The
Goodly
River

PHOTOS AND TEXT BY TRISTAN SPINSKI

Twenty years ago, a motley band of guides, foresters, and conservationists put in on northern Maine’s remote upper St. John River to sketch out an audacious conservation plan. This summer, they returned to take stock.

The
Goodly
River

PHOTOS AND TEXT BY TRISTAN SPINSKI

Twenty years ago, a motley band of guides, foresters, and conservationists put in on northern Maine’s remote upper St. John River to sketch out an audacious conservation plan. This summer, they returned to take stock.

Above: Jason Cross, of Smoking Rivers guide service, navigates a calm section of the upper St. John River.

BY MIDSUMMER, it has slowed to a trickle, but should you lay your paddle down on any spring day on Maine’s upper St. John River, the current will carry you northward in a hurry. The river loses 1,200 feet of elevation between its headwaters at Upper First St. John Pond and its confluence with the Allagash, some 150 river miles downstream. In between, its tannin-stained waters flow swollen through spruce-and-fir forest, between banks scoured by ice floes. The Maliseet called it Woolastook, an anglicized word often translated as “goodly river,” which settlers understood as praise not only for the waterway’s beauty but for its generosity — its navigability and productivity. In December 1998, the river came to host an ongoing conservation experiment when The Nature Conservancy purchased 185,000 acres of surrounding forest, a buy that made national headlines, on a scale unlike anything the organization had undertaken. That spring, a group of stakeholders paddled the St. John while laying the groundwork for an ambitious management strategy. This year, Down East contributor Tristan Spinski joined a 20th-anniversary paddle commemorating that trip.

The St. John River

BY MIDSUMMER, it has slowed to a trickle, but should you lay your paddle down on any spring day on Maine’s upper St. John River, the current will carry you northward in a hurry. The river loses 1,200 feet of elevation between its headwaters at Upper First St. John Pond and its confluence with the Allagash, some 150 river miles downstream. In between, its tannin-stained waters flow swollen through spruce-and-fir forest, between banks scoured by ice floes. The Maliseet called it Woolastook, an anglicized word often translated as “goodly river,” which settlers understood as praise not only for the waterway’s beauty but for its generosity — its navigability and productivity. In December 1998, the river came to host an ongoing conservation experiment when The Nature Conservancy purchased 185,000 acres of surrounding forest, a buy that made national headlines, on a scale unlike anything the organization had undertaken. That spring, a group of stakeholders paddled the St. John while laying the groundwork for an ambitious management strategy. This year, Down East contributor Tristan Spinski joined a 20th-anniversary paddle commemorating that trip.

The St. John River

TIMBER COUNTRY

For 80 miles, the St. John is Maine’s northern border; from there, it flows southeast through New Brunswick to meet the Bay of Fundy. Along its lower sections, it’s flanked by early-settled farmland, but in its upper reaches, it’s long been timber country, a quasi-wilderness managed for generations by behemoth timber companies. By the late ’90s, however, industry shifts were reshaping Maine’s land-ownership model, as market forces and changes in tax law prompted forest-products companies to sell off vast land holdings — including to developers. In 1998, when International Paper Company announced it was selling 185,000 acres along the St. John, The New York Times reported that some 15 percent of the state had gone up for sale that year.

The Nature Conservancy bid on the land in partnership with a timber-investment company, committing $3 million to protect 34 miles of river corridor, while the partner put up $32 million to harvest trees on the remaining acres. At first, the bid lost. Then, a month later, the winning bid fell through — but TNC’s partner had already committed its funds elsewhere. So TNC took a leap: it set out to buy and manage the parcel on its own.

TIMBER COUNTRY

For 80 miles, the St. John is Maine’s northern border; from there, it flows southeast through New Brunswick to meet the Bay of Fundy. Along its lower sections, it’s flanked by early-settled farmland, but in its upper reaches, it’s long been timber country, a quasi-wilderness managed for generations by behemoth timber companies. By the late ’90s, however, industry shifts were reshaping Maine’s land-ownership model, as market forces and changes in tax law prompted forest-products companies to sell off vast land holdings — including to developers. In 1998, when International Paper Company announced it was selling 185,000 acres along the St. John, The New York Times reported that some 15 percent of the state had gone up for sale that year.

The Nature Conservancy bid on the land in partnership with a timber-investment company, committing $3 million to protect 34 miles of river corridor, while the partner put up $32 million to harvest trees on the remaining acres. At first, the bid lost. Then, a month later, the winning bid fell through — but TNC’s partner had already committed its funds elsewhere. So TNC took a leap: it set out to buy and manage the parcel on its own.

Paddling on the St. John River

JUST ADD A ZERO

Roger Milliken was one of several paddlers on this trip who were part of TNC’s post-purchase expedition 20 years ago. Back then, the scion of the Milliken & Company industrial fortune was a member of the Maine chapter’s board and was (and still is) at the helm of the Baskahegan Company, which manages his family’s Maine timberland. Around a fire on this year’s trip, Milliken, who co-chaired the fundraising effort to protect the St. John River Forest, recalled the undertaking’s scope.

“The informal motto of the capital campaign was, ‘Just add a zero,’” he said. “So people we’d ordinarily have asked for $10,000, we asked for $100,000.” Milliken and his wife, Margot, contributed $500,000 — which they agree was a value-defining moment in their philanthropy. “I think for people who cared about Maine, it felt like a do-or-die moment,” Milliken said. “It was about sovereignty. Were we going to be able to control our own future? Or were these larger economic forces going to determine what the future of Maine was like?”

Roger Milliken went on to chair The Nature Conservancy’s global board of directors..
Roger Milliken went on to chair TNC’s global board of directors.

JUST ADD A ZERO

Roger Milliken was one of several paddlers on this trip who were part of TNC’s post-purchase expedition 20 years ago. Back then, the scion of the Milliken & Company industrial fortune was a member of the Maine chapter’s board and was (and still is) at the helm of the Baskahegan Company, which manages his family’s Maine timberland. Around a fire on this year’s trip, Milliken, who co-chaired the fundraising effort to protect the St. John River Forest, recalled the undertaking’s scope.

“The informal motto of the capital campaign was, ‘Just add a zero,’” he said. “So people we’d ordinarily have asked for $10,000, we asked for $100,000.” Milliken and his wife, Margot, contributed $500,000 — which they agree was a value-defining moment in their philanthropy. “I think for people who cared about Maine, it felt like a do-or-die moment,” Milliken said. “It was about sovereignty. Were we going to be able to control our own future? Or were these larger economic forces going to determine what the future of Maine was like?”

Roger Milliken went on to chair The Nature Conservancy’s global board of directors..
Roger Milliken went on to chair TNC’s global board of directors.
Master Maine Guide Larry Totten
Master Maine Guide Larry Totten

100 MILES OF SOLITUDE

Master Maine Guide Larry Totten, who led the St. John River expedition 20 years ago, is drawn to the St. John because of its wilderness character. The river is undammed. Along its shore, a paddler can take note of the “browse line,” below which the moose have nibbled what branches they can reach. During this spring’s three-day trip, paddlers spotted belted kingfishers, yellow-rumped warblers, winter wrens, white-throated sparrows, goldfinches, bitterns, and merlin falcons. Muskellunge darted beneath the surface, their wake lines suggesting violence below, and Totten remembered a time before the muskies were introduced when the St. John supported brook trout. But few fish survive muskies’ appetites, and there are no brook trout today. The trees are bigger, though, Totten said, 20 years into TNC’s conservation effort, and a paddler can still go 100 miles without running into another person.

100 MILES OF SOLITUDE

Master Maine Guide Larry Totten, who led the St. John River expedition 20 years ago, is drawn to the St. John because of its wilderness character. The river is undammed. Along its shore, a paddler can take note of the “browse line,” below which the moose have nibbled what branches they can reach. During this spring’s three-day trip, paddlers spotted belted kingfishers, yellow-rumped warblers, winter wrens, white-throated sparrows, goldfinches, bitterns, and merlin falcons. Muskellunge darted beneath the surface, their wake lines suggesting violence below, and Totten remembered a time before the muskies were introduced when the St. John supported brook trout. But few fish survive muskies’ appetites, and there are no brook trout today. The trees are bigger, though, Totten said, 20 years into TNC’s conservation effort, and a paddler can still go 100 miles without running into another person.

Master Maine Guide Larry Totten
Master Maine Guide Larry Totten
Spring trip on the St. John River
TNC trustees like Dr. Heather Leslie, director of UMaine’s Darling Marine Center
Leslie’s daughter celebrated her 9th birthday during the trip.

This spring’s expedition was joined by TNC trustees like Dr. Heather Leslie (center), director of UMaine’s Darling Marine Center. Leslie’s daughter celebrated her 9th birthday during the trip.

A SEAT AT THE TABLE

While TNC’s original intent was only to conserve the river corridor, assuming the role of forest manager was a strategic and necessary move, says Nancy Sferra, the Maine chapter’s director of stewardship and ecological management. At a time when many environmentalists raised eyebrows at the notion of a conservation organization involved in timber harvesting, TNC wanted “a seat at the table” with large landowners, Sferra says, both to learn from veteran foresters and to influence land-management policy. A sustainable timber harvest would help pay for road and campsite maintenance, property taxes, staff salaries, and other costs associated with ownership of the St. John River Forest. It would also allow TNC to experiment with new models for working forest. “Was there a way for us to do forest management from an ecological perspective?” Sferra recalls the group asking. “Maintaining older trees on the landscape, having better species composition — we were interested in the ecological aspects of forest management.”

Nancy Sferra, the Maine chapter’s director of stewardship and ecological management
Nancy Sferra, TNC's director of stewardship and ecological management

A SEAT AT THE TABLE

While TNC’s original intent was only to conserve the river corridor, assuming the role of forest manager was a strategic and necessary move, says Nancy Sferra (right), the Maine chapter’s director of stewardship and ecological management. At a time when many environmentalists raised eyebrows at the notion of a conservation organization involved in timber harvesting, TNC wanted “a seat at the table” with large landowners, Sferra says, both to learn from veteran foresters and to influence land-management policy. A sustainable timber harvest would help pay for road and campsite maintenance, property taxes, staff salaries, and other costs associated with ownership of the St. John River Forest. It would also allow TNC to experiment with new models for working forest. “Was there a way for us to do forest management from an ecological perspective?” Sferra recalls the group asking. “Maintaining older trees on the landscape, having better species composition — we were interested in the ecological aspects of forest management.”

Nancy Sferra, the Maine chapter’s director of stewardship and ecological management
Nancy Sferra, TNC's director of stewardship and ecological management
Forest program director Mark Berry
TNC forest program director Mark Berry

A WORKSHOP FOR BALANCE

Roughly half of TNC’s St. John River Forest is designated as ecological reserve, says forest program director Mark Berry, a living laboratory where nature is left to take its course. The rest is open to a sustainable timber harvest, which Berry describes as a “moral obligation” to Mainers in the region who depend on the land for their livelihood. Last year, TNC introduced a carbon offset program on 113,000 of its St. John acres, under which businesses pay TNC to reduce its harvest, leaving carbon stored in the forest and out of the atmosphere. TNC also recently leased acreage in the St. John for a sugaring operation that yielded 25,000 gallons of maple syrup from mixed-growth stands that adhere to ecological criteria designed to foster wildlife habitat. The sugaring operation brought in $36,000 last year, TNC reports, outpacing what a timber harvest on the tract would have yielded. Today’s St. John River Forest is essentially a workshop for learning to balance economic and ecological demands. “If we want to keep forests on the landscape at scale,” Berry says, “we need a significant majority of that to be commercial forests that are providing livelihoods to people and products that people need. And within that larger landscape, we see opportunities to establish ecological reserves.”

The St. John River Forest is essentially a workshop for learning.

A WORKSHOP FOR BALANCE

Roughly half of TNC’s St. John River Forest is designated as ecological reserve, says forest program director Mark Berry (left), a living laboratory where nature is left to take its course. The rest is open to a sustainable timber harvest, which Berry describes as a “moral obligation” to Mainers in the region who depend on the land for their livelihood. Last year, TNC introduced a carbon offset program on 113,000 of its St. John acres, under which businesses pay TNC to reduce its harvest, leaving carbon stored in the forest and out of the atmosphere. TNC also recently leased acreage in the St. John for a sugaring operation that yielded 25,000 gallons of maple syrup from mixed-growth stands that adhere to ecological criteria designed to foster wildlife habitat. The sugaring operation brought in $36,000 last year, TNC reports, outpacing what a timber harvest on the tract would have yielded. Today’s St. John River Forest is essentially a workshop for learning to balance economic and ecological demands. “If we want to keep forests on the landscape at scale,” Berry says, “we need a significant majority of that to be commercial forests that are providing livelihoods to people and products that people need. And within that larger landscape, we see opportunities to establish ecological reserves.”

Forest program director Mark Berry
TNC forest program director Mark Berry
The St. John River Forest is essentially a workshop for learning.
The St. John River Forest
The St. John River Forest
The St. John River Forest

Scenes from the remote campsites and cabins along the St. John; paddlers often fly in and out.

A logbook at the first-come-first-served Flaws Bogan cabin.
A logbook at the first-come-first-served Flaws Bogan cabin.

FLOWING AND GROWING

Kate Dempsey, state director of TNC in Maine, says the organization is open to input when it comes to management strategies, and that much of what informs TNC’s approach — within the St. John River Forest and at other sites in Maine and elsewhere — is insight from those who live on and work the land. “Human interests and ecological interests can be in sync, if you look at the whole system,” Dempsey says. “The challenge ahead is how we continue to ensure that the forest provides multiple benefits to us as Mainers and to people from outside Maine.”

On the TNC party’s last day on the St. John, after days of cloudy skies, the late-afternoon sun came out and warmed the whole flotilla. A tailwind blew gently as Roger and Margot Milliken sang “The River She Is Flowing” a few boats up ahead, the melody drifting in and out of earshot. It was hypnotic. The river carried us north.

FLOWING AND GROWING

Kate Dempsey, state director of TNC in Maine, says the organization is open to input when it comes to management strategies, and that much of what informs TNC’s approach — within the St. John River Forest and at other sites in Maine and elsewhere — is insight from those who live on and work the land. “Human interests and ecological interests can be in sync, if you look at the whole system,” Dempsey says. “The challenge ahead is how we continue to ensure that the forest provides multiple benefits to us as Mainers and to people from outside Maine.”

On the TNC party’s last day on the St. John, after days of cloudy skies, the late-afternoon sun came out and warmed the whole flotilla. A tailwind blew gently as Roger and Margot Milliken sang “The River She Is Flowing” a few boats up ahead, the melody drifting in and out of earshot. It was hypnotic. The river carried us north.

A logbook at the first-come-first-served Flaws Bogan cabin.
A logbook at the first-come-first-served Flaws Bogan cabin.

Tristan Spinski

Tristan Spinski is a photographer, writer, and co-founding member of GRAIN, a photography collective. Tristan earned his master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley and is currently a contributing photographer for Mother Jones.