Naturally A Letter from Moosehead Lake


Second Roach Pond, Maine -- As the day breaks over this long, thin lake, Peter is confronted with the reason for his trip here: a huge bull moose, antlers broad and majestic, standing in a clearing near the camp. The moose stares down its long nose at Peter for 15 minutes until the Brooklynite gains the courage to walk by the moose and launch his canoe.

Score one for the moose.

Peter's story becomes the talk of the camp that day, and it relieves any fears that the visitors might have had about the veracity of tourist brochures. This is moose country. This is Maine "as it used to be and still can be," according to the Moosehead Lake Chamber of Commerce's guide to the region.

But the moose and the brochure are symptoms that this really isn't what it appears to be. Everything around the camps, from the placid beaver pond to the moose, exists thanks to the timber industry, whose stewardship over these lands has prevented its condo-ization but also left hundreds of fields worth of rotting trees.

It drives home the fact that while the United States isn't Europe, with that continent's carefully sculpted "forests" and isolated pockets of nature, most of this country's real nature has been destroyed, even in places that advertise themselves as natural retreats. Spending a week here can give you the feeling that while wide open spaces still exist, they won't in a century or two.

Actually, the Moosehead Lake area is probably less affected by the timber industry or development than it was in the early part of the century. Back then, its population was higher, hotels and resorts lined the lakeshore, and the timber companies carted off vast quantities of trees.

Now, many of the top-dollar tourists spend their money overseas, and the timber industry has scaled back its operations.

Still, half the land is owned by large logging and paper companies, and nearly all the rest is commercially used in some other way.

In many ways, the companies do a good job of using the land. As many locals will tell you, the worst thing that can happen to land is when the timber company sells. Before the next summer ends, the tract is almost inevitably covered with homes and condos. Unlike land clear-cut by the timber industry, nothing grows back on these developed strips.

The companies also keep up the dams they built when they used to float logs through the river system down to the mills. The dams now keep up the water level of lakes that might otherwise be much shallower and less attractive to water sports enthusiasts.

Not surprisingly, these dams have been noticed by beavers, who have added their own wooden dams to create small lakes.

But the logging companies are almost the inevitable targets of attacks by people fed up with the encroaching ruination of this area. At some town hall meetings, anti-forestry activists have called for an end to logging -- a noble idea but, given the lack of state funds to buy the land and turn it into wilderness preserves, an idea bound to lead to the region's being paved over.

What people fail to realize is that even if the logging industry retreated and the land magically converted into preserves, wilderness would still be on the run.

Bob, a guide who likes to practice blood-curdling coyote howls, brought home the situation one night out in the middle of the lake. With the campfire burning and the children roasting marshmallows, he asked a few campers to try out his canvas-and-wood canoe, a mint-condition beauty built in 1948.

He paddled out into the darkness and tried a few howls. No reply.

Then he said, "What do you hear?" No one heard anything.

"How about the jet airplane above, or the generator at the camp?"

Sure enough, that was about all we could hear, and we stroked back to camp feeling a little swindled.

To be sure, Moosehead Lake is no fraud. The 40-mile-long lake, with its tiny forested islands and hilly banks, can be breathtaking. And lakes like nearby Second Roach (roach is French for chub, the fish the dominates the water systems in this area) are placid havens from the big city.

It's just -- despite the moose-induced giddiness -- a little sobering.

Ian Johnson is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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