The “remotest spot” in Maine was recently found to be just 6 miles away from the nearest road. The location has cellphone reception, planes fly overhead regularly and a campground for backpackers is located about a mile away.
Surprised? So were the people who calculated the spot.
Florida biologists Rebecca and Ryan Means are identifying the most remote location in each of the 50 states. And along with their 3-year-old daughter Skyla, they then plan to travel to each of these locations. They call the endeavor “Project Remote.”
The project began in the Everglades on New Year’s Eve 2009, when the Meanses boated to what they calculated to be the most remote spot of Florida, 17 miles away from any road or town.
“We started off with this project on more of a personal level, trying to get away from roads ourselves in Florida,” Rebecca Means said. “When we realized how hard it was to get remote, we thought, ‘This is actually a national issue we have.’ It became a campaign for us.”
They then formed the nonprofit Remote Footprints (a branch of the Coastal Plains Institute) and have since visited the remotest spots in 19 states in the eastern half of the country. So far, 5 miles is the average distance these remote spots are from the nearest road.
About 90 percent of Maine is forested, the highest percentage of any state. This includes some 12 million acres in northern Maine, where few people live. It seems odd that the remotest spot in Maine would end up in a park that sees roughly 60,000 visitors in the summer months. But it all depends on your definition of remoteness.
“Remoteness is a qualitative feeling,” Rebecca Means said. “A lot of people think being far from a bathroom is remote, or being far from a grocery store. But we’re both scientists, and we wanted a definition to be quantifiable and repeatable so that years from now it can be redone.”
For the Meanses, “remote” means far from civilization — people — but they can’t possibly know the location of every person at any given time. Yet they do know that people tend to congregate in towns that are connected by roads. So after much discussion, the Means decided to base their definition of remoteness on those two factors: towns and roads.
The maximum remoteness within a state would be the point that is farthest from a road or town. And for each state, they used Graphical Information Systems, or GIS, to calculate that exact location.
“It seems simple — distance from roads — but in a lot of states, the data isn’t complete,” Rebecca Means said. “What has happened is I’d calculate the spot and then I looked around using satellite imagery to see if there were roads nearby, and often there were. Sometimes I’d have to calculate a spot 15, 18, 20 times to get the most remote spot.”
Overall, the couple has been surprised at the lack of remote areas in the United States.
The second-largest paper-producing state, Maine has 200 forest products businesses employing some 24,000 people, according to Forests For Maine’s Future. Logging roads and dirt roads necessary for this industry form a web through the unorganized territories in the north.
“There are very few states where it takes more than a day to get from the trailhead or boat ramp and go document the spot and get back,” she said. “But Maine was a two-dayer. We backpacked in, camped out, documented the spot and then got out. So in that respect, it was very remote.”
Though Maine’s remotest spot was located just 6 miles from a road, the easiest way to access the exact location was by hiking Russell Pond Trail more than 10 miles, then bushwhacking just 0.3 miles.
“You don’t want to bushwhack for 6 miles. It would take days and days to do that,” she said.
The spot also happens to be approximately 6 miles north-northwest of Mount Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain.
Along the way, the family of three, plus their nephew Cameron Means, experienced several scary, bridgeless stream crossings. They feared most for their young daughter Skyla, who, strapped to her father’s back, sang happily as he waded through the rushing water.
“One of the things that happens when we tell people about this is they think we’re going to the coolest part in the state, but often that’s not the case. It could be on the side of a mountain and all you can see is a few trees and shrubs,” Rebecca Means said. “But the Maine spot was actually quite beautiful. It had been planted a long time ago — the trees — and the understory was very open. There were lichen and moss-covered logs.”
Typically, they stay at the remote spot for about two hours to shoot video, take photos and write notes. During that time, they conduct a 15-minute sound recording; and so far, 94 percent of the recordings made at remote locations — including the one in Maine —feature human sounds (such as airplanes).
To ensure accuracy, Rebecca Means leads her enthusiastic daughter away from the spot while Ryan records the video and sound clip.
“She does fantastic — as long as we can give her some free playtime,” Rebecca Means said. “If we get to our campsite and there are a few hours of daylight left, she can hang out and make her own little stories.”
One of the 3-year-old’s favorite pastimes is talking with the squirrels.
In Baxter, the family stayed the night at Russell Pond campgrou nd, which is only about a mile away from their remote destination. They fell asleep listening to a moose wading through the pond, foraging and dipping his head in and out of the water. They also had the opportunity to meet Maine’s legions of black flies, mosquitoes and no-see-ums.
Project Remote will take several years to complete. The Meanses are trying to balance their day jobs as biologists with the travel and money it requires to document all 50 of the locations.
“Ironically, fuel is the most expensive part of the project,” Rebecca Means said. “We’re trying to get away from roads, but we’re driving the American road system.”
Meanwhile, their understanding of remoteness is always changing, and they encourage discussion about remoteness in their website’s comment section. Several commenters have suggested they include trail systems in their calculations, but the Means decided that footpaths simply don’t have the same ecological impact as roads.
“We don’t want to decrease the number of trails,” she said. “Personal locomotion is exactly what we are advocating for.
“There are so many negative impacts of roads on wildlife. We’re also both backpackers. We love to go backpacking and just get as far away as possible so we can experience nature as it is, not how humans have created it.”
For information on Remote Footprints, visit remotefootprints.org. To view the expedition blog for Project Remote’s Maine trip, visit remotefootprints.org/project-remote/expedition-blogs.