Maine isn’t exactly known for vast tracts of public lands like what’s available in the Western USA or the State and County-funded forests of the Great Lakes States; however, what we lack in “public” we make up for in working forests that are accessible by a network of gravel logging roads, two-tracks, skidder trails, and they are open to use by hunters and anglers who are up for a Northland adventure.
The North Maine Woods, The NMW for short, isn’t a general term to describe a region of the State. It is a specific collection of privately and commercial owned forest land that encompasses a contiguous area of roughly 3.5-million acres. These 3.5-million acres hold the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, the St. John River, countless pristine trout ponds and streams, world-class big woods partridge covers, patch-worthy whitetails ( aka +200lb dressed weight deer), the highest concentration of Moose in the Lower-48, Black Bears, and more. The NMW is also home to the State’s most active timber harvesting operations, and as such, you’re likely to encounter logging trucks, feller-bunchers, skidders, forwarders, and the folks responsible for turning the forest over and collecting Maine’s most abundant renewable resource. These timber harvesting operations are the reason the NMW exists and are solely to thank for perpetuating wildlife habitat; maintaining roads, bridges and culverts; and providing access and primitive camping accommodations to John and Jane Q. Public.
Truthfully, the origin and history of the NMW is complicated and a little cumbersome to follow so I’ll provide the cliff-notes version. The area has been actively and commercially timbered since the 18th century and even before Maine joined the Union as an individual State. The idea of the NMW stemmed from diversified ownership of the area and came out of a landowner committee developed sometime in the 1960’s to resolve timber-rights disputes, squabbles over road use, maintenance, and land management costs. In the 1970’s the NMW was officially formed and assumed operation of various control checkpoints, greatly reduced the number of interior and unmanned gates, and formed a single and uniform set of land use regulations and access fees. Currently, the NMW can be accessed through one of the 15 controlled checkpoints for a day use fee of $11/day ($16 non-residents) and a camping fee of $12/night ($15 non-residents) (Note: Free day use and camping is offered for kids under 18yo and free day use for those 70yo and up).
It’s a special place that everyone should experience. There really is nothing quite like it in the Northeast.
I am a bit spoiled in that my family’s camp is located minutes from NMW, and as such I’m able to spend a significant amount of time in the NMW each year taking full advantage of the resources the area has to offer. I’ve also had the opportunity to tag-along with woodsmen who have called this place home for 50+ years and have learned more than a few things. I’ve made plenty of my own mistakes and learned firsthand that the big woods of the NMW is not something to mess with. As an attempt to steepen the learning curve for a first timer I’ve compiled some thoughts and a list of tips and essential knowledge that anyone passing through an NMW checkpoint should know:
North maine woods CHECKLIST
- Plan your Routes ahead of time and call ahead: First and foremost, the NMW will always prioritize timber harvest operations and their essential maintenance. Roads, bridges, and culverts are maintained–as they have to be–to support logging. If a washout occurs in a non-essential area it may go un-repaired for a while. A road may be blocked or a bridge pulled to reduce traffic to an area where a new cut is planned. Call the Ashland office on your way north and ask about road status; it’s always worth the call, as the folks there are happy to help people show up informed. On a recent trip I knew a bridge was being repaired the day I was heading north. The Ashland office was able to radio the crew and give me an ETA on completion so I knew the smartest route.
- Have (and know how to use) a Maine Atlas & Gazetteer: This is a hard-sell in today’s world of navigation systems, GPS, and other means of wayfinding but I can tell you right now that the Google Car and Apple Maps fixed-gear bike don’t make their way to the NMW to map the road system. You can use a hand-held GPS or OnX maps on a smart phone to save waypoints and mark a path but the best source of information is in the Gazetteer. The minor roads and two-track arterials can–and do–change from year to year but the central nervous system will be there as shown by DeLorme. The Gazetteer will show check points, gates, camp sites, roads that are seasonably unpassable or subject to perennial washout, and prominent blockages. The locals also work with the naming convention in the Gazetteer so having that reference will aid in getting directions. Hot Tip: most folks you run into are willing to point to a spot on a Gazetteer and give you an idea on an area worth checking out. I can’t say the same service will be provided if you whip out a cell phone and start scrolling and panning around. I sprung for the laminated version to protect from coffee spills and allow temporary mark-ups with a dry-erase marker. It’s worth its weight in lead shot by a large margin.
- Logging Operations Always Have the Right-of-Way: This is a working forest and they mean it. People are working to move timber from the round-wood storage yards to mills and other points beyond and are doing their best to turn a profit or earn a living. Many truck drivers get paid by the load–and they haul ass. No ill will is wished toward recreational land users but if you’re driving along and a logging truck is coming head on, regardless if there’s room or not put yourself as far over as possible and if it comes down to it put yourself in a ditch. It’s for your own safety as well. Likewise, if you’re driving slow scouting for sign from the road and a truck of any sort comes up behind you, Move over and allow them to pass. It may be another hunter who is trying to get to a spot or someone with the logging operation whose time is money. There’s plenty of opportunity for all but try and lean toward the side of being overly considerate, it will pay off in the long run. Hot Tip: Consider a scanner, cheap CB radio, or handheld CB. Trucks will announce themselves before sharp turns or narrow bridges. Another note is some areas will be posted as off limits when they are being actively logged. Be a good steward and give the space that’s requested. Remember 3.5-million acres, there’s nothing to find in that cut that you won’t find a mile or two in the other direction.
- Pack your Rig like you plan on getting stuck or breaking down: When it comes to vehicles in the NMW it’s my opinion that 4WD is absolutely essential. You can get by with AWD in some instances but the roads can turn messy in a hurry. Ground clearance is the name of the game as well. Full sized spares are a must and at certain checkpoints, in areas where shale road-base is prominent, 2-full sized spares are required to enter through the gate (see note 1 and call ahead). Make sure you have a chain or appropriately rated tow strap, a couple quarts of engine oil (Northern Maine Shale can shred an oil pan with ease), working jacks, fix-a-flat, tire plugs, a spade, bow-saw or chainsaw, and at least 10-gallons of fuel. People help those that help themselves, so set yourself up as best as possible and if you get over your head someone will be more likely to give you a hand without too much grief. There’s plenty of goodwill in the NMW but it never hurts to carry extra cash. Hot Tip: If you have a truck with automatic locks keep your spare fob in your pocket and your spare key in another secure area outside the cab of your truck. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone jump out of their truck to check something out and their dog gets excited and hits the lock button. Also, take note of good points to turn around when driving on narrow two-tracks. You will run into someone in a stretch too narrow for two trucks to pass. Knowing where there’s a close spot to turn around will make that treacherous back-up a little less nerve-racking.
- Monitoring Cell Signal As you Travel: In general terms, the NMW is largely outside all cell service; however, there are areas I call “phonebooths” where you’re up high enough or in the open and can pick up enough signal to make a phone call or send a text. As you’re moving spot to spot, flip your phone off airplane mode and track areas where you get service and scribble a mark on your Gazetteer. These spots are great on long trips when you want to check in with home or in an emergency when you might need to call for help. If my truck is FUBAR I’d rather hike it to one of my phonebooths than make the presumably much longer walk of shame back to a checkpoint. Cell boosters help at phonebooths but they aren’t enough to get you universal coverage.
- Carry-In and Carry-out Rules: Plan to carry-out all of your trash. Carry in your drinking water. Even though springs and pristine waters are available it’s better for your gut to drink water you’re used to. Filters and steri-pens should come with–but they are best as a back-up plan. Get firewood from the area and don’t get caught trying to bring your own wood in. Remember, you’re in logging country. They take the transport of invasive insect species very seriously in the NMW.
- Dog-Tracking Collars: Bird-doggers and houndsmen that use GPS tracking collars need to be aware of the rules in the NMW. These collars operate on the same frequencies as the tools used by the logging operations to monitor truck traffic. You could get yourself in some serious trouble if you’re running your dog on the wrong channel. Consult the NMW website for more specific information on how to set the Garmin or Dogtra collar up correctly for the NMW. Hot tip: If you have dogs on the ground leave your tailgate down when you leave your truck. This is locally-accepted signal to let people know to keep an eye out. Do the same if you see a truck parked off a two-track with a tailgate dropped.
- Get off the Beaten Path and Explore: This is a universal truth in the NMW, the hardest places to get to are the ones most worth seeing. It can seem daunting but don’t be afraid to get out there and explore. Use the tips above and common sense to be prepared and help you have more fun and success in the field. Take notes, take in the scenery, and take in as much info as you can so each trip is better than the last.
If you’re interested in travelling to the NMW and have any questions please don’t hesitate to drop me a line. It’s a special place that everyone should experience. There really is nothing quite like it in the Northeast.
Just remember that our presence in the area is a privilege and not a right. We need to be conscious that the modest fee paid at the gate is to keep the lights on at the checkpoints and the camp sites cleaned. Our funding is a drop in the bucket and doesn’t really move the needle in keeping up with the maintenance and management of the NMW. It’s up to us to be good stewards of the land, be respectful of our hosts, and do what it takes to make sure this great resource is available for public use in perpetuity.