Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Backcountry History

People don’t like to see ATVs coming. The very first time I climbed onto one - my brother’s - an angry land owner waved me down before I’d gone a mile. His wife and daughter came out too and explained how 4-wheelers had raced by his house and trespassed on his property. After he recognized me as the guy in the newspaper who likes to explore old roads, cellar holes and cemeteries, he let me through, but I learned that ATV riders before me had given the machines a bad reputation.

Last spring I bought my own 4-wheeler and I’ve explored much more country than I ever could on foot or in my truck. I’m discovering a lot of old roads, cemeteries, neighborhoods, mines and gravel pits. This probably doesn’t sound like fun for most people, but I’m a history geek and this is how I get my jollies when I’m not teaching.

Before venturing into an area, I study maps, starting with the most recent - usually the DeLorme Street Atlas. From that, I go to USGS (United States Geological Survey) maps, which are the most detailed. These can be purchased from the State of Maine for $5 per quadrangle. Some are updated within the past ten years and others - like the one for my own town of Lovell - go back to 1962. They depict topographic features like elevation, swamps, ponds and lakes, but also fields, woods, orchards, and even buildings. The University of New Hampshire has historic USGS maps available online from the early 20th century for all of New England and New York state. Most towns are depicted in the 1940s and some in the first decade of the 20th century. From Saco Valley Printing in Fryeburg, I’ve purchased mid-19th century maps of every town in Maine and New Hampshire arranged by county. Most recently, I purchased maps of the towns within a 30-mile radius from the Oxford County Atlas of 1880. All these early maps show family surnames of people who lived in every area of town, as well as churches, schoolhouses, saw mills, grist mills, fulling mills, stave mills and cemeteries. From these, I can determine what areas of a given town were once settled and are now abandoned. Studying a succession of USGS maps I can determine when the old settlements were reforested after the descendants of early settlers stopped farming them and moved westward after the Civil War.

Most of the old roads still exist as rugged trails and, if they’re not closed off by the present owners, I can explore them. Some have wires across and others are barred by elaborate gates. Many will have “keep out” signs specifically aimed at 4-wheelers. They let in snowmobilers, but not ATVs and I guess that’s because so many inconsiderate riders have dug up the ground by spinning tires or other reckless behavior. I’ll see a lot of this in gravel pits which interest me because I like to examine layers of sand, clay, gravel and stones deposited by glaciers from 10,000 to 1.5 million years ago. During that time span glaciers came and went at least four times. Maps of glacial activity are available from The Maine Geological Survey in Augusta and I’ve purchased several (called “Surficial Geology” maps) for only $5 apiece. Conveniently, they correspond to USGS quadrangle maps. More detailed geological descriptions are available on each quadrangle for an additional $5. Going back even further in history is a bedrock geology map of the whole state depicting what kinds of rocks and fault lines underlie the glacial sediment we all walk on. Bedrock is exposed in several places like cliff faces, hill tops, mines and road cuts. When I pull over and study these, I’m looking hundreds of millions of years into the past when Maine was attached to northwest Africa - long before there were any humans on earth.

Last weekend, I spent an entire day exploring in Greenwood, Maine. The western half of the town is bisected north to south by an abandoned road that is open to ATVs. There are numerous mines to see as well as settlements. Few parts of west Greenwood ever had electricity and there are very few buildings left standing - mostly hunting camps and a scattering of original homes now used seasonally. I found cemeteries miles from any paved roads and containing veterans of the Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. These guys cut roads into steep hillsides, built homes and barns with elaborate foundations, cleared land, and died. Their descendants buried them and then moved on to do similar things in America’s west.

Lately I’m realizing that even with my new 4-wheeler, I won’t likely have time to explore all the abandoned places in just my part of Maine before I’m buried under one of those stones myself, but it won’t be for lack of trying.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for portraying ATV's in such a positive way Tom. I read your article in the Sun about every week but just found your blog. Too many people hate ATV's for all the wrong reasons. Thanks for the positive viewpoint.

Tom McLaughlin said...

Maybe the clubs forming around ATVs resembling the snowmobiling clubs can improve the image. I think it's happening already.