Trip date – August, 2010
If you crave time far from the barrage of television news, radio traffic reports, e-mails and screaming fashion statements, head to Oxbow in the area of the confluence of the Aroostook River and the Umcolcus Stream. The Aroostook provides the town’s namesake. It’s a meandering oxbow formation in the river on the east side of the town, where the cool waters drift eastward toward Canada. Umcolcus Stream, great for brook trout fishing, starts at 770 feet above sea level, shooting over rocks and ledges, and along ostrich fern covered banks. Oxbow is a beautiful area for a wilderness vacation.
They established one-room schoolhouses (two still stand), built a Congregational church (it continues to serve parishioners of all denominations), and organized a community rich in a spirit of selflessness that survives today.
Oxbow became a population center supporting farming and lumber operations in the virgin forests. Rambling New England farmhouses were built on rolling fields cleared from dense growth. Acres of potatoes and apples, barns full of chickens and herds of dairy cattle lined the only paved road in the community. Stretching eight miles in almost a straight line from Route 11 to the end of the road at the Aroostook River, Oxbow Road is still the town’s only street address.
A trip to today’s Oxbow might be compared to a visit to Walton’s Mountain, with none of the televised hype attached. Barns have collapsed from age. The log cabin where Louis Sockalexis of the Cleveland Indians visited his grandmother disappeared in the 50’s. Aggressive forests have slowly reclaimed fields once abundant with daisies and wild strawberries. Fewer than 100 inhabitants now live in the 36 square miles of Oxbow, but for visitors, being far away from everywhere and more in the company of nature than people is the attraction.
An organic herb and produce garden, a couple of transplanted American bison, and a Christmas tree farm reflect Oxbow’s farming past. The local post office only recently closed, and mail is now delivered to each homestead along Oxbow Road. A craft store is a fun place for locals and visitors to congregate and discuss the many items in the shop that represent the traditional arts of years gone by. The one remaining industry is the seasonal Christmas wreath business operated by the Sherman family.
Oxbow offers visitors three lodging options for sportsmen or those just wanting an outdoor vacation: The Homestead Lodge is in the style of a traditional B & B, located in the former House family farmhouse. Halfway through the town, the historic Oxbow Lodge, with roots in the Libby and Atkins families logging and hunting business, is 150 years old. The third is Umcolcus Sporting Camps, the real wilderness option.
And you may see lots of ducks, bald eagles, king fishers, coyotes, foxes, beaver and other critters during your stay. No whitewater rafting here, only relaxing kayak trips on the placid waters of the headwaters of the Umcolcus Stream. Or, perhaps you can arrange a trip from the end of the Oxbow Road at the Aroostook River to the actual Oxbow, for which Oxbow is named.
Operated by Al and Audrey Currier, the facilities consist of a main lodge for dining and socializing, and six private cabins and bunkhouses constructed of native logs and lumber. It’s located on the site of former camps owned by Al’s grandfather, Almon Currier, a well-known guide in Aroostook during the early 1900’s. The original cabins were visited by Jack Dempsey. And historical references to Charles Schwab having been there were recently discovered.
If you are looking for a place you can drive to but which is completely (repeat that last word to yourself) off the beaten track so that you can decompress from the office, then Umcolcus Sporting Camps may be exactly what you need. This will be a wilderness vacation to remember.
There are several options to get you there – each includes some driving. The nearest major airport is Bangor. It’s then a 130 mile drive from Bangor to Oxbow. The city of Presque Isle is a 30 mile drive but has less frequent air service. Canadian visitors may use Fredericton, New Brunswick airport, just over 100 miles away.
Don’t worry about renting a special 4 x 4 vehicle. Access to the camps is via a six-mile, well maintained gravel road through the forest. It is easily managed with a regular car.
Al and Audrey will welcome you to the main lodge and show you around the public grounds and to you cabin. Since Umcolcus Sporting Camps has been in Al’s family for over a century, Al’s stories are many and fascinating, and each is told with that slow cadence and delightful accent that “Mainiacs” are known for.
Accommodations are rustic but entirely comfortable. Walls are constructed of logs and ceilings covered with knotty pine. The double beds and bunks are built with four wood logs. Mattresses rest on wide planks. Wooden pegs have been added to the log beams, convenient for hanging bathrobes or damp clothing. With a gas stove for cooking, a cast-iron wood-burning stove for heat in the early spring and fall, you are ready for housekeeping. The refrigerator is powered by propane! Your cabin rooms are illuminated with gas lights. There is no electricity. No running water.
Each cabin has a simple cookware, stainless and dishes. Nothing fancy at all. Just bring your own groceries, beer and wine, or make reservations with a meal plan for your stay.
A chipmunk’s chatter is your morning alarm clock, but if you like, stay in your handcrafted bunk, wrapped in cool sheets and a snuggly plaid blanket. There is not phone to answer. No TV to turn on. No radio to jar you awake. And it is highly unlikely that your cell phone will function here.
A modern communal shower and bathroom facility is a short walk from your cabin. And it is here that you also fill your buckets with well water for drinking and washing dishes in your cabin. This building is serviced with a generator for electricity, and running hot and cold water. A supply of towels is available for guests.
In the main lodge, several community style dining tables and chairs surround a massive stone fireplace. Hunting and fishing memorabilia, snowshoes and photographs decorate the walls. Umcolcus shirts and hats are available for sale. It’s here that Audrey prepares good home cooking for guests selecting the American plan.
One of the best activities at Umcolcus Sporting Camps is kayaking. As you walk to the bank of the deadwater, you may notice signs of beaver activity. They frequently try to dam the run-off from the deadwater into the stream. Plan an early morning trip on the deadwater for a primeval experience as you slip through the mists hovering like angel hair… about six inches over the warm, still waters of the Umcolcus.
Quietly prepare your kayak and gently slide it into the water. Unnecessary noise may frighten grazing wildlife. A few hundred feet away from the dock, out on the deadwater, stop paddling.
Listen to a silence unchanged since the ice age retreated across northern Maine leaving several lakes that became deadwaters feeding younger streams. You will hear the same silence native Wabanaki tribes experienced centuries ago. The silence might be broken by a cow moose and her calf plunging into the water to munch on the tender roots of pond lilies.
Umcolcus Sporting Camps are available for guests from early spring to late autumn. Depending on when you go, you may enjoy trout fishing, or hunting for black bear, moose, white-tailed deer, and partridge. Fossil hunting or searching for Native American arrowheads in vacant fields can be fun. Jogging, hiking, mountain climbing or back-road cycling give your heart the cardiac exercise you want. Photographic opportunities are everywhere, whether it is the remote, preserved King’s mast pine tree, bald eagles nesting in treetops, or the critters and wildflowers flourishing on the trails around your cabin.
Spring brings a bounty of trout fishing and, toward Memorial Day, the fiddleheads (ostrich ferns) are ready for picking. Trout and fiddleheads (with butter and vinegar) – what a meal! Migratory birds begin to arrive, and woodland animals become parents. Dutchman’s britches, purple and yellow violets and bloodroot are among the first flowers to welcome spring.
Summer delivers the warmth of walks along abandoned farm roads and riverside paths, a paddling trip up the deadwater toward Cut Lake in a silence only broken by the buzzing of bees and dragonflies, the squawking of crows, songbird symphonies, the sighting of pairs of wild ducks and their families enjoying a picnic along the muddy banks as hawks and eagles soar below puffy cirrus clouds scouting for dinner.
Varieties of wildflowers drench stream banks, forest glens and roadsides with all the colors of Monet’s palette. Flavorful wild strawberries, bunchberries, blueberries, raspberries, hazelnuts, mushrooms – if you know what you are doing – and apples await the vacationing chef or city-child learning firsthand about Nature’s abundance. And who knows what little critters you may discover.
Relax with a book or your Kindle or challenge the family to card game (loser keeps the fire hot during the night), collect pinecones, spruce-gum or wildflowers; gather berries or photograph nature’s beauty. Try finding the famous sweetgrass that Native Americans still harvest for the weaving of intricate, scented baskets. At night, walk down to the stream and sit on a giant boulder as your senses again turn themselves to nature: crickets calling as fireflies dance at the edge of the black-green forest; the soft moon occasionally eclipsed by stray clouds; heat lightening dancing through the sky, and the stars in the handle of the Big Dipper playing atmospheric peek-a-boo.
No highways to cause noise to disturb your relaxation. No I. M. Pei or Master Carpenter John Anderson buildings will block your views of the ever changing atmosphere around the deadwater. Remarkable changes in cloud formations will keep children busy making notes to discuss their experiences back in the city. Foggy mornings, sunny days, an evening bonfire – the backdrop of the Deadwater is relentlessly being modified by forces of weather. The end of the day may present the perfect opportunity for a hot dog roast over a campfire followed by making your own s’mores while enjoying a dramatic sunset.
In fall, Maine puts on one of the most colorful fall-foliage displays in the world. The air is crisp, the bugs are gone and Nature takes on a seductive appeal as she slows down for its long winter’s nap. Though fall is the prime season for hunters (some hunt with cameras), it remains hospitable to guests seeking other pastimes.
Except for special events in the area, Umcolcus Sporting Camps is closed when the road is no longer passable because of the winter snows.
If your vacation at Umcolcus Sporting Camps is for a week or more, you may want to explore this area of Maine.
South of Oxbow you can enjoy a visit to the Patten Lumbermen’s Museum. This facility chronicles the history of the Maine lumber industry and includes several buildings of artifacts (huge and small) in buildings that replicate those that the woodsmen lived in during the isolated winter months.
Something worth considering when planning your vacation is the annual Beanhole Bean Dinner (held at noon-ish). On the second Saturday of August, the museum staff and volunteers recreate a typical woods camp meal for guests. The specialties include beans baked in cast-iron pots buried in the earth with hot coals so they achieve a wonderful smoky taste. The boiled coffee that will wake you up, and the homemade gingerbread are memories relived. Also, watching the expert cooks bake fresh biscuits in reflective ovens facing a huge bonfire in the middle of the yard reminds visitors how very simple meals required lots of work in the 1800’s woods camps.
If you are into hiking, check out Haystack Mountain towards the city of Presque Isle. The view of Aroostook County potato and rape-seed fields along with distant forests and mountains is worth the 15-30-minute climb. Supposedly there is a cave on the side of this small mountain, but I have not found it.
In the village of Oakfield, whose history was significantly influenced by the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad, citizens rescued and restored the former passenger train station. It is now a museum worth the visit to train enthusiasts. The Oakfield Railroad Museum is free to visit. Check their website of a schedule of special events.
Relatively new to the area is an Amish village located in the area of the town of Smyrna known as Smyrna Center. The Amish citizens have a small store with hardware and organic meats and cheeses, preserved vegetables, pickles and jams. In the summer they also have a farmer’s market shed next to the store. Their hand-crafted furniture is worth evaluating even if you cannot fit anything in your suitcase to take home.
Whatever the season of your visit, anytime is the perfect time for encountering the various wonders that Nature is planning as a surprise. Umcolcus is for vacationers who like to create their own good times, there is no planned calendar of events, although nearby villages may be having a festival of some sort. Al and Audrey will offer you their best how-to and where-to opinions, and ensure that you have everything you need to enjoy your stay. As you organize your trip, plan your meals well. There are no nearby restaurants or Quik Shop or Starbucks. Patten and Ashland are the nearest communities with grocery stores and are too far away for a last minute run-to-the-store-for…. But it’s amazing what creative-fun mealtime can be at a cabin on the Umcolcus Deadwater.
Note: My stays at this resort have been at my own expense, not sponsored by the resort to court me as a travel writer. I am related to the owners and grew up in this area of Maine.