At first glance along the main road in Maine's frequently ignored northwest forests, you might think nothing historic took place here. There should be plenty of places, perhaps, where you could post that much-imitated brass plaque that engender a chuckle whenever it's seen: "In 1897 Nothing Happened Here." But everywhere has some history, and Somerset County and its neighbors are no exceptions. It's mostly year-round playtime for modern Americans here, both winter and summer wonderlands occupying the attention of visitors entranced by snowmobiling, ATV excursions, whitewater rafting, and other outdoor pursuits.
Back in October of 1775, General Benedict Arnold (still on the U.S. side) led troops along this path to invade Québec City in an attempt to keep the British off George Washington's northern flank. And in 2008, the US government is spending $26 million to upgrade its Border Patrol Station at the path's northern end, ever conscious that at least two of the 9/11 terrorists are said to have entered the country through Maine, probably on a ferry from Nova Scotia, according to then Governor King's office. And while Arnold's path led slowly to treason, the 2001 killers were bent on a quicker mass murder.
The old path is now US Route 201, a 78-mile stretch of which is also known as the Old Canada Road National Scenic Byway. It's in northwestern Maine, where the New Hampshire and Canadian borders intersect with Maine's.
There's more history here if the visitor looks for it, and enough culture to entice, as well as local art to be viewed and sometimes purchased. This nearly forgotten neck of the woods isn't crawling with artists in the manner of some Maine Coast communities, but there are a sufficient number of woodcarvers, painters and other creative folk that you could come here and spend much of your time seeing things instead of "doing" outdoor sports. Just eyeballing the folksy houses and quiet streets of Old Caratunk is pleasant enough for those of us with nostalgia for an old-fashioned America, real or imaginary.
Sad to say, there is little to remind visitors of the Abenaki Indians, who were the original recorded inhabitants, at least as far as the first European settlers knew, in the early 1600s. They disappeared but are though to have merged with the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes we know today. As for the locals today, many of them recent arrivals, "we just want to be left the hell alone," to quote one such. Former hippy residents, I was told, return to West Athens here every July 4 for "an irreverent and politically incorrect parade," which must be more than worth coming to town for, I guess.
The International Corridor
Overlooking the past record of incipient treachery along the road here, Canadian and US citizens in 2000 invented the Kennebec-Chaudiere International Corridor, dedicated to improving relations between the two nations. The Chaudiere River in Québec flows north into the Saint Lawrence River, just as the Kennebec in the US meets the Atlantic to the south. Though the route (201 in the USA and 73/173 in Canada) pulses with Québecois racing to Old Orchard Beach amusement park on Maine's coast every summer day, the developers of the Corridor felt some understanding of the historical and cultural connections between the two peoples would be nice.
At the northern end of the Corridor is Québec City, celebrating its 400th birthday this year, a center visited by more than six million people each year and a UNESCO World Heritage City in its own right. South of that is the Beauce Region, famous for its maple sugaring and snowmobiling. Next is the Forest Highlands region, mostly in the USA, where the Appalachian Trail crosses Route 201 and where is located, locals say, "the best whitewater sport opportunity in the northeastern USA." The Appalachian Trail, incidentally, is said to have its only ferry crossing, by canoe, in these parts.
The fourth region of the Corridor lies south of Bingham, where the Kennebec widens and larger towns appears, such as Skowhegan and Maine's capital of Augusta. The last region is Tidewater Kennebec, where earlier settlers gathered to dwell, including Popham, which was the site of the first English settlement in North America, contemporary with Jamestown in Virginia, but lasting only from 1607 to 1608.
At the Jackman Moose River Historical Museum, in Jackman's old firehouse, there is a pleasing assortment of old items, highlighted for me by memorabilia from a World War II POW Camp at nearby Spencer. Open in summer or by appointment. Free admission. No phone, no website.
The Lakewood Theater says it is the nation's oldest continuing summer theater and it may well be, having been in business since 1901. Also the official State Theater of Maine, it is housed in a white colonial frame structure and is now in its 108th season. This year the shows run through September 17 and include Guys and Dolls and Bubba's Revenge. There's also a restaurant. Prices are $21 for adults, $22 for a musical, $27 for cabaret seating, kids 4-17 only $18. Evening shows Thursday through Saturdays at 8, every other Sunday at 4, matinees every other Wednesday at 7, sometimes at 2. Lakewood Theater, tel.207/474-7176, www.lakewoodtheater.org.
Solon Meeting House
I didn't expect to see a church-like structure with frescoes of biblical scenes covering its walls and ceiling, a rural version, almost, of the Sistine Chapel, but there it is. The Solon Meeting House, once a Congregational Church, dates back to 1842, but hasn't been a consecrated place since 1904. In 1951, a local woman, Margaret Day Blake, gave the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in Madison money for the purpose of painting the walls and ceilings, three students to be assigned per year for a five-year period. One, Ashley Bryan, is now a well-known children's author living on an island off the Maine coast. The students' works are mixed, but strangely appealing. Andrew Davis, who describes himself as "chairman and groundskeeper," says he is applying for the Meeting House to be placed on the National Register of Historical Places. Open throughout summer months. Solon Meeting House, www.maine.gov/local/somerset/solon.
You can take a boat to see an amazing number of petroglyphs etched into a large rock at Solon along the Kennebec, or approach it, carefully, on foot. Although some are said to be 5,000 years old and more, there are depictions of a few houses (chapels?), indicating those probably appeared after 1620 or so.
Northern Outdoors (tel. 800/765-RAFT (7238) or 888/770-SLED (7533); www.northernoutdoors.com) was called "one of the best one-stop sporting resorts in the country" by Outside magazine, and I am prepared to believe it. Especially popular with snowmobilers, it features a grand main lodge, 28 cabins alongside trails or lakes, big outdoor tub, a brewery and restaurant (see below), sled rentals, trail groomers and such. My room even had air conditioning (not needed) and satellite TV. Rates per person (if two staying) in the lodge start from $55, in cottages (if four staying) from $62.
At C. Moxie Gore Outfitters, you'll find a friendly couple (Pam & Ken Christopher) in charge of well-appointed first-class cabins with many amenities, the heated floors being a big draw in winter (just throw your wet clothes on the bathroom floor and they're dry by morning). The cabins sleep up to eight. Canoeing, kayaking, hiking, moose watching, fly fishing, snowmobiling available. Moxie Falls, a 90-foot drop, is nearby. For two to four guests, rates run from $130 and up. The Forks, tel. 866/663-2646; www.cmoxiegore.com.
You can go rustic in one of the Sally Mountain Cabins, on the shore of Bigwood Lake in Jackman. They've been in business for 50 years, they say, with affordable rates at $32 per person (minimum $45), $195 weekly per person. They have a bait shop, boat and canoe/kayak rentals, and ice shacks for wintertime fishing. "Our bait is guaranteed to catch fish or die trying" they say. Elm Street, Jackman, tel. 800/644-5621; www.sallymtcabins.com.
I loved the location of Evergreens Cabins, right on the Kennebec River, and featuring a nice restaurant with waterside deck as well as five cabins also on the river's edge. The lodging is Spartan, but the quiet here is marvelous, perhaps because owner Joe Albuit is a retired acoustical engineer. Wife Lorena oversees all, including the big campground. Cabins start at $30 per person. Ferry Street, Solon, tel. 207/643-2324; www.evergreenscampground.com.
Finally, if you like quilts, try Dad's Trailside in Solon, where Jacki & Everett Day opened their B&B in 2004, after extensive renovations. Each of the three rooms and one suite has private bath and is decorated with quilts handmade by Jacki. Rate for two person room $85 plus tax, includes full breakfast. North Main (Route 2010), Solon, tel. 207/643-2181; www.dadstrailside.com.
Four Seasons, Jackman, serves fine breakfasts, a typical one featuring two eggs, ham and potatoes going for $4.25. Hamburgers start at $3.50, rainbow trout dinner at $9.95. The owner, Alan DuPlessis, travels to Brazil to help build a church college there. Open daily 5am-9pm; tel. 207/668-7778.
The Inn by the River (tel. 866/663-2181; www.innbytheriver.com) is a luxurious former home converted to a B&B by owner Joe Christopher, and is on the AAA Approved Lodging list, with room rates for two starting at $79, depending on season. I enjoyed a fine stuffed sole, which goes for $14.95.
Northern Outdoors has a big, busy restaurant and bar, the Kennebec River Pub & Brewery. I liked my shrimp scampi over pasta at $17.99, but if you're hungry enough, their Northern Nachos appetizers ($9.99) are enough for a big meal. The microbrewery produces several varieties of beer, of which I like Magic Hole IPA the best ($4.25 per pint). Route 201, The Forks, tel. 888/770 SLED (7533); www.northernoutdoors.com.
The Old Mill Pub is sited overlooking the dam in Skowhegan, so try to get a table with a view. The fare is mostly standard pub grub, the service affable. I had a classic Reuben sandwich at $6.50. 41 Water Street, Skowhegan; tel. 207/474-6627; www.oldmillpub.net.
You can stock up on picnic supplies at Bishop's (tel. 207/668-3411; www.bishopsstore.com), on Main Street in Jackman, which has a wide selection. They also have a motel.
Kennebec-Chaudiere International Corridor, www.kennebec-chaudiere.com.
Old Canada Roadwebsite is www.byways.org/explore/byways/11510.