Un-wilding the Allagash

Alexandra Conover Bennett, Special to The County
4 weeks ago

The meeting of the Allagash Advisory Council began for me in delight. I was reunited with a room full of wardens, fisheries biologists, recreation specialists, lodge owners, naturalists, guides, most of us sporting some grey in our hair. These were my colleagues for over four decades. 

As an active Master Maine Guide for over forty-five years, my “office” is the great North Woods of Maine. I respect these folks. And on a personal level, I will continue to do so.

However, at the conclusion of the four-hour meeting, great disappointment and sadness washed over me. Why? Because the people with the most power to direct the $1.2 million in federal government windfall to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, made it clear their focus is in adding infrastructure over wilderness enhancement. This money came from the Infrastructure and Recovery Act.

How would the managers of this famous wilderness river, 92 miles long with a 500-foot protected zone on either side, with the clear statute that any management effort should at all times “preserve, protect, and enhance the wilderness character of the waterway,” spend this kind of money? The current answer: By adding six new buildings inside the restricted zone and a large landing craft type boat with twin 115-horsepower motors, for starters.

With my experiences of bringing people from all over the world to the wild waterways of Maine and the interior of Quebec and Labrador, I know one thing: the presence of buildings, the smell and sounds of motors, bridges and roads are anathema to people seeking wilderness. People will spend a lot of money to visit truly wild places, more and more a rarity even in Maine.

In wilderness areas, there is some danger. In Maine, it’s mostly by getting too wet or cold, risking travel on windy lakes, or by being unprepared. The greatest risk in actuality is in the drive to and from our trips.

Mostly, there is excitement in the wilderness. You are physically active, engaged in traveling under your own power, cooking, relaxing, exploring, using all your senses to take in the natural beauty. You are learning new skills and forming new friendships, despite your age or experience. You are connecting in a powerful way with a complex and beautiful natural system. You are, in fact, living in the present — one of the rarest experiences to be had today.

Wilderness areas are not parks, nor are they managed as parks. Park management focuses upon people. Safety is their priority. Parks, unlike true wilderness areas, generally draw highly inexperienced and unprepared public. The visitors require extra care and as such their experience feels that much tamer, predictable and not as engaged with present time.

The Allagash Wilderness Waterway is not a park. It is a living, breathing entity. It is a complex, smoothly running, ever-changing system of multiple natural systems. Cold cedar swamps, warm ice-gouged gravel banks, shaded softwood forests, meadows filled with the sounds of geese, bittern, songbirds and frogs, wading moose and deer.

Those of us who love wild places try to make the longest trips possible, because the more days experienced, the deeper your connection and the better you feel.

Wilderness travelers are not seeking someone to resupply us with food or missing equipment, comfort stations, WiFi connections, or permanent shelters from heavy downpour. In contrast to an average park visitor, wilderness travelers come prepared as possible and are ready to accept the consequences of our actions.

Our highest priorities? Peace and quiet. Clean air and water. The sounds and scents of nature. View-sheds unbroken by human intrusions like buildings, roads and motorboats.

With all due respect, I ask the Department of Parks and Lands, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway Advisory Board, the AWW Foundation (for whom I am an adviser), and the current AWW Supervisor Mark DeRoche to reconsider their decision, in the guise of “safety,” to un-wild the Allagash. Times have changed. We can do it. It’s time for re-wilding.

Please share your concern by contacting Bureau of Parks and Land Director Andy Cutko at 207-287-3821 or andy.Cutko@maine.gov.

Alexandra Conover Bennett lives in Elliotsville Township. She is a Master Maine Guide and an adviser for the Allagash Wilderness Waterway Foundation.