RFD Maine — A question of perception
Some questions have no definitive answer. For instance, if asked, who can clearly and authoritatively define “Down East,” “north woods,” “wilderness” “lake,” “pond” or “river”?
Will the real Down East please stand up?
Let’s take these one by one. Someone from a state south of Maine might well, upon crossing the border into Maine, say something like, “After all this time we’re finally Down East.” On the other hand, someone in Rockland, Maine, might argue that Down East begins at the Knox County border and people south of there who use the term are nothing more than usurpers.
But it does not end there. Many nature guidebooks, including ones that this author penned, recognize only Hancock and Washington counties as being officially “Down East.” To make matters worse, The American Heritage Dictionary defines Down East as “New England, especially Maine.” But who from Maine would refer to someone from, say, Connecticut, as a “Down East’er"?
It is all a question of perception, you see.
Then we have the north woods. I frequent the Moosehead Lake region and often refer to it as the “north woods.” Imagine my surprise when a friend from that area casually mentioned how he had to laugh at people from south of Moosehead calling that the “north woods.” To him, the north woods is far north of Moosehead. On the other hand, I live in Waldo, a town in mid-coast Maine and have had clients at my wild plant seminars ask me how I liked living in the “north woods.” Everything is relative, is it not?
What is wilderness? Some might say where no evidence of human influence exists. Others might call a place with no roads wilderness. The definitions go on and on and each one is totally subjective. If someone asked me to direct them to the nearest Maine wilderness area, I would probably take them to the far reaches of my woodlot rather than directing them to Baxter State Park or some other public “wilderness” area. Because, you see, Baxter is full of people and my woodlot, other than when I tromp about on it, sees few, if any humans from year to year.
Besides that, some “sanctioned” wilderness areas are crisscrossed with trails. And it seems to me that true wilderness should not have foot trails. People who travel in a wilderness area should have map-and-compass training and solid bushwhacking skills.
Here is an example of wilderness that is not really wilderness. Some of the vast areas north and east of Moosehead Lake are often considered wilderness. But shouldn’t true wilderness be untouched? By that, I mean the trees should be first growth. The unsettled areas around Moosehead have been cut continuously for almost 200 years. In fact, even the largest trees there are at best second or even third growth. Wilderness? I hardly think so.
But we really shouldn’t allow someone else’s definition of wilderness to influence our enjoyment of what we consider wilderness. Be it in the so-called “Hundred-Mile Wilderness” in Piscataquis County, a remote spot on an offshore island or our own back 40, wilderness is where we find it and what we make it.
Lake or pond?
Look at a map and check out lakes and ponds. It will quickly become apparent that some small bodies of water are listed as “lakes” and some huge, sprawling waters are called “ponds.” My American Heritage dictionary calls a pond a still body of water smaller than a lake and a lake, a large inland body of water. So why don’t maps reflect these definitions?
Consider Unity Pond. DeLorme’s Maine Atlas and Gazetteer hedges its bets on naming this one. DeLorme labels Unity Pond as ‘Unity Pond (Lake Winnecook).” Well, DeLorme, which is it? They can’t definitively say and neither can anyone else.
There’s another striking example of the sloppy and indiscriminate use of the name “pond.” It is Kirby Lake in Belfast, also known as “The Muck.” A good pitcher could probably throw a baseball across Kirby Lake. It hardly rates as a pond and in fact, I’d call it a mudhole. But any map of Belfast has it labeled as Kirby Lake. Go figure.
In fact, ponds and lakes are kind of like wilderness. Call them what you want and no one will challenge you on it. So it’s OK for me to refer to my little farm pond as, “Tom’s Lake.” In fact a reader, visiting here from Pennsylvania and checking out my pond told me that where he comes from, my pond would easily rate lake status. Oh, my.
Some time in the early 1980s, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife changed the rules regarding fall fishing in rivers and streams. Brooks and streams would be closed to fishing after Aug. 15, but rivers would remain open until Sept.15. This was a welcome change, but it brought up a question. What defines a river?
I wondered if St. George River in Searsmont fell into the river category. After all, the St. George was a river in name only, at least on its Searsmont and Liberty headwaters. I dearly wanted to go trout fishing in September, but didn’t dare. So a call to the local game warden was in order. The warden told me that if it says “river” on the map, then it’s a river. So simple, really, but so confusing to me.
This meant that places such as Goose River in Swanville and Belfast were in fact, rivers. Even though Goose River was only a stream, it was called a river on the maps and that was that. Never mind that the only navigation possible on the Goose is by canoe or perhaps, small motorboat, it’s a genuine river, right up there with the Penobscot and Kennebec.
To distill the text of this column down to one single thought, let me say that reality is what we perceive it to be. And in the case of the topics listed here, it is up to the individual to decide. So be happy. Take that canoe and go paddle down the mighty Goose River and enjoy the surrounding wilderness. Or visit Down East Maine, wherever you determine it to be. If you say it is there, then it is.