In best of weather, Allagash is a 40-mile drive over potholes and cracked tar to the nearest larger town of Fort Kent.
In the middle of a northern Maine winter it can be 40 miles of white-knuckle, frost heaving, whiteout hell to get to the nearest grocery store, school, hospital, drug store or movie theater.
No one ever said living at the end of the road was easy, but those who choose to call one of Maine’s smallest and most remote communities home will tell you it’s a special place.
“Things happen up here,” said Darlene Kelly Dumond, owner of Two Rivers Lunch, one of a handful of businesses in the community. “Whatever you thought you needed in larger towns, you realize you just don’t need anymore.”
At the end of the road
Located in northwest Aroostook County near the Canadian border where the Allagash and St. John rivers meet, where paved Route 161 ends and the dirt roads leading into the North Maine Woods begin, Allagash is a community of extremes.
With a landmass of 131.5 square miles, it’s the largest town by area in Maine. With a population of 236 among 76 families, according to the 2010 census, it is also one of the state’s smallest — in terms of residents.
According to the 2010 census, Allagash has an aging population with the median age close to 58 years. A third of the residents are age 65 or older. Just 11 percent of those living in Allagash are under the age of 18 and a mere 3 percent are between 18 and 24.
At its height, almost 700 people called the town home. That was in the 1950s when lumber was king and just about every job in Allagash was connected to the woods.
As those jobs dried up over time, the population entered a steady decline but there are still some jobs remaining for those few who cut Maine timber and logging trucks loaded with fir, spruce, popal and birch logs rumble through town daily on their way to mills far to the south.
For generations Allagash had a natural resource-based economy. But these days recreation and tourism also provide employment to area guides and outfitters. And it’s enjoying a bit of boom in recent winters thanks to a constant stream of snowmobilers who have discovered the groomed trails leading there.
There is no gas station in Allagash — the nearest one is just over the town line in St. Francis, about 5 miles from the center of Allagash — but the town has one mechanic shop, a public library, its own fire and ambulance service, a small museum, a diner and a communal spirit of relying on each other in good times and bad.
“We are a small, little community with our own safety nets,” Dumond said. “There is a handed down tradition of caring for ourselves and for each other.”
Some go, some stay, some return
Born and raised in Allagash, Dumond is a graduate of the now-closed Allagash Consolidated School who left the area seeking her fortune at 24 in 1983.
“I remember begging [a friend] to give me a job in the woods before I left for college,” Dumond said. “But he just laughed at me and said, ‘go get an education, little girl.’”
Dumond did leave and after deciding college was not for her, she spent the next two decades working in the tourism industry in southern Maine.
In 2004 she came back to help run the family restaurant Two Rivers Lunch and she could not be happier.
“I let people know they are not missing anything by not living in that rat race,” Dumond said. “People ask, ‘why do you stay?’ and honestly, we [Allagash residents] ask ourselves that all the time [and] I think it’s our connection to the land and that we were born between these two rivers.”
Louis Pelletier III is one who never left to find that out.
Like Dumond, the 48-year-old father of two is a graduate of the old Allagash school. But unlike her, he was able to find work in the woods.
“When I graduated from Allagash High School, I had options,” Pelletier said recently over a cup of coffee at Two Rivers. “My family was in the logging business so I had a job waiting for me right out of high school.”
A sixth generation logger, Pelletier said the work was in his blood.
“It’s hard to get away from it,” he said. “And frankly, I enjoyed it.”
Pelletier said college was always at the back of his mind but it just kept getting put off and today, he has no regrets of entering the workforce and staying there
“Allagash has just always been a good fit for me,” he said. “I feel comfortable here.”
Still working with the lumber from the Maine woods, Pelletier no longer goes into the woods. Instead, he and his father run Allagash Wood Products, making wooden picnic tables, chairs, benches and custom designed creations that are shipped to customers all over the country.
His wife, Josie, travels close to 120 miles roundtrip every day to Eagle Lake to deliver the US mail and their daughters attended the schools in Fort Kent, 40 miles and about an hour down the road. The few students who make the daily trek do so on a single school bus supplied by the local school district.
Pelletier’s youngest daughter who is 17 travels it daily to high school in Fort Kent.
“I was fortunate to find someone like Josie who felt like I did and wanted to stay here,” Pelletier said. “Both our daughters are working and our oldest [is 20 and] getting her degree in business from Northern Maine Community College.”
Pelletier admits there were times he would look at friends and cousins who had moved away to bigger cities around the country and wonder if he was missing out on anything.
“But then I think about them and how I am part of a community here they do not have,” he said. “I have this extended family plus a huge support system of people here [and] I don’t see that it as a trade-off, since what I needed to be happy is right here.”
Pelletier and his family have traveled on holidays, including family trips to New York City, Boston, New Hampshire and Florida.
Bradley Bernier, 38, had to go away for a few years to prove he is happiest in his native Allagash.
“I’d been away too long,” Bernier said during a quick stop in at Two Rivers to see if Dumond needed her woodbox re-filled with firewood. “I always knew Allagash was special and that I would come home.”
Bernier left in 1997 and finally moved back home last summer, with girlfriend Sasha Remick of New Hampshire.
“Bradley tried to explain to me what it was like up here,” Remick said. “But I honestly did not have much an idea what it was really going to be like.”
Now, with a northern Maine bug season and winter under her belt, Remick said she is happy to call Allagash home.
“I’m glad I came,” she said.
Bernier has found plenty to do in the small town to keep busy and earn a living doing odd jobs and now wishes he’d have come back sooner.
“Yeah, that 40-mile drive to Fort Kent can be hard, especially when the road gets bad like it is now,” he said. “But you learn to make the most out of every time you go so you don’t have to be making the drive every day.”
Distance, according to Allagasher Lee O’Leary, 74, makes a person a savvy shopper.
“You learn to stock up,” the retired logger said. “And that drive really doesn’t bother me.”
His friend and fellow logger Hilton Hafford has a bit of different point of view on that stretch of road, where a driver is more likely to encounter moose or deer than vehicle traffic.
“Of course I stayed here,” he said with a grin. “That road’s so bad I make sure I don’t need to leave.”
But Hafford has been forced to leave to look for work in Vermont and New Hampshire in the mid-1990s when employment was hard to come by in the north Maine woods.
These days Hafford has become something of an advocate for his beloved forest working to bring attention to what he views as environmental damage caused by what he views as overly aggressive logging practices are doing to native animal and aquatic species.
“My heart is here,” he said. “I want to be here.”
Another Saturday night
“Look, here come the musicians,” Dumond called out as she served coffee and the special of the day at Two Rivers on recent Saturday afternoon.
In an effort to make the long, dark winter a bit more entertaining, in January Dumond started “pizza night” at the diner.
In a town with a heavy Scot-Irish heritage, the music soon followed as people bring guitars or fiddles to play tunes while waiting for their pizza.
“We even have karaoke,” Dumond said with a laugh.
“I just love music,” said Pauline Rushinal who is part of a trio who play and sing country music every Saturday at Two Rivers. “I lived in Caribou before moving here two years ago and it seemed a whole new world up here, but I really like it.”
Playing music at the diner, Rushinal said, has made her feel like a part of the community.
“Of course, I am related to most people here,” she laughed. “Darlene’s grandmother was married to my mother’s brother.”
The second and third members of the trio, Mabel Pelletier and Pauline Rossignol, said the Saturday outings help make the winter fly by.
“I live just right up the road,” Mabel Pelletier said. “I love to sing, even though maybe I can’t do it real good.”
Within 30 minutes of setting up their music stands, tuning guitars and plugging in the karaoke machine, country music is filling the diner as patrons come and go ordering pizza, singing along and tapping their feet.
“This is who we are,” Dumond said. “How can you not want to be here?”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Louis Pelletier.
“I have no regrets on my life and I plan on growing old here,” he said. “I made the decision to stay here and I have been very happy here.”
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.