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There are two versions of the Maine Woods. There’s the grand and unbroken forest, threaded with tumbling rivers, that unspools endlessly in the popular perception—and then there’s the reality. It’s tempting to see this region as the last outpost of big wilderness in the East, with thousands of acres of unbroken forest, miles of free-running streams, and more azure lakes than you can shake a canoe paddle at. A look at a road map seems to confirm this, with only a few roads shown here and there amid terrain pocked with lakes. Undeveloped, however, does not mean untouched. The reality is that this forestland is a massive plantation, largely owned and managed by paper and timber companies large and small. An extensive network of small timber roads feeds off major arteries and opens the region to extensive cutting. In the early 1980s, New Yorker writer John McPhee noted that much of northern Maine “looks like an old and badly tanned pelt. The hair is coming out in tufts.” Forest management practices are somewhat improved today; clear-cutting is diminished, although technological advances in logging have encouraged more rapid timber harvesting on the part of some companies (either to “flip” lands for a quick return or to pay down debts incurred as the forest products industry has waned). Still, timber and paper are no longer the boom industries they once were (Maine’s paper mills are shuttering at an impressive rate), and northern Maine has spent the last decade slowly embracing the potential of its recreation economy.

While the North Woods may not be a vast, howling wilderness, the region still has fabulously remote enclaves where moose and loon predominate, and where the turf hasn’t changed all that much since Thoreau paddled through in the mid–19th century and found it all “moosey and mossy.” So long as you don’t arrive expecting utter wilderness (on the scale of, say, the remote Rockies), you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

The debate over Maine’s North Woods

Much of Maine’s outdoor recreation takes place on private lands—and that’s especially true in the North Woods, 9 million acres once owned by only a handful of timber companies. Increasingly, this uninhabited land is at the heart of a simmering debate over land-use policies.

Hunters, fishermen, canoeists, rafters, bird-watchers, and hikers have been accustomed to having the run of much of this forest, with the tacit permission of most timber companies, many of which were founded here and have long historic ties to Maine’s woodland communities. But a lot has changed in recent years. One of the biggest factors has been the increasing value of lakefront property, which has made this land far more valuable as second-home property than as standing timber. Several parcels of formerly open land have been sold off and closed to visitors.

At the same time, corporate turnovers in the paper industry have led to increased debt loads and greater pressure from shareholders to wring more profit from the woods; this, in turn, has led to accelerated timber harvesting and big land sales. New owners are often far-off investment groups with no particular ties to the land or interest in local ecology. Focused only on a speedy return on investment, such investors may opt to cut with abandon, then liquidate the property to a developer.

Environmentalists maintain this scenario is a disaster in the making. They believe that if the state continues on its present course, the forest can’t continue to provide timber jobs or be a viable recreational destination. Many think there’s a reckless amount of tree-cutting and herbicide spraying, while the timber companies insisting they’re practicing responsible forestry.

Several conservation proposals in recent years have ranged from modest steps—like clear-cuttting restrictions, tax incentives to promote open access for recreation, and requiring timber companies to practice sustainable forestry—to sweeping ideas such as turning the entire region into a 2.6-million-acre national park. That initiative morphed into the establishment of the (much smaller) Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, designated by President Obama in 2016.

In the 1990s, several statewide referendums calling for a clear-cutting ban and major timber-harvesting regulations were defeated, but the land-use issue still hasn’t sorted itself out. Big timber companies have negotiated exceptions to regulations in deals with the state that were less than transparent. The debate over the future of this forest isn’t as volatile here as it is in the Pacific Northwest, but still, few residents around here lack opinions on the matter.

One piece of public land all Mainers seem to get behind is Baxter State Park. Owned and managed by the state, it’s one of Maine’s crown jewels, even more spectacular in some ways than Acadia National Park. This 200,000-plus-acre park in the remote north-central part of the state is unlike most state parks you may be accustomed to in New England—don’t look for fancy bathhouses or groomed picnic areas. When you enter Baxter State Park, you’re entering the closest thing to wilderness that the East has left.

Former Maine governor and philanthropist Percival Baxter single-handedly created the park, using his inheritance and investment profits to buy the property and donate it to the state in 1930. Baxter stipulated that it remain “forever wild.” Caretakers have done a good job of fulfilling his wishes: You won’t find paved roads, RVs, or hookups at the campgrounds. (Size restrictions keep all RVs out.) Even cellphones are banned. You will find rugged backcountry and remote lakes. You’ll also find Mount Katahdin, a mile-high granite monolith that rises above the sparkling lakes and boreal forests.

To the north and west of Baxter State Park lie several million acres of forestland owned by timber companies and managed for timber production. These concerns also control public recreation. If you drive on a logging road far enough, expect to run into a gate eventually; you’ll be asked to pay a fee for day use or overnight camping on their lands.

To the east lies Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, established in 2016, which adds another 80,000-plus acres to the North Woods wildland recreation complex. Access to the monument is still on the hairy side—you’ll want a high-clearance vehicle—but the National Park Service will continue to add infrastructure and interpretive elements (signage, campsite improvements, maybe front-country boardwalks) in the coming years. In the meantime, there’s excellent hiking, paddling, and mountain biking to be had on the existing trail system (and something to be said for getting there before the crowds do).

Don’t try to tour these woodlands by car. Industrial forestland is boring at best, downright depressing at its overcut worst, and even a drive along the tote road bisecting Baxter is only sporadically scenic. A better strategy is to select one pond or river for camping or fishing, then spend a couple of days getting to know the small area around it. Like a Hollywood set, buffer strips of trees have been left along the pond shores, streams, and rivers in this region, so it can feel like you’re getting away from it all as you paddle along. Even better: lace up your hiking boots and head into the depths of Baxter or the new monument, where the woods are still as wild as Maine comes.

The towns of Bangor (pronounced Bayn-gore, please—not Bang-er), Orono, and Old Town lie along the western banks of the Penobscot River—not far inland from Ellsworth and Belfast on the coast—and serve as gateways to the North Woods. Once a thriving lumber port, Bangor is Maine’s third-largest city (after Portland and Lewiston), the last major urban outpost with a full-fledged mall. It’s a good destination for history buffs curious about the early North Woods economy. Orono and Old Town, two smaller towns to the north, offer an afternoon’s diversion on rainy days.