Last weekend I had to get away.
I needed to camp and hike.
Actually, that could describe my thoughts on any given weekend, but not just any hike on another crowded trail would satisfy me.
I needed to go someplace that I’ve never been; to hike a new trail and camp somewhere different. I look at the atlas and decide to head to Aroostook State Park, five miles south of Presque Isle, 3½ hours from my home in Ellsworth. Just about far enough. It has a trail up Quaggy Jo Mountain. If there’s a mountain, I’m there.
I got to the park gate about 11:30 Saturday morning and was welcomed by the park manager, Scott Thompson.
“I see you have a loon license plate. Thanks,” he said. Because he noticed my plate, proceeds from which go to support Maine’s state parks, I liked the place already. I booked a tent site for the night for the Maine resident price of $12.84 and drove up the road to the campground.
My site was across from the kitchen shelter. It’s an open-air, partially enclosed building, perfect for ducking into, away from the hard rain. That’s just what I did. I really didn’t want to set up the tent in the rain if it was going to let up later. I went to the shelter to wait it out.
The shelter is quite a building. There are six picnic tables inside, electric lights, power outlets for crock pots or grills, a double sink, counter space and running water. For me, though, it was a rain deflector.
It did slow up a bit, so I looked up Scott to learn more about my surroundings. The park has the distinction of being the first state park in Maine, established in 1939. It was developed with a donation of 100 acres, made by some interested citizens from Presque Isle. Now, with subsequent donations, it’s a little less than 800 acres in size. That’s all on the brochure Scott handed me at the gate.
I didn’t have to look for him, as he drove his pickup up to the kitchen shelter before I could leave. The park borders Echo Lake for about 800 feet of the lake’s mile-long length. I could rent a park canoe and paddle the lake for trout, but I wanted to fly fish a stream if there was one nearby.
“Prestile Stream,” he answered, when asked where the fish might be.
He spent the next few minutes pointing to spots in the atlas that I might try. I drove out of the park and headed for the stream. I found a few places, but never left the truck, mostly because the rain started to come down again.
Back at the campground, it let up. Under a gray mat of clouds, I finally set up the tent in time to cook supper.
After eating steak and potatoes, I went down to the lake and the dock to find a young dad and his two sons, Bryce, 4, and Avery, 6, casting for trout.
I asked how they were biting.
The dad, Josh Ellerd, said, “I think they’re little ones, they keep stealing the worms.”
I tried a few casts and, although the trout struck, I didn’t hook any. Josh and the boys left the dock and shortly after, I did, too.
It was almost dark by then, so I walked around the campground and met a nice family of six from Hodgdon, the Doughty family. I spent some time around their campfire and went back to my tent for the night. They had been there for a week and one of the kids said, “I wish we could stay here forever.”
Before I left the Doughty’s site, I looked up in the black sky and saw stars. It was clearing off.
I woke up at dawn and packed up, ate breakfast and went for one more campground walk. The morning was bright, sunny, breezy and cool. As I walked through the campground, sunlight filtered through the spruce, hemlock and cedars between the sites, creating a welcome sight to rain-weary eyes. I stopped at the Ellerd family’s site and met Carisa Ellerd, the boys’ mom. Josh was making omelets in a bag with the boys’ help, more or less.
They were participants in the First Time Camper program, organized by Gov. Baldacci’s Take It Outside initiative. It was the Cushing family’s first time camping. All their services and equipment were provided free of charge to encourage people to camp and experience nature. They are among 32 families who participate.
“Even with the rain, we’ll be back. It’s such a nice spot,” Carisa said.
The trail up South Peak on Quaggy Jo starts beside site 18, then heads up to the summit at 1,108 feet in three-quarters of a mile. I made it up the steep rugged, rocky ascent and was glad I laced up my boots. The footing was tricky over some interesting bare ledge and shortly I came to an outstanding view to the east of Echo Lake in the foreground and across immense farm fields and rolling landscape that can only be described as pastoral.
Soon, I was on the forested top, then continued hiking along the mile-long connecting ridge to North Peak. I passed a couple of vacant backcountry tent platforms and stopped at a picnic table with a view. I had a snack and just took in the brilliant sunshine.
Soon after passing North Peak, with a great view of Haystack Mountain and other landscape features to the west and north, I descended back to the day use parking area. The 3- mile round trip was a moderately difficult hike and a great way to spend the morning.
I caught Scott on my way out of the park and commented on what a great stay I had.
“We couldn’t have this park as nice as it is without the communities’ help from the surrounding area,” he said. “The Presque Isle Chamber of Commerce held a Haunted Park here last Halloween. The local Job Corps came and cleared downed trees this spring and cleared water drainage bars. We hosted a birding festival. We have a lot of help and I have a great staff, too.”
After spending my time in the park, I got a sense that Scott and his staff care beyond the call of duty about their special place in the state. He’s a great example of the type of ranger whose career is his passion. The 17-year veteran with the state park has served everywhere from West Quoddy Head to Lamoine and now Aroostook.
I hated to leave. I could spend a week there just checking out the area. It’s one of those unique spots where you always feel welcome. I get that feeling every time I’m in The County.
For information on Aroostook State Park, call 207-768-8341.