A Wealth of Adventures

Maine welcomes travelers from all over the world to Acadia National Park. Visitors might also enjoy “Forever Wild” Baxter State Park. And, hey, there’s this new National Monument they might want to sample. But we probably won’t tell them that we have double the size of all that extraordinary acreage hidden away just for us. There are over 600,000 acres of Maine Public Reserved Lands.

Some of these are well-known to Mainers. Bigelow Preserve in the Carrabassett Valley includes a range of seven fabulous hiking peaks. One cannot experience the Allagash Wilderness Waterway without first passing through the Telos and the Chamberlain Lake Public Reserved Lands. The Bold Coast trail in the Cutler Coast Public Reserved Lands provides a spectacular hike along the rocky coast that is much more private than can be expected in Acadia.

Other lands are not well known even among Mainers. A visit to the 21,871-acre Deboullie Public Reserved Lands was on my bucket list for a decade before I finally made the long, rough drive into this gem in far northern Maine. Debouillie contains great hiking and even better fishing, yet when I visited in July, the extraordinary campsites were mostly vacant.

As quirky as these lands can sometimes be, their histories are even quirkier. When Maine separated from Massachusetts in 1820, leaders envisioned how their new state might someday grow. Although most of Maine was in private ownership, or soon would be, the state’s founding fathers wanted to make sure enough acres were set aside for public development. In short, they wanted a plan for where the village churches and schools would go.

Maine is divided up into a grid of townships. In the northern half of the state, most don’t even have names. They just bear an alphanumeric designation, such as T2-R9. In principle, acres were to be set aside in each. In practice, locations were often not designated. In time, landowners forgot the law or neglected to remember that some of their acres were held in common with the state.

That changed in the 1970s, when a court case verified the state’s continued ownership in the north woods. While that decision rekindled interest in the potential of these holdings, 150 years had passed and the woods were not filling up with towns, schools, and churches. Common interests and small lots were nearly useless to the state, and an encumbrance to landowners. Therefore, the state and landowners devised a system of swaps to aggregate the many small lots into a few big ones, usually in areas of high recreational value.

Today, these Public Reserved Lands are managed for multiple uses. Timber harvesting on many of them allows management of the system to be self-funded. Beyond that, each unit is unique. Management focuses on the “dominant use” of each unit. Some units along waterways may have plenty of boat access camping, but not much hiking. Some units are famous for trails. Located southwest of Baxter State Park, Nahmakanta is well-known for both. And the fishing is good!

Public Reserved Lands are free. Some lands are located in the North Maine Woods, where they are managed in cooperation with neighboring landowners. A gate fee is charged for day use and overnights throughout this region. Otherwise, there’s no cost for camping, boat launching, or even toilet paper. Bring some anyway. You’re often a long way from a convenience store.

Camping is primitive. At most sites, you can expect a rustic table, a fire ring, a pit toilet, and little else. Bring your own in-state firewood. Wood from outside of Maine can carry invasive pests and is not allowed. Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. In most units, you’re not even limited to campsites. You can stake down a tent just about anywhere, although fires are not permitted unless the ground is snow-covered.

Among the various Maine Public Reserved Lands, I can’t pick a favorite, but apparently visitors can. Donnell Pond is close to Tunk Mountain in Hancock County. It’s not far from the Schoodic portion of Acadia National Park, so it’s hard to keep this one secret. The hiking trails are popular because the views are spectacular, while requiring minimal climbing effort. However, many visitors don’t get any farther than the 800-foot sandy beach on the pond.

The Mahoosuc Lands share a mountain range with Grafton Notch State Park in western Maine. Draw a line from there to the Cutler Coast downeast, and most of the adventure is north of there. Summer’s here. Explore.

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