The North Maine Woods Gatekeepers
If you’re planning a trip north into the North Maine Woods, get ready to meet the “gatekeepers,” the men and women who keep track of who goes in and comes back out and what their plans are while within its borders.
Covering more than 3.5 million acres of commercial forestland, the North Maine Woods is a partnership of large and small landowners, including corporations, individuals and families, that manages a large chunk of Maine.
Over the years, landowners have established a series of gated entrances into the North Maine Woods, not to restrict access but to control it, according to Al Cowperthwaite, executive director of the North Maine Woods.
North Maine Woods’ eyes and ears
The eyes and ears keeping track of all comings and goings are the 40 receptionists who monitor the 14 checkpoints — or gates — leading to and from the North Maine Woods.
“Those [receptionists] are very important to the mission of the North Maine Woods,” Cowperthwaite said. “They are sort of the Wal-Mart greeters for people coming in.”
Anyone entering the North Maine Woods must first check in at one of the gates.
The checkpoints are monitored by the receptionists, who live in gatehouses or nearby cabins, either physically or electronically 24 hours a day, seven days a week from May 1 to Nov. 30.
When a visitor comes through, the receptionist takes down some basic information including vehicle license plate number, name and home address, and the visitor pays an entrance fee based on residency, age, purpose of the trip and how long they plan to stay.
Because of that system, which is now computerized, they know at all times who is where and doing what in the North Maine Woods, Cowperthwaite said.
“There are no secrets in the North Maine Woods,” he said.
At one time, the role of gatekeeper or receptionist was dominated by women — retirees looking for something to do for
several months out of the year or married women looking for extra money for the family.
These days, according to Cowperthwaite, women still outnumber the men by about 3 to 1, but the demographic has changed.
“We have some great guys who are gatekeepers,” he said. “We also have two married couples who work gates as a team.”
Carolyn Gardner has been a North Maine Woods receptionist for eight years at the St. Francis Gate located about a quarter-mile off Route 162 and 30 miles west of Fort Kent.
“We register the recreationist people going in and keep records of the loggers going in and out,” Gardner said. “Basically it’s for safety. We know if someone doesn’t come out, someone is going to have to go in and look for them.”
The system, Gardner explained, does not require someone entering the woods to exit through the same gate.
“They have a paper from us showing where they came in and would show that to the receptionist at whatever gate they go out,” she said. “That allows us to keep track of them and record when and where they went out.”
Access is controlled by a simple cable stretching from the gatehouse porch to a pole across the road. Once a person is cleared to enter or exit, the receptionist lowers the cable with a simple wooden lever inside the building.
The gates are closed and locked from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., but Gardner said no one has ever been trapped in the woods overnight who didn’t want to be.
“I’ve had someone wake me up at night because they were coming out after 9,” she said with a laugh. “That’s just part of the job. We are here to help.”
Darlene Kelly Dumond, an Allagash native who works weekends at the Little Black Gate just outside the village of Allagash, has returned to her roots.
“I grew up right across the road,” she said, pointing to a plot of land near the St. John River about 100 yards from the gatehouse. “That’s the old family homestead.”
Kelly Dumond admits she could not wait to leave once she graduated high school. More than three decades later, she’s back and there is nowhere else she’d rather be.
Working as a receptionist for the North Maine Woods, she said, is a perfect fit for her rediscovered lifestyle.
“My grandfather worked this gate,” Kelly Dumond said. “Some days I look out and see the fog rise from the river and the sun hits it and I think, ‘My God, this must be just how Grammy and Grampy saw it.’”
Kelly Dumond’s alarm goes off at 4 a.m., and the coffee is brewing soon after.
“At 5 a.m. I turn on the lights, unlock the door and we are open for the day,” she said, adding there are times people are already waiting to get into the woods.
More often than not, the traveler stays to exchange pleasantries before hitting the roads to that favorite fishing hole or campsite.
“I really enjoy meeting the people,” Gardner said. “We get people from all over the world [and] you meet people who came as teenagers and now 20 or so years later they are back.”
Ready for anything
Beyond checking people in and out of the North Maine Woods, the receptionists often have to be ready at a moment’s notice to render aid — be it assisting an unlucky traveler who has a flat tire or assuring rescue personnel can respond quickly to medical emergencies.
“There is a large percentage of our visitors going into the Allagash who have never been there before,” Cowperthwait said. “Our receptionist can help them find their way around and warn them of anything they should watch out for.”
For example, many newcomers may not know all roads within the North Maine Woods are private. Logging trucks always have right of way.
The drivers of those big rigs communicate with each other over special radios so they pretty much know the location of every truck on the roads. Recreational visitors, however, are often clueless.
So it’s up to the gatekeepers to warn non-loggers and other visitors to drive slowly, take extra caution at all curves and to always give the logging trucks the right of way.
“That is very important information,” Cowperthwaite said. “If you’ve never been there, the North Maine Woods can be pretty intimidating so our staff is integral to people have a safe trip.”