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In the shadow of the mountain

Katahdin reigns supreme over a struggling Maine mill town blessed with natural beauty

Email|Print| Text size + By Letitia Baldwin
Globe Correspondent / February 18, 2007

MILLINOCKET, Maine -- Once he is done with his Sudoku puzzle and finishes his morning coffee and a slice of toast topped with homemade blackberry jam, Wilmot Robinson likes to go ice fishing for white perch.

The 84-year-old outdoorsman, known to friends as "Wiggie," packs a lunch and rounds up his auger, propane heater, and pop-up shanty. At Dolby Pond, which usually is frozen with more than a foot of ice by late January, Robinson drills five fishing holes and fashions tip-ups, consisting of monofilament line attached to some hardwood branches. He baits his hooks with dace and waits.

He stays on the ice until dusk, catching up with other fishermen and enjoying the winter scenery encompassing the snowy peaks of 5,267-foot Mount Katahdin to the north. For supper, he and his wife, Joyce, will eat the perch he caught sautéed with a mess of fiddleheads, the curled tops of young ferns, from their freezer cache of the springtime delicacy.

Robinson, who worked for Great Northern Paper for more than 30 years and is one of the oldest working registered Maine guides in the state, still likes getting out on the lake. "It's fun. I know we're going to get a good feed because you can't beat perch fillets," he says.

Getting out is what it's about in Millinocket, nestled in the shadow of Maine's tallest peak on the West Branch of the Penobscot River, about 72 miles north of Bangor. This town of just over 5,000 people, which was previously noteworthy for serving as the "you can't get there from here" punch line in the late Marshall Dodge's famous "Bert and I" routine, is the gateway to Baxter State Park and the Maine North Woods.

Today, Millinocket is poised for a rebound with plans to become a four-season resort area. A $65 million ecotourism project, including a 1,451-acre resort complex, is being touted as a vehicle to jump-start the local economy, which is still reeling four years after the bankruptcy and restructuring of Great Northern, Millinocket's single biggest employer since the town was built in 1899.

The proposed development, called Ktaadn Resorts: In Harmony with Nature, is the brainchild of Matthew Polstein, founder of the New England Outdoor Center, based in Millinocket. Polstein, a Maine-born entrepreneur who for years taught canoeing and kayaking and conducted whitewater rafting trips on the Androscoggin, Penobscot, Kennebec and Dead rivers, has run the center since 1982.

If it is approved by the state, Ktaadn Resorts -- the name is taken from the Abenaki Indian word for Mount Katahdin -- will offer an 80-room lodge, banquet and conference center, swimming pool, two restaurants and a pub, seven family compounds, 15 lakeside camps, and 20 resort homes. It also will have a working organic farm and workshop and conference facilities.

"Many, many people come with the focus of climbing Mount Katahdin without being aware of the numerous other great opportunities to experience nature within and surrounding the park," said Polstein, whose project is under review by state officials. Polstein's other adventure and business enterprises include Twin Pine Camps on Millinocket Lake, the Rice Farm Center Resort and River Drivers Restaurant in Millinocket, and Sterling Inn in Caratunk.

We got our chance to experience some of what the area has to offer on New Year's Day. There was only two inches of snow on the ground when Polstein greeted us at Twin Pine Camps. He offered us pairs of lightweight snowshoes and drew a map by hand before sending us on a three-mile winter hike on the Blueberry Ledges Trail. Along the way we followed deer tracks across a foot bridge and passed a heath and a beaver dam. Lush green hair cap moss, verdigris sheep laurel stands, and sepia beds of flattened ferns added subtle notes of color to the winter landscape.

In the final stretch, with granite cairns serving as trail markers, we skirted several icy sections and tramped through the woods. Emerging in a clearing created by a forest fire a decade ago, we spotted Katahdin Stream rushing over ice-coated rock ledges and made out the dark slopes of the mountain of the same name looming to the north. Katahdin's peaks were enveloped in storm clouds, prompting us to hastily retreat.

In 1846, Henry David Thoreau had something of the same view as he ventured up the Penobscot and met Thomas Fowler, the town's first white settler. Thoreau was taken with the lakes region, paving the way for American landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church, President Theodore Roosevelt, and the millions of hikers, campers, and sportsmen who have traveled here over the years.

Former Maine governor Percival P. Baxter established the Katahdin region as a destination for lovers of the great outdoors by giving more than 200,000 acres of mountains, lakes, and streams to the state in 1930. The area, including Mount Katahdin, became Baxter State Park in 1933. Baxter's dream was fully realized this winter with the state's acquisition of Katahdin Lake, which Baxter had tried unsuccessfully to buy decades ago. The $14 million deal, which took more than three years to conclude, expands the state park by about 4,000 acres.

Back in Millinocket, where the park headquarters is located, we were ready for sustenance after our hike. The downtown area sees steady traffic during business hours, but it empties quickly by dusk. The scene reflects the mill town's continuing struggle to recover from the loss of nearly 600 jobs in the downsizing of Great Northern in 2003. The layoffs forced several hundred Millinocket residents to move.

Joel Dicentes, whose Italian ancestors came as laborers to Millinocket, is among the laid-off mill workers who have reinvented themselves and are helping reinvigorate the town. He and his wife took over and expanded an Italian-American market and deli in the Little Italy neighborhood.

At Orvieto, snowmobilers can load up on Dicentes's homemade tomato sauce, meatballs, stuffed breads, fresh Parmesan and other cheeses, pasta, wine, and cannoli and create a feast back at camp. A variety of sandwiches and paninis are also made to go.

"I did what I had to do for 30 years. Now, I am going to do what I want to," said Dicentes, recalling his mid life decision to pursue a two-year college degree in culinary arts and restaurant management.

Marsha Donahue has that same can-do attitude. The Maine painter was struck by the Katahdin region's natural beauty and undaunted by the bleak economic picture when she first visited the area several years ago. She and her husband left careers in southern Maine and turned a former home furnishings store here into North Light Gallery. Donahue features mutimedia artists whose work is inspired by interior Maine.

"I hear people say they like the ocean because it is infinite. To me the woods was my ocean. You can go out and get lost in it," said Donahue, who grew up in the central Maine town of Pittsfield. "There's just something inside me that loves the frozen north. Up here, you are really dictated by the season and the weather. I like being part of the elements."

Contact Letitia Baldwin, a freelance writer in Gouldsboro, Maine, at jbhlb@acadia.net.

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