By the time we reached Fish River Checkpoint at the edge of the North Maine Woods, we’d already been driving for hours. Maine is a giant state, and it seems that the more I explore it, the bigger it gets.

Deep in the woods of northern Maine, the trees were starting to don their bright fall colors, though the weather was unseasonably warm, with temperatures rising into the 80s that day.

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The checkpoint — a small tan building with a green roof — is where we’d need to register and pay a fee to enter the North Maine Woods. Inside, we found the gatekeeper at big wooden counter, giving advice to a father and son who were scouting the woods for moose.

“There aren’t many people camping up in Deboullie this weekend,” the gatekeeper said to them.

“We are,” I chimed in as I inspected a shelf of North Maine Woods souvenirs — baseball caps, sweatshirts and coffee mugs.

Normally I wouldn’t interrupt complete strangers, but I was excited to be finally heading to Deboullie Public Lands, a state-owned property that has been on my “places to adventure” list for years. We would only be staying for one night. My husband Derek and I would have to head back to work on Monday. But we were still happy for the mini vacation in a remote setting.

Pushineer Pond

Camping in Deboullie was half off, the gatekeeper told us, which made it just $6 per person. Day use of the North Maine Woods was $10 per person, so we wound up paying a total of $36.

From there, we drove northwest, farther and farther from civilization. From the checkpoint, it was a 27-mile drive on logging roads to our destination. And even with detailed directions from the gatekeeper, this drive may have been confusing if it hadn’t been for the red “RRC” signs at intersections along the way. “RRC” stands for Red River Camps, a family-owned operation that lies at the heart of Deboullie.

Signs marked the boundary of Deboullie Public Land, and not far beyond that, we came to a road intersection where I hopped out of our truck to stamp our registration papers. The stamp, located inside a plastic coffee jug nailed to a signpost, was the state’s way of confirming we’d camped in Deboullie, taking advantage of the half-priced camping, the gatekeeper explained. Thus stamped, we continued on to select Pushineer Dam campsite out of the 30 primitive campsites located on the property, 23 of which are accessible by vehicle, and seven of which are walk-in sites.

The stamp.

We chose Pushineer Dam quite simply because is was a beautiful setting, right on the shore of Pushineer Pond. The campsite was spacious, with a few flat spots to place our tent, a picnic table and small, rock-lined fire pit with a grate for cooking. And, perhaps most importantly, it had a great outhouse. Seriously. The outhouse spacious, clean and set back a respectable distance from the sleeping and eating area. What more could you ask for?

Right away, I walked down to the water with our dog, Oreo. (Did I mention that Deboullie is dog friendly?) He waded into the crystal clear water, and I settled down on a sun-baked rock to watch a snake slither through the shallows right at my feet. I later looked up the nine different types of snakes that live in Maine, and while we do have a Northern Water Snake, this particular snake looked nothing like it. With red-brown checks on its tan body, it had to be a common garter snake, which is the most numerous species of snake in the state and can vary dramatically in color and patterning. These snakes are found in a wide variety of habitats, but they’re never far from water and can swim — as I saw. A large percentage of their diet is amphibians. So I guess it’s no surprise that a frog perched on a rock not far from where I was sitting at the edge of Pushineer Pond. I imagine the snake hunted it down while we pitched our tent.

The garter snake in the Pushineer Pond.

After getting settled at the campsite, we headed up the road to Red River Camps to see if they sold firewood. They didn’t, but they did have a load of scrap wood that they were looking to get rid of, and they generously donated it to our campfire.

While there, I ran into my friend Nancy Taylor, a registered Maine guide who works for Casting For Recovery, a nonprofit organization that offers outdoor retreats and fly fishing instruction for women with breast cancer. Then, while walking down the road, I ran into a BDN colleague whose family had just enjoyed a picnic on the shore of Deboullie Pond. These run-ins made me realize just how small of a state Maine is — and how much I love that.

Red River Camps

That evening, we hiked to an outlook on the ridge of Whitman Mountain, a trail that started just a few hundred feet down the road from our campsite. We then went for a paddle on Pushineer Pond in our new used Old Town Canoe (a Discovery 165, for those who are interested). It was Oreo’s third time in a canoe, so he whined a little bit and threatened to jump out when we got close to shore. But all in all, he did well. And he looked awfully cute in his neon green doggy life vest.

Derek and Oreo.

While on the pond, we came across a loon, which was preening its feathers and seemed unconcerned about our little red boat. We gave the bird a wide berth as I photographed it with my 400mm lens. And later that evening, it sang us a haunting song.

The loon.

We then went for a cold but refreshing dip in the pond, and as the sun sank behind the rugged hills of Deboullie, we built up a fire and cooked some hot dogs. It wasn’t exactly a gourmet meal, but with some chips and cheese dip and a couple cold beers, it was good enough for me. We also had quite the set up, having brought two comfy camp chairs and a fold-out table, on which we played chess and checkers. And to my side, we set the truck floor mats on the ground for Oreo to lay on. Of course, he was too spoiled for that sort of treatment and insisted on sitting in my lap — he’s a 50-pound pit bull mix, by the way — until I folded up a sleeping bag for him to lay on. Actually, I tucked him into the sleeping bag. And there he lay by the fire, finally content.

Credit: AP

Needless to say, Oreo slept cuddled up with me that night in the tent. Somehow, the twin-sized blow up mattress was big enough for the both of us. And while he spent most of the night in his own sleeping bag, in the wee hours of the morning, he decided to crawl into mine.

Now, I guess I should clarify, I have what’s known as a mummy bag. Unlike the roomy, square sleeping bags, a mummy bag forms to the body and is narrow at the feet. So, when half-asleep I started feeling Oreo wiggle into my mummy bag head first, I knew it wasn’t going to go well. At first, he managed to pack himself in at my stomach, but as the morning progressed, he weaseled his way down to my feet, then started to panic when he realized he didn’t have the room to turn around. He then began to thrash wildly, throwing my legs around with him. I had to unzip my whole bag to free him. “Good morning, Oreo!”

Oreo playing with his Jolly Egg, a toy be purchased from Green Acres in Bangor that he absolutely loves.

In dramatic contrast to the hot, sunny day before, the morning dawned rainy and windy. In fact, it had been so windy during the night that the tent kept collapsing on me as the pole gave way to strong gusts. Derek, safe on the other side of the tent, snickered a bit at my bad luck and went back to sleep.

So we dozed and snuggled and grumbled about our luck. But by the time we emerged from the tent at 9 a.m., I was shocked to find the sky was clearing up. We were once more looking at a warm, sunny day. And it was a good thing because we planned to end our trip with a hike to the historic fire lookout tower atop Deboullie Mountain. (If you want to read a bit about that, check out my “1-minute hike” of Deboullie Mountain, here.)

A bridge near our campsite.

After the hike, we returned to camp to pack up. We’d left our tent out to dry in the sun, and it had worked out perfectly. Still, I didn’t want to go. The spot was so peaceful, and without cell phone reception, and there were many more trails and ponds to explore. But we both had to work the next day. So reluctantly I rose from my rock seat on the shore and retreated to the truck for a long drive home.

As is often the case when we visit a beautiful outdoor location in Maine, we vowed to return again soon. So now Deboullie goes on another list: “places to return to.” But I wonder if I’ll ever feel like I’ve spent enough time there.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.