June 06, 2020

Outward Bound strives to protect Allagash waterway

In the late 1980s, I began working as an Outward Bound instructor in Maine. I spent my first few summers with Outward Bound hiking in the Bigelows and canoeing on the Rangeley Lakes. While I was enamored of western Maine’s beauty, I couldn’t resist asking senior instructors about other Maine waterways they hoped to take students on. My inquiries consistently elicited a common response – the Allagash.

For several years the name haunted me, but for various reasons I was not able to paddle the Allagash until 1992, when I took a group of teen-agers down the river. Portaging into Allagash Lake from Round Pond was like entering another world. The feeling of isolation was markedly different than what I’d experienced on other North Woods lakes. Traveling the 92-mile length of the river was magical; I understood why the name “Allagash” was spoken with such reverence.

Paddlers come from all over the United States to canoe the Allagash Wilderness Waterway (AWW) because the Allagash enjoys a reputation for wild and scenic beauty unsurpassed by any other river in New England. The fact that the Allagash is the only river in the East on which one can take a multi-day canoe trip in a remote area is one of which Mainers should be proud and protective. But a history of decisions that compromise the wilderness character of the waterway threatens traditional use of the Allagash.

As the Allagash begins to resemble other crowded and developed rivers in the area, Maine loses this national appeal along with its national treasure. This loss is not only cultural and environmental, but also economic. Educational and guide services such as Outward Bound are slowly moving business into Quebec. Our clients’ expectations of remoteness, aesthetic integrity and a sense of isolation require us to offer programs in unspoiled backcountry waterways. As the Allagash loses the promise of a primitive, traditional experience, we must take our programs to places that will meet our clients’ expectations.

The current contentious and well-publicized debate over the recently approved boat launch at John’s Bridge on Eagle Lake is only the latest in a series of arguments regarding management of the AWW.

Opponents of the John’s Bridge canoe launch are frequently asked why this particular access point causes such concern. After all, new access points have been added steadily to the original two since the Allagash Wilderness Waterway’s creation in 1966. Indeed, the four commissioners of the Land Use Regulation Commission who approved the John’s Bridge launch on Nov. 1 all commented that they thought that another access – this particular access – “won’t make much of a difference.”

If development progresses at its present pace and scale, future generations are unlikely to be able to look back and identify a specific point at which the AWW lost its wilderness character. They would, however, be able to look back and see that the Allagash is not the wild and scenic river it once was.

Today’s AWW users are only one generation removed from those who created it, yet the Allagash they enjoy has a far less isolated and primitive feel than it had in 1966. Additional developments like the launch at John’s Bridge contribute to the slow erosion of the very characteristics that the people of Maine voted to protect when the waterway was created. Each access is by itself relatively innocuous, but the cumulative effect of numerous boat launches degrades the primitive recreational experience.

A 1966 brochure printed upon the creation of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway claims that “this [waterway] will be maintained forever as a place of solace and refuge from the pressures of society.” Just 30 years later, the “solace and refuge” once offered by primitive recreation in the Allagash is yielding to the impact of crowded camping, rowdy parties and campsite trash.

What’s next for the Allagash? RV hookups? Lakeside concessions? A visitor center? The practice of allowing development in protected natural areas for the convenience of users is a dangerous one and one capable of snowballing quickly out of control, yet that is precisely the situation we face in the Allagash today. Despite the existence of a public launch site at Churchill Dam only five lake miles and 13 road miles away from the John’s Bridge site, the state is poised to spend $61,000 taxpayer dollars to construct another launch for the convenience of a select user group.

Not only is this excessive and expensive, but it violates the spirit of both the original AWW statutes and the federal wild and scenic designation. Each additional access point renders the AWW less remote and more like other easily accessible waterways in the area, thereby slowly eliminating the characteristic that makes it most special.

It is time to draw the line and protect the river the people of Maine voted overwhelmingly to set aside as “forever wild” for current and future generations to enjoy.

Ashley Lodato is program director of the North Woods base of the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School. The base is located in Greenville.

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