Turning left down Penobscot Avenue in Millinocket on Friday, there were cars lining the street. Storefronts were open for business, and there were people strolling around.
Not so long ago, it would take a contentious public meeting at town hall to draw so many cars. But that’s in the past. There’s a new air about town.
People were lined up a couple deep at the office for the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, as a volunteer patiently explained the best way to visit the property.
My family and I were in town to celebrate the first birthday of the monument, which was designated on Aug. 24, 2016. There was a party planned for Friday night, and we decided to make it a weekend adventure.
Just the day before, US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke delivered some promising – if not complete – news about the review of the monument he had undertaken at the request of President Donald Trump.
Katahdin would remain a national monument, managed by the National Park Service, Zinke said. He hinted that there might be some changes, but didn’t reveal a whole lot of details about what they might be other than to ensure folks that they would be happy with the decision.
Now, the recommendations are at the White House and in the hands of the president. While Katahdin Woods and Waters isn’t out of the woods yet, there’s at least reason to be optimistic.
We drove three cars up to the Katahdin region and invited friends of ours to join us. In the final tally, we spent two nights at the New England Outdoor Center, bought three tanks of gas, two fleece vests, a hoodie, two baseball caps and a jacket.
We stocked up on supplies at Hannaford and Ellis Family Market, including a cooler full of food and drinks for a picnic on Saturday at the overlook on the monument’s loop road.
The Friday night event was a fundraiser for the Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, which is a new non-profit that was created to support the monument and surrounding communities.
The event included some big name sponsors, including Patagonia and Maine Beer Co., which last year began brewing a special IPA called Woods and Waters to commemorate the new monument.
There was live music, great food and a list of speakers who talked about the monument and the difference that it has made in the community in just a year.
I’m biased on the monument. I worked with Elliotsville Plantation Inc., Lucas St. Clair and his family, playing a small part in making the case for the designation.
But in the process, I made lifelong friends in Millinocket, East Millinocket, Patten, Shin Pond, Lincoln, Mt. Chase and Matagamon.
Friday was like a reunion.
Here’s what I heard: There are still people who oppose the monument, but their numbers are waning. There are still “no” signs up, but they are fewer and further between. Meanwhile the support and the economic impact are continuing to grow.
In an OpEd in the Bangor Daily News, Richard Schmidt of Patten cataloged some of the positive changes in his community. Real estate sales have jumped since the monument was designated, going from $528,000 in the first five months of 2016 to $1.4 million in the four months right after.
The positive news is continuing in 2017, he reported, with sales topping $1 million again in the first five months of the year.
Businesses throughout the region are reporting spikes in visitation and so far between the National Park Service and the endowment created by Elliotsville Plantation, the foundation which donated the land for the monument plus an endowment of $20 million, about a half a million dollars have been invested in the region so far.
Those are real dollars putting Mainers to work and helping to grow the economy.
On Saturday, we drove up Route 11 and into the monument. We visited the East Branch of the Penobscot River, where friends were canoeing and then onto the loop road for lunch.
The trip into the monument is just enough of an adventure out on old logging roads to give that school carpool mini-van a workout and to cover it in dust.
We saw cars from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New York and South Carolina. There were several families at the overlook eating, taking pictures and enjoying the majesty of Mount Katahdin.
On Sunday morning, we reluctantly packed up to head back home. Leaving, we turned right on Penobscot Avenue. Again, cars lined the street. We parked and headed to the Appalachian Trail Café. It was packed. People were lined up outside to get in.
My advice. Make your plans to visit now for the fall. People are coming.
And, if you’re already thinking about where you want to be for the next eclipse in 2024, I have a suggestion. For me, it’s in the shadow of moon and Katahdin.