May 27, 2020

Allagash waterway is not a commodity

Since when did the expectations of guides and outfitters paying customers become the criteria by which the Allagash Wilderness Waterway should be run? (See Ashley Lodato’s opinion piece of Dec. 25.)

The Allagash Wilderness Waterway is not an economic commodity like a loaf of bread or a Sony Playstation nor is it a rustic Club Med. The present form of the Allagash dates from 1840 when the first two of five dams were erected to force Allagash water into the Penobscot River. It at least stopped being a wilderness then, perhaps even earlier.

Lodato admits to only eight years’ experience on the Allagash. It shows. He has the river length at 92 miles, when that is the overall waterway length; the river portions of the waterway combine for just under one half of that total.

Lodato bemoans recognition of a footpath near John’s Bridge which has been in use for 40 years, six years previous to the waterway’s recognition as a legal entity and obviously in use for 32 years before her first visit. Lodao claims this access point “threatens traditional use of the Allagash.”

Access at this point is just as much a part of Allagash tradition as the state-sponsored shuttle service around Chase Rapids for those too timid to try some of the easiest Class II water in the nation. (Last July I did Chase Rapids solo and was lunching at Bissonette Bridge when a woman dove up. She was waiting for her two sons to run the rapids. They were 12 and 10. They were doing the rapids for the second time that morning just for the fun of it.)

In praising the very real beauty and allure of the waterway Lodao writes, “[T]he Allagash is the only river in the East on which one can take a multi-day canoe trip in a remote area…” Does she also tell this to Lodao’s paying customers? How wrong the writer is and how misleading the remarks.

She overlooks the much wilder, more remote, and far longer St. John which is a true wilderness challenge. Compare the Allagash’s 43 or so combined miles of very easy moving water with the 75 to 80 continuous and often very challenging St. John miles from Baker Lake to Dickey. But the St. John’s canoeable season, and hence its limited economic potential for Lodato, is usually during spring high water.

Lodato mentions the 1966 approval of a bond issue to finance the legal entity which had been famous for generations as The Allagash. That bond issue, and its accompanying statute, created nothing except the vehicle for state management. The waterway was a century old, at least, in 1966.

Should Lodato or anyone else check the press of 1965 to 1966 they will find loud bickering over whether this would be a wise thing. A goodly portion of those who voted for the referendum did so only to keep federal hands off the state of Maine and its woodlands. Far better, they thought then, to duke it out amongst ourselves without any ham-handed meddling “from away.”

That stance has been the state’s salvation in keeping and managing the Allagash as it is today.

Last year the state removed one access point on the waterway, yet this development has gone unacknowledged by those who claim they alone can prevent loss of the “wilderness spirit.” They, as shown in Lodato’s remarks, look up from reading the waterway statute or from some brochure and speak of “wilderness,” “spirit,” “solace.”

She and they lose sight of the fact that these are abstract, inner qualities. They are not commercial commodities. With regard to the Allagash these qualities come from within the person based on a complete interaction with the waterway itself – wood, wind, water.

It appears the outfitters and guides view the waterway as a commodity for potential customers who are led to a certain expectation (reinforced by too many Disney movies) which is calculated not to bring clients to the waterway but rather to bring the waterway to the clients on a carefully crafted platter.

The waterway I have experienced does not resemble the platters I have seen offered. The waterway is neither a place nor a legal entity. It is a thing alive but only alive as one comes to it accepting fully what is found rather than finding what is expected.

These qualities will never come from mere marks on paper.

Peter M. Hilton lives in Presque Isle.

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