News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Hiking the Path of Destruction

Sam Steele documents 53 miles of Maine forestland threatened by the CMP corridor

by | Feb 2, 2021

photos/Sam Steele

Early last fall, I spent six days trekking through the mountainous woodlands of northwestern Maine. I hiked about 20 miles along the length* of what’s called Segment 1 of the New England Clean Energy Connect (colloquially known as the “CMP corridor”), the transmission line Central Maine Power proposes to construct in partnership with Hydro-Quebec, a Canadian utility, to deliver hydropower to Massachusetts.

While much of the NECEC’s path would follow existing energy corridors — significantly widening them to accommodate the new line — the land Segment 1 would cut through is undeveloped. Segment 1 is 53 miles long and could be as wide as 54 feet. Its transmission towers can be over 100 feet tall.

The corridor project is currently on hold pending a ruling by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Three conservation groups asked the court to halt its construction until a more thorough review of its environmental impacts can be done. It’s also likely that Maine voters will get to weigh in this fall on an advisory referendum that would direct the Legislature to nix this project and make it harder for others like it to be built.

The project’s proponents call the woods of Segment 1 a “working forest,” citing the heavy logging that’s been done there over the years. Corridor opponents counter that, despite its exploitation, this region has a remarkable capacity for regeneration and continues to support an abundance of life.

Nature’s resilience would be no match for the NECEC. Unlike a logging road or a timber harvest, the transmission line would be a permanent scar on the landscape, degrading the extent, health and connectedness of the wilderness for generations. The corridor would severely impact specialist species, like marten and lynx, whose reproduction depends on their having hundreds of contiguous acres of closed-canopy forest to roam. It would also damage the forestland along both sides of its clear-cut path.

These so-called edge effects can extend into the surrounding woods for hundreds of feet, rendering habitat warmer and drier. Species adapted to the forest’s interior struggle to adjust to such drastic shifts. However, invasive species thrive in edge habitat, forming dense monocultures that prevent native trees and vegetation from returning. Without the food the local plants provide, many creatures starve, and survivors get picked off by generalist predators, like cats and raccoons, that take advantage of the vector the corridor creates.

The animals and plants of the Western Maine Lakes and Mountains region are already being adversely affected by climate change. The best way to limit that impact is to keep the area’s forests as whole and healthy as possible. The NECEC would exacerbate the death and environmental destruction caused by the climate crisis — all in the name of avoiding said crisis.

The NECEC would also yoke New England’s “clean energy” future to large-scale Canadian hydropower. Although it’s technically renewable, this electricity source is neither carbon-free nor eco-friendly. Its production necessitates the flooding of vast swaths of boreal forest in Canada, turning carbon sinks into new sources of CO2 and methane emissions, as decomposing trees and soil release the carbon they’ve stored for centuries. This flooding also releases methylmercury into waters First Nations people rely upon for sustenance, worsening the scourge of environmental injustice.

CMP acquired a large part of the woodlands in Segment 1 from timber giant Weyerhaeuser, which bought rival Plum Creek in 2016 for $8.4 billion. On my hike, I witnessed the destructive results of Weyerhaeuser’s industrial logging operations: huge swaths of forest torn down to shredded, tread-flattened detritus, punctuated by stumps leaking sap from their heartwood. The CMP corridor would slash through a region already ravaged by corporations that consider nature an asset to produce profit for private investors.

•••

After identifying what appeared to be the most remote section of Segment 1, I mapped its route via waypoints on my GPS app, guided by topographic maps. I followed the route as closely as I could. When it cut through roadless forestland, so did I. When it paralleled a dirt road (the only kind around), I often accepted the break the road afforded.

Before I set out, people who knew what they were talking about told me my journey would be arduous in the extreme. Confident of my fitness, I’d considered their cautions hyperbolic. Halfway through my first day in the wild, sweating and gasping and covered in dirt, I revised my assessment.

When I lucked onto a game trail — a respite from the thick shrubs I’d been wading through that day — I gave into temptation and followed it, even knowing it might bring me face to face with a startled moose. Stumbling along the narrow path, I gazed up at the colorful canopy created by the forest’s tall, gangly birch and maple trees.

The sun shot horizontal rays through the branches and caught the edge of a peeling strip of paper-birch bark such that it glowed like an ember. Transfixed by the sight, I watched as a breeze blew through, making the ember flutter and dance. Then the wind shifted, the strip of bark laid flat, and this ephemeral display of nature’s grace was over.

Near the end of the first day, I stood on a rough-hewn bridge that spanned the South Branch Moose River and watched a cloud of tiny bugs swarm near the rock-cluttered surface. In the golden-hour sunlight, they looked like dust motes come to life.

The South Branch of Moose River.

A stone’s throw to the north, the transmission line would pass over this river, one of 280 water crossings along Segment 1. The warming and other damaging effects of the power line clear-cut would imperil the region’s brook trout, for whom the Western Maine Mountains’ cold, clear waters serve, in the words of ecologist Janet McMahon, as a “final stronghold.”

•••

That night, I camped by the river. The next morning, as I hiked back out to the dirt road, a strong wind blew through the woods, plucking yellow leaves from the birches. They drifted down from the canopy continuously for a minute or longer, landing on the forest floor with a sound like soft rain.

In the woods near the base of Peaked Mountain, thick moss carpeted the ground, covered the sides of large boulders and climbed the trunks of trees growing, improbably, on the boulders’ flat tops. When the game trail I was following turned to mud, I hiked up the hillside into drier, more conifer-heavy woods.

Hearing scuttling in the trees above, I spotted a red squirrel clambering from the upper branches of a balsam fir to those of a black birch, then onto another fir, setting off a flurry of yellow needles. The squirrel scurried down the trunk and scampered off. A minute later I saw it again, perched on a low branch of another tree, clutching a mushroom cap nearly as big as itself, nibbling away at its edges.

As I ate my own lunch a few hours later, I caught sight of a bird that, at first glance, I thought was a chicken. It was a ruffed grouse, strutting about five feet away from me and pecking at the ground. It was plump like a chicken, but bigger, with a mottled brown body and an unassuming spray of feathers atop its head. The more I looked around, the more members of the flock I spotted; I counted six in all. They seemed unperturbed by my presence. When I stood, fished my fleece from my pack and pulled it on, they barely paused to notice. Only when I began to move closer, with my camera, did they spook. Flaring their tail feathers, they trotted away, then took to the air in a burst of thumping wingbeats, flying to the safety of the trees.

That evening I camped in a clearing by a small, unnamed pond. Bundled up beneath my sleeping bag, I stared into the bowl of sky, darkening now, fringed by the arrowhead silhouettes of spruce crowns. The first stars appeared as hazy smudges of light barely brighter than the atmosphere, then clarified as the darkness deepened. The process seemed to accelerate, and soon the sky was filled with shining pinpoints of light. Behind them, dimmer swaths of illumination suggested galaxies. I thought of the Arabic word for stars, which my girlfriend and I learned on a trip to the Sahara: nujum. A much more fitting word for the magic playing out above me.

           •••

In the morning, frost coated every blade of tall grass. Through the fog of my breath I watched as birds emerged from the forest to bask in the rays of dawn. Chickadees and other small flyers came first, hopping around on branches and chirping to one another. Next, a trio of crows made their entrance. They flew to a spruce on the far edge of the clearing, surveyed the grassy expanse, then glided down together and disappeared from view.

A few minutes later I heard shuffling close by and saw the grass moving about five feet away. It was the foraging crows, approaching my campsite in fits and starts. I sat and waited for them to come out of the thicket. When the first one broke through it saw me in an instant and flew upward in a flash of black feathers, closely followed by the others.

I hiked through a spruce-fir forest that day. It had been left alone by loggers in recent decades, giving the trees time to grow. The shade of the matured conifers kept shrubs and saplings at bay, making for easy travel. Farther in, lush moss spread throughout the understory, wholly enveloping many of the boulders strewn about, creating a nearly continuous, undulating layer of green. Hidden streams meandered beneath the moss, detected only by the soft murmur of their flow.

I simultaneously felt gratitude and despair, a discomfiting combination of emotions that I’d experience often by hike’s end. Gratitude for the chance to visit this secret patch of woodland; despair due to the knowledge that, should the corridor be built, it will all be destroyed. Heavy with preemptive grief, I turned and continued uphill.

•••

The next morning I bushwhacked away from the creek I’d camped by and into a forest of young maples, their leaves still waxen and green. Farther on, older maples whose leaves had changed stretched their fiery red plumage beyond the top of the crowded canopy, where it stood against the unbeatable backdrop of a cloudless blue sky.

After crossing several narrow, sun-speckled brooks, I came out onto a recently decommissioned logging road. The keening cry of a red-tailed hawk split the silence. I spotted its distant silhouette above the forest to the south, soaring in wide, shifting circles, riding thermals as it searched for prey.

Greenlaw Mountain.

Farther still, I was granted a view of Greenlaw Mountain, rising above the forest to the north. Low, slate-gray clouds cast its craggy slopes in shadow, but a narrow band of sunlight had wedged its way through. As it traveled diagonally down the mountain’s face, it illuminated each strip of cliff in turn, then lent its light to the red and orange maple crowns below, briefly revealing their brilliance.

Nearby, the summit of No. 5 Mountain granted those who reached it an even better view of Greenlaw and the vast wilderness around it. The NECEC would be an unwelcome intrusion into that grand vista.

Another half-hour of hiking got me to Gold Brook, which led — if my GPS was correct — to Rock Pond, where I planned to camp. I started along the brook, hopping between the rocks that cluttered its thin, trickling flow. Soon these last rivulets vanished and the dry bed filled with fallen leaves, but farther down the flow resumed, stronger than before, filling deep pools by the banks and smaller ones nearer the brook’s center. Water striders propelled themselves across the surface of the pools, spreading overlapping ripples.

Gold Brook.

I later learned that Gold Brook is vital habitat for the northern spring salamander and the Roaring Brook mayfly, both listed as species of special concern by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The transmission line would cross the brook twice.

Lacking the water striders’ gift, I had to jump from rock to rock to stay dry and crab-walk under big fallen trees that arced from bank to bank. Some sections of the brook proved unnavigable, forcing me into the brambly woods.

I was back down on Gold Brook’s banks when the pond appeared ahead of me, past rocks whose striations showed the water levels of wetter years, and tall grass through which the brook’s beginning sifted. Wide and calm, the pond was encircled by forest that swept up into mountains.

I found a flat spot near the water’s edge and set up camp while squirrels chittered at me from the branches of nearby pines. During dinner, I caught sight of a mouse as it beelined to its burrow in the mossy earth and disappeared within. Afterward, I walked down to Rock Pond and watched the sunset turn fleecy clouds over the trees on the far shore a blushing, bright-rimmed pink. Above them, thin, dark clouds drifted south, dangling thread-like legs.

•••

When I woke at dawn the next morning, I lingered in my tent for a few minutes, listening to the scurrying of mice. Their paws pattered on the pine needles as they hustled about, squeaking back and forth. The sound of the rainfly unzipping sent them scattering for cover, and by the time I was out they’d all tucked themselves away in their hiding spots.

In the new silence, I looked around at the pines, their east-facing halves glowing a soft pink-orange. Weaving through them, I walked toward the pond and the source of the light. The dawn sky was purple up high, warming to peach where it met the serrated silhouette of the treeline. Below, the water was velvet, cross-hatched with fine lines like a pattern pressed by grass into skin.

Rock Pond.

The sun rose haloed over the pines across the pond, laying a flame through their ripple-split reflection. I watched until it crested the tops of the trees, then went back up to camp to make breakfast.

When I returned to the shore with my coffee, animals of many kinds were making themselves known to one another, their calls and cries echoing across the water. The sky had brightened to blue and the sun had begun to fill in the details of the woods at the water’s edge. Wispy clouds coasted past the peak of No. 5 Mountain, its forested slopes rising above the mottled red and yellow trees at its foot.

Suddenly the rumble of a distant logging machine sundered the early morning peace. Someday soon, such sounds may be much louder. The CMP corridor would cut through the woods about 1,000 feet from Rock Pond, its high-voltage transmission lines faintly buzzing overhead like black flies that never leave.

Later that morning, I hiked along a broad, sandy stretch of the shoreline, pausing to scoop up handfuls of foam and blow the fluffy stuff off my palm. It floated on the breeze in tan clumps of bubbles and clung to the branches of the pond’s edge trees.

Up ahead, the shore’s width constricted and slick rocks replaced the sand. I hiked up a mossy incline to the forest and continued along a narrow road that paralleled the pond. The sun, hidden since early morning, managed to give its bunchy gray minders the slip and shot the trees through with glorious beams of light. Every leaf seemed aflame. Then the clouds wrangled their fugitive, and the forest’s colors desaturated again.

Diverging from the pond, I hiked on through a stand of maple and birch whose fallen leaves formed a patchwork quilt of stunning vibrancy on the forest floor. The parent stumps of coppiced maples filled with fuschia-fronted, pink-backed leaves, their layers contained within a circle of spindly shoots.

I later found myself in the presence of towering aspens. Their lowest sections, having layered on wood since the trees were saplings, bore dark, fissured bark. Higher up, the bark was lighter and smoother, the kind I’d always associated with aspens. Looking up from their bases was like watching one tree transform into another. I was seeing each aspen’s history, a tale told not in words, but in wood.

Past the aspens, I started down a hill under the cone-loaded boughs of mature spruce. I saw a pair of what I believe were white-breasted nuthatches perched on a branch, possessed of a striking beauty. Above white-fronted, gray-winged bodies, their bright white heads were capped with a deep black crown that extended down the backs of their necks. Their dark eyes, set against the white, gave them a haunting appearance. One swooped off the branch and flew closer. Settling on the broken top of a dead birch tree, it looked at me, cocking its head. I met its gaze and held it. The woods were quiet around us. Then it took off and disappeared into the forest, followed by its more cautious companion.

•••

That evening I camped by another nameless pond. In the morning, ice-blue fog cloaked the surface, its luminescence stark and spectral against the still-dark woods along the water’s edge. The stands of maple on the slopes of the mountains beyond, recipients of the first rays of the rising sun, glowed a rich, smoldering red.

I stood at the border between the trees and tall grass and took in the slowly brightening scene, then returned to camp and put some water on to boil. Over the hiss of the flame I heard honking, close and getting closer.

I sprinted to the pond and watched as a flock of geese, flying in a tight V, came in low over the spruce on the far shore, barely clearing their tops before banking down to the water and landing with near-simultaneous splashes. The ruptured fog swirled in ribbons around them. When it settled, it revealed eight glistening, long-necked bodies, slowly drifting on the ripples they’d created. Honking back and forth, they paddled from the center of the pond to the corner farthest from me.

Yet again, I felt deep gratitude coupled with dismay. This pond is less than half a mile from the path of the corridor. If the NECEC is built, this habitat will be violently and irreversibly altered. The geese and other birds and bats passing through will be at risk of colliding with the tangle of tower struts and wires. And the winged and flightless alike will suffer from the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the high-voltage lines, which has been shown to negatively affect the reproductive success and development of all kinds of animals, from insects to mammals to trout.

On this year’s journey, the flock was safe. On this journey, they could fly through the mountains and forests of northwestern Maine unimpeded, as geese have done for uncountable generations. After a short break, that journey continued. The flock congregated again in the middle of the pond, honking, then took flight, their wingtips flicking the water. Soon they were over the trees behind me, their calls receding into the early morning quiet.

After leaving the pond, I completed my last stretch of bushwhacking and hiked toward the main dirt road on a wide, recently abandoned skidder track. The logging path was mostly composed of the compacted remains of trees cut and crushed into the earth, creating a rough route to drag out their relatives. Here was a glimpse of the future that awaits the wild places I’d just traveled through: decimation.

Ten minutes down the track, I experienced what it might be like for a mammal trying to navigate its newly uprooted habitat. I stepped on what appeared to be a solid patch of packed debris, and my foot plunged through the ground. By the time I found purchase on something solid enough to arrest my descent, my entire leg was in the hole.

After testing the solidity of the ground behind me, I sat back and pulled my leg free. Shaking with adrenaline, I wiggled my ankle, then bent and straightened my knee. No broken bones. Had I fractured something, the press of a button on my GPS device would have summoned a search-and-rescue team. Forest animals struggling to cross such newly treacherous and unfamiliar ground, prey to the same mistakes, would either hobble off injured and perish soon after, or die right there, casualties of human folly.

Six days in the mountains of western Maine opened my eyes to the beauty, intricacy, and innate value of wilderness, even — or, perhaps, especially — the damaged kind. The trip shed no light on the mystery of why, under the auspices of “clean energy,” some people seem so intent on shredding the sacred. Tired and sore and sweaty though I was, the thought of returning to a world in which this madness is considered sensible brought me little joy.

For a bit longer, though, I could choose to stay off the dangerous road my species is paving through nature. Slowly rising to my feet, I shouldered my pack and angled back toward the woods.

Writer and photographer Sam Steele’s work can be viewed at samebsteele.com.

*The print version of this story did not make it clear that Steele hiked roughly 20 miles of Segment 1, not its entire length.

Related Posts

Subscribe

We are supported by advertisers and readers, like you, who value independent local journalism. For the cost of one pint of Maine craft beer each month, you can help us publish more content and keep it free for everyone.