“I don’t know what that is,” said Julie Winzler, eyeing a charred piece of trash before dropping it in a bag. Leaning over a fire pit, she continued to pluck out bits of tinfoil and beer cans.
It may not be glamorous, but as environmental steward of Bigelow Preserve, it’s Winzler’s job to pick up litter, ensuring campsites are clean and safe for visitors — people and wildlife alike. In addition, she builds trails, educates visitors about the wilderness, and leads conservation projects throughout the 36,000-acre preserve.
Since the start of her term of service for the Maine Conservation Corps in May, Winzler has learned that conservation work — even the trash collecting part of it — is full of surprises and challenges.
“People love to move fire pits,” Winzler said with an exasperated look. “I don’t know what possesses them to do it, but when I visit a site, it’s almost 50-50 whether the fire pit will be in the right place.”
On public lands, fire pits have designated locations to lessen the risk of forest fires. So if one has been moved, Winzler has to move it back, stone by stone.
A 29-year-old Vermont native, Winzler originally came to Maine to work in restaurant kitchens but ended up on a sailboat out of Rockland, cooking for the crew and guests. After a few years of sailing, she decided to hike the entire 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail in 2013. The journey, much of which she completed solo, strengthened her love and respect for the great outdoors.
To her, the MCC environmental steward position seemed like the ideal summer gig.
“I had such a good experience in the woods recently, and I really wanted to make it so that people could have something similar to that,” she said.
Currently, MCC has 18 environmental stewards stationed throughout the state at land units, state parks and land trusts.
MCC was established by Maine’s governor and legislature in 1983 as a state agency of the Maine Department of Agriculture, funded by AmeriCorps. During their term of service, MCC receive a weekly living allowance and health coverage, along with other perks such as a Maine State Park pass, first aid and CPR training and the chance to earn AmeriCorps Education Awards to pay for college or student loans.
With little supervision, Winzler sets her own schedule and plans conservation projects. She spends her days alone, patrolling the preserve and surrounding public lands on bumpy gravel roads.
“I guess it does take a certain type of person,” Winzler. “Some people would find it lonely. I like being by myself.”
A sea of purple wildflowers surrounded the Chain of Ponds campsites on July 22, when Winzler parked her pickup by the shore and fired up a weedwhacker to cut down vegetation that was encroaching on one of the site’s fire pits. Preventing forest fires is a big part of her job. Any debris (including stacked wood) should be 10 feet away from the fire pit, she said.
She also shovels built-up ash out of the pits, and there’s usually a number of unburnable items buried within.
“People try to burn all kinds of things,” Winzler said.
Aluminum cans, tin foil, diapers, Hersheys wrappers, cigarette packs — these are the common items she digs out of the ash. And oddly enough, people frequently leave their cooking grates behind.
“The other day I was laughing because I found eight grates,” Winzler said.
But the strangest thing she’s found left behind by campers so far — a dead porcupine cealed in a 5-gallon bucket.
“People are really inherently good I think,” said Winzler. “And I love to make a space that they can come to and experience the wild.”
“But,” she said after a long pause, “some people tend to be really trashy — they leave a lot of trash. And I don’t know if its because they come into the woods and forget that there are rules, they forget they’re sharing it, they forget it’s nature and it should look like nature. I don’t know why they do it.”
As Winzler worked, a bald eagle flew overhead and landed in a nearby tree.
“I love that I get to be in the woods and enjoy this every day,” she said. “It’s just a really beautiful kind of wild part of Maine that I don’t think a lot of people get to see.”
The 19 campsites (with a total of 37 fire pits) that she maintains in the Bigelow Preserve and surrounding public lands are free for people to use. They aren’t well advertised or signed, but they are marked by tent symbols in the “Delorme Maine Atlas and Gazetteer.”
“We’ve been coming here for 15 years as a pack,” said Toby Conroy of Topsham, who was camping with a number of friends at the Chain of Ponds campsite on July 22. “We like to explore, so we come up here and find where the end of every dirt road goes … And we found this place, and we fight to get it every year.”
“It’s just to get away from the stress and mayhem of everyday life,” he continued. “Traveling up here, you get to a certain point where your blood pressure goes down and vacation is starting, you can tell.”
After sweeping the cobwebs from the outhouse and freshening it up with biodegradable cleaner, Winzler jumped back in her pickup and drove to the next campsite on her list, on a sandy point on Flagstaff Lake, Maine’s largest manmade lake.
Flagstaff Lake was formed in 1950, when Central Maine Power completed Long Falls Dam on the Dead River, shut its gates, and flooded 20,000 acres, submerging Flagstaff Plantation, Dead River Plantation and Bigelow Township. The three towns had been evacuated, but some of the towns’ structures were still standing as the flood waters rose.
Today, the Flagstaff Lake is a stunning place to paddle or go boating, with the western Maine mountains rising on all sides. Due to its shallowness, the lake’s clear water warms up quickly in the summer, making it a great (and in many places, sandy) swimming spot.
Bigelow Preserve, which abuts Flagstaff Lake, also has an unusual origin.
Destined to become a giant ski resort, Bigelow Mountain and the surrounding land was preserved by Maine voters in 1974 through a referendum, which specified that the land is “to be retained in its natural state for the use and enjoyment of the public.”
The 36,000-acre preserve is now a playground for hikers, mountain bikers, fishermen, hunters, wildlife watchers, skiers, snowshoers and people who simply enjoy relaxing in the wilderness.
“It’s got a really cool history,” Winzler said. “It’s weird. It’s not really supposed to be the way that it is, but it has been preserved in this wild way, so I think that’s really special.”
Winzler lives in the preserve at Bigelow Lodge, a rustic building tucked back from the shore of Flagstaff Lake, with preserve ranger Mike MacDonald and his dog. The lodge has a gas stove, gas lights and a refrigerator run off of propane. Every few days, they run a generator for a couple hours to generate the electricity they need to take showers, do dishes and flush the toilet.
“I read a lot,” Winzler said, “and swim a lot. I don’t mind living an hour away from the grocery store.”
She’ll be there through November, when she’ll take what she’s learned about conservation to her next job, whatever it may be.
To learn about MCC, as well as the Bigelow Preserve and other public lands, visit maine.gov.