The roar of the river grew louder as we pedaled our bikes through the forest toward the East Branch of the Penobscot River. Then, all of a sudden, the trees opened up and we were at our destination: Haskell Rock Pitch in the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
“Woohoo!” BDN photojournalist Gabor Degre yelled as he steered his mountain bike off the path and out of sight.
“Oh my!” I exclaimed after following him around the bend.
On a rocky ledge, we stood with grins on our faces, looking upriver at the rapids. The frothing water tumbled and churned as it rushed down river, bending around boulders and plunging over hidden shelves to roll back onto itself in spirals of white. The grace and power of the river, illuminated in the afternoon sun, held us transfixed.
To be among the first people to play in the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was a momentous occasion, rich with the smell of balsam fir and the gentle roar of the East Branch. It’s a memory I hope to relive, decades from now, for my children and grandchildren as we sit around a campfire.
The memory will go something like this:
Just hours after President Barack Obama signed into law the creation of the 87,563-acre national monument on Wednesday, Aug. 24, Gabor and I were on the property, signing the registration book at its north entrance. He shares my passion for outdoor recreation.
That morning, after the big announcement came from the White House, the two of us were chosen by BDN editors to head north and explore Maine’s new national monument for the day. Our mission was to document the adventure, get a feel for the property and bring that experience back to our readers.
As we neared the north entrance of the property, the traffic dwindled and our cellphones lost reception.
Bordered on the west by Baxter State Park, the new national monument already features a network of old logging roads and trails used by hikers, mountain bikers and cross-country skiers. Running through the property’s heart is the East Branch of the Penobscot River, ideal for canoeing, fishing and whitewater paddling, with many campsites already established along its shore.
As we drove into the property on a gravel access road Wednesday afternoon, a frog hopped across the road, barely escaping the tires of our vehicle.
About 3.5 miles along the gravel road, a fallen aspen tree barred the way. While Gabor wrestled with the tree to the side of the road, I tried to help, bending a branch here and there — but for the most part I was just getting in the way.
“This makes me think we’re quite possibly the first people in the north section after it became a national monument,” Gabor pointed out after successfully moving the tree. “Although, who knows, maybe the tree just came down or someone could be in there camping.”
A short distance farther, we parked at Haskell Gate, which barred the old logging road, and continued our journey on mountain bikes. Steering around the metal gate, we pedaled along the overgrown dirt road, which is also a section of the International Appalachian Trail. Through a mixed forest of birch, white pine and maples already starting to turn fall colors, we biked 1.5 miles, passing several wetlands and carefully navigating wooden bridges.
A sign marked the short side trail to Haskell Hut, an old cabin set on a grassy hill above a wide bend in the East Branch. The door was open, and we entered to find a clean, rustic living space, with wooden beds and a kitchen with a handpump placed over a wide sink. On a table sat a registration book, which we opened to find a handful of entries from people who’d stayed at the cabin over the past year, during the winter, spring and summer. Someone had sketched a mermaid on one page — the Mermaid of the East Branch?
Over the one doorway in the cabin, a “National Park Yes!” sign had been tacked up, next to a horseshoe.
Leaving Gabor to take photos, I wandered outside and followed a footpath down the embankment to the river, where I crouched behind tall grasses and watched a female wood duck swimming nearby and a hawk wheeling overhead.
From the cabin, we continued our ride 0.5 mile to Haskell Rock Pitch, the magnificent rapids that were the high point of our trip.
The sunlight had taken on the golden glow of late afternoon, when we turned our bikes around at Haskell Rock Pitch and headed back toward Haskell Gate, but we were reluctant to end our journey. So on the way back, we took a few detours.
First, we visited the campsite and lean-to by the scenic Haskell Deadwater, just above Haskell Rock Pitch. The water was as smooth as glass, and the campsite was in a peaceful clearing of tall grasses and wildflowers, scattered with charred trees that told of a recent fire. At the shore, Gabor cupped the cool, clear water in his hands and splashed it over his face. Dragonflies darted over the river, and a bright orange viceroy butterfly made a brief appearance before disappearing into the bushes along the shore.
In the shallows of the boat landing, we watched a small frog swim along the bottom, then surface to float, seemingly without a care.
A belted kingfisher flew across the river and perched in a maple leaning over the water, and I resolved to return to the peaceful location some day to pitch a tent.
Continuing on, we took one more detour: a 0.5-mile side trail to Stair Falls, which ended up being a series of very shallow “stairs” in the East Branch (less dramatic than Haskell Rock Pitch). Just past the falls was another campsite, set on a grassy ledge over the rushing water.
As we finished our bike trip, Gabor and I talked about how easy it was to bike to a number of campsites and scenic locations in just a few hours. The trails were easy enough for families to enjoy, and the intersections were already marked well with signs that gave mileages to different destinations on the property.
“I was shocked that nobody was in there,” Gabor said as we drove off the property.
We hadn’t seen any other people on the trails that day, and all of the beautiful campsites had been empty, though they displayed evidence of being used, such as charred logs in campfire rings. It being such an important day for the property, we had expected to see visitors out biking, hiking and paddling in celebration. But we didn’t mind having the north end of the new national monument to ourselves.
On the way home, we stopped at Craig’s Clam Shop in Patten for sandwiches and fried pickles. Sitting at the picnic table, surrounded by locals eating dinner, Gabor edited photos of our trip and I jotted down notes before bits and pieces of the trip started to slip from my memory — a memory I’ll cherish for years to come.