looking for an enormous elm tree that Igor had pointed out on the way in. It wasn’t far from the cabins — just up a little ridge. He said it was maybe a 10-minute jaunt. More than an hour later, we found our way back to the pond’s edge, after having gone down the other side of the ridge and gotten turned around while picking a way through some dense beds of chest-high new growth. We didn’t find the elm, which we didn’t much mind, rare though the species is. Time spent feeling a little lost — but not too lost — in those woods was time well spent.

Time runs on a different scale in Big Reed, and not just for the trees. That afternoon, as we waited for Igor’s floatplane to splash down, I lounged on a rock by the pond. It was 15 minutes past our agreed-upon pickup time. Then 25 minutes, and then 40. Heidi was back up by the cabins, reading a book. I was starting to feel drowsy. Maybe an hour had passed, and it crossed my mind that if Igor forgot to retrieve us today, that would be quite all right by me. But then, the faint sound of the Cessna approaching, followed by a quick flight back to the main camp and a couple of pastries from Igor and Karen, for the road.

On the drive out, we passed trucks speeding in empty and out full of timber, followed by lumberyards piled high with logs. Then, we passed Old Town, Veazie, Bangor, and all the other onetime Penobscot mill towns, eventually arriving back at our wooden house with its wooden floors and wooden tables and chairs and wooden toaster tongs. That evening, after a piping-hot shower, I sat down at my wooden writing desk and, as my thoughts drifted back to Big Reed, I rubbed at a dry bit of spruce sap on my heel, stubbornly stuck there since I strolled barefoot down to the pond the day before.