Millinocket means different things to different people: to some it’s home; to visitors to the north woods it’s the last place for gas and supplies; to Appalachian Trail hikers it’s the first town they see after finishing their 2,178-mile journey that ends at Baxter Peak on Mount Katahdin.
To celebrate the community’s place in these folks’ lives, Millinocket annually throws the Trail’s End Festival, a three-day event showcasing the importance of the town to visitors to the region, but also symbolized the end of the hiking season as it draws to a close. It is a chance for backpacking AT hikers, from this year and past, to connect with the town that played such an important role in their journey. And a chance for the town to connect with the hikers.
By the time I got there last Saturday I had missed quite a few events held on Friday; like free movies, outdoor related videos, and presentations all day at North Light Gallery at one end of town. At Veterans Park there was free music at the bandstand by local and Maine acts such as Tim Bishop and 5th Ave, and Dave Mellow Blues Band.
The festival has a local quality, with all the performers coming from Maine. Another event I missed Friday was the Hard Core trail project. That morning six or eight volunteers from the through-hiker ranks volunteered for work somewhere on the trail they just finished hiking. Saturday I caught up with Bruce Grant at the Maine Appalachian Trail Club display to find out how it worked out.
“It went pretty well. We had six or eight backpackers volunteer to carry the corrugated aluminum roofing panels two miles up to Chairback Gap Lean-to. There were more backpackers than club volunteers. We had to climb over Columbus Mountain to get to the lean-to,” he said. “The club volunteers today will take the old roof off and replace it with the materials that were hauled up yesterday.”
As Grant and I talked he introduced me to Laurie Potteiger from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. She was in the next booth and had worked on the trail project. A 1987 through-hiker, she now works for the trail conservancy as an information specialist.
Over on Penobscot Avenue the parade was beginning, led by backpackers and closed out by the Katahdin area Boy Scouts. Some of the hikers were fresh off the trail. The street was lined with town folk who greeted the march with applause and cheers.
Soon the bandstand at the festival grounds in the park became the center of attraction when the Maine State Dixieland Band started playing. They played in the background as the gathering crowd took their seats to listen. As I walked around the grounds I ran into Barbara Bentley at the Friends of Baxter State Park booth.
We talked a little bit about the large turnout, which was increasing as the morning went by. There was a pie-auction at noon and more music performed by 16-year old singer and guitar player, Emily Guillow. The young Millinocket performer captivated everyone with her performance. She played for about an hour and then Susan Ramsey took the bandstand with her fiddle. She plays with the band performing with David Mallett, the next act.
Mallett took the stage along with Ramsey and the rest of the band. They were greeted enthusiastically by the crowd, which had grown to about 1,000 by then. There’s something uniquely Maine about Mallet’s sound. Whenever I hear the nationally popular singer-songwriter play, I hear Maine. It’s the phrasing in his songs or something that just represents the sound of Maine.
Over at the festival tent had a chance to talk with event organizers, Jaime and Paul Renaud who were very appreciative of the community’s support.
“We couldn’t do this by ourselves. We thank all the local sponsors for everything they do to make this possible,” Jaime said. “We had many people approach us to say how much they enjoyed the festival and thanked us for it,” she said.
“The best part for me has been watching the people enjoy themselves,” Paul added,
There were more hiker-and outdoor-related activities throughout the grounds I wanted to see, so I left the Renauds, owners of the Appalachian Trail Cafe and Lodge, and stopped by the Tread Lightly booth. There I met Steve Salisbury, a Master Tread Trainer with the program launched by the U.S. Forest Service in 1985 that promotes responsible motorized use in the backcountry.
After talking with Salisbury about land use and how foot travelers and motorized travelers are all out there for the same reasons, we agreed that there are plenty of woods to allow all of us to have a good time and enjoy the outdoors. It is a finite resource, though, and we all need to be responsible users. By then it was getting time to eat some chow and walk along the grounds and take in more of the events that were planned.
I wanted to hear a 2008 through-hiker named Brad “Old Buzzard” Cook from Massachusetts talk about how the hiking the Appalachian Trail changed his life. He was speaking at the North Light Gallery at the other end of the street.
Walking down the street, I was struck by what a friendly, welcoming place Millinocket is. Everyone was in the festive mood. Hikers, townspeople and families met and mingled all up and down the street. I met a couple of older guys from England who just finished their hike. There was another guy from Ireland, leaving to catch the bus to Bangor and, eventually, a flight home. He just finished his hike.
Millinocket residents have a lot of reasons to be proud of their town. They’ve made it more than an entry way to the north woods. The townspeople’s welcoming spirit represented in their festival last weekend will make lasting memories for the hikers who ended their journey there. You couldn’t ask for more than that from any town. I couldn’t wait for Sunday and more fun.