Final Frontiers: North Woods
It's hard not to feel like a modern-day explorer when traveling to the upper reaches of New England. Make the extra effort of driving an additional hour or two, and you’ll be treated to a rugged wilderness of mountains and lakes, where the wildlife outnumbers the people and history is preserved in the 19th-century architecture and village greens.
IT’S HARD NOT TO FEEL LIKE A MODERN-DAY EXPLORER WHEN traveling to the upper reaches of New England. Make the extra effort of driving an additional hour or two, and you’ll be treated to a rugged wilderness of mountains and lakes, where the wildlife outnumbers the people and history is preserved in the 19th-century architecture and village greens. And, yes, they have plenty of amenities in this northern tier—including one of the finest hotels in the northeast—quaint restaurants, and a slew of outfitters to get you on those lakes and up the mountains. Immersing yourself in the spectacular scenery is the allure, especially for those of us in dire need of Mother Nature’s embrace.
Maine’s North Woods
ONE HOUR INTO OUR MOOSE CRUISE ON MOOSEHEAD LAKE, OUR captain, Steve, shouts, “There’s one around the bend.” Everyone on board jumps up in anticipation of seeing Bullwinkle in the wild. We snake around the Socatean Stream, one of the many tributaries that empty into the 40-mile-long lake, and there, standing in the shallows, is Mother Moose. Close behind is her young calf. Behind the large animals is an undeveloped forest of tall pines and birches, and there’s no one here but us and the moose.
Northern Maine truly feels like America’s version of going on safari. Moose, deer, fox, even bear are not unusual sights in the 10-million-acre forest they call Maine’s North Woods. The terrain here is so remote that dirt roads and the timber trucks that barrel down them are often the only signs of civilization. Yet, if you make it this far north (Moosehead Lake is a 3-hour drive north of Portland), you’ll be treated to some of the most exciting outdoor adventures in the country. Paddle along the same shores of Moosehead Lake that Henry David Thoreau did 150 years ago or venture farther north to canoe the legendary Allagash River. Raft the tumultuous Penobscot and Kennebec rivers. Or hike the last 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, the region they call the 100-Mile Wilderness, a primitive land of cedar bogs, steep-walled gorges and rugged peaks where wildlife is abundant.
My Moose Cruise originated at The Birches Resort in Rockwood, a group of rustic cabins with wooden lofts and outdoor decks, along with a main lodge and more modern homes nestled on the shores of Moosehead Lake and overlooking the precipitous cliffs of Mount Kineo. Other activities at The Birches include kayaking Moose River, taking a seaplane flight over the lake, and listening to loons as you canoe the backside of the property on Brassua Lake.
A little more than 20 miles to the east is the tourism hub on Moosehead Lake, Greenville. Northwoods Outfitters rents canoes, mountain bikes and snowmobiles. Or opt for a guided trip. The Rod-N-Reel Café in town is known for its fresh seafood, such as haddock and Maine scallops. On the water, the restaurant at Kelly’s Landing is where the locals meet for a breakfast of omelets or pancakes.
At Little Lyford Pond Camps, in the heart of the 100-Mile Wilderness, you can rent a cottage that’s nestled in a grove, only a short walk from canoeing on majestic First Little Lyford Pond and fishing on the West Branch of the Pleasant River. A short hike away, the Pleasant River careens through canyon walls, forming waterfalls, in the formidable Gulf Hagas.
Farther north, Millinocket is the gateway to Baxter State Park. The strenuous hike up to the 5,267-foot peak of Mount Katahdin starts at the Roaring Brook Campground. Give yourself 8 to 10 hours, and don’t miss the opportunity to climb up the Knife Edge, a 3-foot-wide granite trail that plummets some 1,500 feet on either side. In Millinocket, New England Outdoor Center offers day-long rafting jaunts on the Penobscot River. Or stop for dinner at River Drivers Restaurant for grilled salmon or an 8-ounce steak.
To access the 92-mile Allagash Wilder¬ness Waterway, put in at Allagash or Chamberlain lakes. Mid- to late September is a perfect time to paddle this serpentine waterway.