Rick and the Raccoon
Rick Lavasseur said the raccoon would make a nice buffet for the bald eagles. He’d found it, dead, on the highway. Usually he throws fish, such as white perch, impaled on sticks so they float, making them easy for the birds to spot. The eagles swoop down from trees on the lake shore, snatching up the fish with their yellow talons just a few metres from his boat. It’s a thrilling spectacle. But the raccoon won’t float long enough for them to reach it. It’ll have to be deposited on a big offshore boulder.
Five pairs of bald eagles live on South Twin Lake, near the small Maine town of Millinocket, where Rick and his wife Debbie run a B&B called 5 Lakes Lodge. The lakes in question, long since connected to ease the transfer of logs, have 120 miles of shoreline. The B&B has canoes and kayaks to borrow. We two related couples stayed in their lovely self catering unit appropriately named the Eagle’s Nest Loft. It has timber walls and ceilings, two bedrooms with those American beds so wide you need a GPS to locate your partner, two bathrooms, a fully equipped kitchen and a big deck with a gas barbecue.
It was nearby Baxter State Park that lured me there. While we had visited Maine twice before it exercised a nagging tug. The others were easily persuaded. The park appeared on maps as a US version of the Arabian Empty Quarter. Henry David Thoreau, who journeyed there more than a century and a half ago, passing close to where the B&B now stands, described it as “stern and savage”. It may not quite merit that description today, but it remains a vast, unspoiled wilderness.
The park weighs in at over 200,000 acres, with unsurfaced roads and more than 225 miles of hiking trails. Brooding over it as a constant challenge is Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest summit and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. It’s a tough climb, as Thoreau discovered in 1846. Separated from his companions and hampered by cloud that obscured the route he failed to reach the summit. We didn’t even attempt it. Our accommodation was at least 1hr 15mins’ drive from the trailhead and to reach the top and descend in a day would demand we would have needed to set off at about 4am. Anyway, that was our excuse. Besides, there were plenty of great day hikes in and around the park.
It was September and the sugar maples were just turning vivid red. Here and there trails were strewn with fallen leaves. Squirrels and chipmunk fled as we passed. Once, something much bigger crashed away through the undergrowth. Moose or bear? We heard but couldn’t see it. There were sparkling brooks to pause by, planks over fragile mosses to negotiate. Most of the routes are shaded by trees – daytime temperatures rarely dipped below the upper 20s centigrade – until you hit exposed granite at the summits with expansive views of forest and lakes. Even trails categorized as moderate are fairly arduous. While they don’t require scrambling you do sometimes have to heave yourself over large boulders on steep sections. A gorgeous exception is an undemanding walk to the Blueberry Ledges, an area mostly devoid of trees, where a tributary of the Penobscot River bounces and hollows its line across an expanse of sun warmed rock easing its descent here and there to form pools in which to cool your feet. An idyllic spot for a picnic.
That route begins just outside the park on the Golden Road, so called, it’s said because of the amount spent to create it. Running as far as the Canadian border, it was built to extract timber, not least for pulp. Great Northern Paper, which was born in 1899 and closed in 2003, once ran the world’s biggest paper mill. It provided newsprint for, among others, the New York Times. At its peak Millinocket boasted a population of some 8000, including workers who settled the neighbourhood that became known as Little Italy. At the last census it was home to around 4500. It’s a fair bet they include a sizeable number of Trump voters.
On the road into town was a sign saying “No National Park”. The notion of such a park, a vast area of the Maine Woods that would swallow up and dwarf even Baxter, has been around for a while. The more immediate probability is the creation of a National Monument – which, unlike a National Park doesn’t need agreement from Congress – on 87,500 acres along the east side of Baxter. Ex President Obama signed the relevant order last year. Whichever, objectors complain such projects interfere with logging. “They need to accept”, one local said wearily, “that the paper mills aren’t coming back.”
Tourism, the alternative, will continue to need sensitive handling. Meantime blissful tranquility remains in healthy supply. Returning from hikes we swam in the lake, watched fiery sunsets, took wine on the deck as cedar waxwings roosted fretfully and woke at night to hear the haunting call of loons, our peace disturbed only by the mournful whistle and rumble of an occasional passing freight train.
Most days, in late afternoon, Rick and Debbie take guests in their boat to feed the eagles. “I never get tired of it”, said Rick. His raccoon smelt a bit choice. After Rick had deposited it on the rock and backed he boat off a big male flew to stand guard over it, apparently waiting for his young to join him at dinner. But, like kids refusing to set aside their smart phones, they failed to cooperate. It wasn’t until next day, when we were driving south to Boston, that Rick, attaching gory photographic evidence, sent me a brief email: “The raccoon was eaten”.