ALLAGASH, Maine — In the pre-dawn hours in more than a dozen small cabins in northern Maine the lights come on, coffee is set to boil and the shades are opened.
It’s 5 a.m. and the North Maine Woods is open for business.
Covering more than 3.5 million acres of commercial forestland, the North Maine Woods is a partnership of large and small landowners including corporations, individuals and families that manages a large chunk of Maine.
Over the years, the landowners have established a series of gated entrances into the North Maine Woods, not to restrict access but to control it, according to Al Cowperthwaite, executive director of the North Maine Woods.
And, without a doubt, the eyes and ears keeping track of all comings and goings are the 70 receptionists who monitor the 14 checkpoints — or gates — leading to and from the North Maine Woods.
Known locally as the “gate women,” since the jobs are held largely by females, no one gets in — or out — of the North Maine Woods without those receptionists knowing about it.
“Those gate women are very important to the mission of the North Maine Woods,” Cowperthwaite said. “They are sort of the ‘Walmart greeters’ for people coming in.”
Anyone entering the North Maine Woods must first check in at one of the gates.
The checkpoints are monitored either physically or electronically 24 hours a day, seven days a week from May 1 to Nov. 30 by the receptionists, who live in gatehouses or nearby cabins.
When a visitor comes through, the receptionist takes down some basic information including vehicle license plate number, name and home address, and the visitor pays an entrance fee based on residency, age, purpose of the trip and how long they plan to stay.
Thanks to that system, which is now computerized, they know at all times who is where and doing what in the North Maine Woods, Cowperthwaite said.
“There are no secrets in the North Maine Woods,” he said.
Just try keeping a secret from — or keeping up with, for that matter — the likes of Faye O’Leary Hafford and her longtime friend Clara McBreairty, who both worked the gates in the 1990s.
The two women are sort of the elder statesmen of the gates and Hafford, 87, has published the book “Checkpoint Chatter” about her time there.
Hafford, who spent 16 years working with her husband, Lee Hafford, at the Michaud Farms ranger station on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway before taking a post on the gates, said it’s the social aspect of the job that attracted her.
“I just loved the people,” she said. “They came from all over the world and they were all so happy to be coming into the woods and talk about what they had seen and where they were from.”
McBreairty, 83, recalled that every day brought something new and different at the gates, which close for the day promptly at 9 p.m.
“People would come out late sometimes and when they got out of the woods they didn’t know where to camp or stay,” she said. Knowing that it was 40 miles to the nearest motel in Fort Kent, “I’d send them down to my house in Allagash and they’d camp on my lawn.”
Next to wanting to know the good fishing spots, newcomers entering the gates wanted to know where to spot wildlife.
“They all wanted to see moose and bear,” McBreairty said.
Those four-legged denizens of the North Maine Woods were constant — if not always welcome — companions of the gate keepers.
“I remember once a bear tried to get into the cabin,” Hafford said. “I heard the back door slam and went to go check, I heard the front door slam — it was the bear trying to get inside.”
One night at the Allagash gatehouse, McBreairty said she was woken up by commotion outside.
“I heard something and it was a bear getting into the garbage,” she said. “I was too sleepy to bother with it and in the morning all the trash cans were empty — that bear took all the garbage.”
Another time McBreairty said a mountain lion paid her a visit.
“I’ll never forget that day,” she said. “I was up to the St. Francis gate and I looked out [and] there it was; it was the color of hay and had this long tail with a tuft on the end.”
Neither woman fears much in the Maine woods, though McBreairty did admit to one thing.
“I didn’t care how many bears the wardens would bring in to release after they trapped them somewhere else,” she said. “But told them if they brought in even one snake, I was done.”
The gate women are often the first responders for people needing assistance in the woods, be it for flat tires or severe injuries.
In one case, after a mishap with his vehicle,“one guy [walked] out of the woods to the gate and he was hurt and bleeding and needed stitches,” McBreairty said. “I gave him the keys to my car and he came back with six stitches and had filled [the car] with gas.”
Then there were the times the women had to be woods counselors of sorts.
“I had this one man who came in deer hunting with his friends for a few days and he got his deer the first day, so he told me he was going to go out and shoot a bear,” McBreairty said. “I asked him if he was going to eat it, and he said ‘no.’ Then I asked if he was going to make a rug out of it, and he said, ‘no.’ Then I asked if he knew what a big job it was to tag it and deal with it. He said, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll go shoot a coyote.’”
Changing of the guard
For 12 years Mabel Pelletier has supervised the North Maine Woods receptionists and has fond memories of those early gatekeepers like Hafford, McBreairty and the ones no longer here.
“I knew all of them and was related to half of them,” she said.
In the early days of the gates the women lived rough, Pelletier said, carrying in their own water and firewood to heat two buildings — the gate building and their small bunkhouses.
“It’s pretty modern now,” she said.
These days the cabins are equipped with propane heaters and lights. Some, like the gate house at Little Black, have electricity and Internet access.
“Whenever the young people working there now ask for anything, I tell them to remember what is was like years ago,” Pelletier said.
One of those newcomers to gate keeping is Darlene Kelly Dumond, an Allagash native who has returned to her roots at the Little Black Gate.
“I grew up right across the road,” she said, pointing to a plot of land near the St. John River about 100 yards from the gatehouse. “That’s the old family homestead.”
Kelly Dumond, 53, recalled the great flood of 1991 that destroyed the old house, but not before her grandfather was rescued out of the building’s second floor by boat.
Kelly Dumond admits she could not wait to leave once she graduated high school. More than three decades later, she’s back and there is nowhere else she’d rather be.
Working as a receptionist for the North Maine Woods, she said, is a perfect fit for her rediscovered lifestyle.
“My grandfather worked this gate,” Kelly Dumond said. “Some days I look out and see the fog rise from the river and the sun hits it and I think, ‘My God, this must be just how Grammy and Grampy saw it.’”
Kelly Dumond’s alarm goes off at 4 a.m. and the coffee is brewing soon after.
“At 5 a.m. I turn on the lights, unlock the door and we are open for the day,” she said, adding there are times people are already waiting to get into the woods.
For the most part, she knows them all.
More often than not, the traveler stays to exchange pleasantries and ask about Kelly Dumond’s family before hitting the roads to that favorite fishing hole or campsite.
“Did you see that?” she asked as a truck drove off. “That was Bobby McBreairty, one of the biggest loggers up here and he just came in to say hi and get his piece of candy.”
She’s not sure where or when the tradition started, but Kelly Dumond makes sure the large jar on her desk is never empty of hard candies and Tootsie Pops.
For many who come north, the receptionists are their introduction to the woods of northern Maine.
“They knew us by name before we even walked in the door,” Beverley Edgecomb of Dresden, said as she and her family checked out of the gate Saturday morning.
The Edgecombs have been coming to their camp in the North Maine Woods for decades and are well known among the gatekeepers.
“When we’d arrive they used to say, ‘We’ve been waiting for you to come in’” Edgecomb said. “The people are so sweet up here.”
Anyone who works the gates will say they don’t do it for the money, as it does not pay a tremendous salary.
“I absolutely enjoy it,” Mary McBreairty, who also works at Little Black Gate, said. “I’m in my own local area where I was born and raised and I get to meet the most interesting people.”
In fact, both Mary McBreairty and Kelly Dumond recently helped out a geocacher — a person who participates in a type of online scavenger hunt — locate a site not far from the Little Black Gate.
“She was the first person to find that spot,” Mary McBreairty said. “It had been posted online for two years.”
It’s important for people like the Edgecombs and the geocacher to have a positive experience at the gate, Hafford said.
“We were there to welcome them,” she said. “How they were treated at the gate often determines the experience they will have in the North Maine Woods.”
Kelly Dumond wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I tell people I’m a gatekeeper for Maine’s largest amusement park,” she said. “You can do anything out here like camping, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, photography — the list goes on and on.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story requires correction. There are 14, not 15, checkpoints to the North Maine Woods. One of the checkpoints is monitored electronically.