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Maine Tales and Treasures: The Golden Road (Millinocket to Rip Dam)

By: Jon James|

Sitting at a counter with my friend Jay Hanson recently, I struck up a conversation with Jayde Miller at The Lion’s Den Tavern in downtown Waterville.  I asked her where she’d like to go in Maine that she hadn’t been.

Even though from Maine, I was certain that she, like me, hadn’t seen every place in Maine that she’d heard about.

Jayde had to think.  She’s seen a lot of our magnificent state but, after a minute of pondering, she settled on places “up north.”

As someone who loves northern Maine, I asked, “How about Millinocket and the Katahdin region.”

“I’ve been there…I used to manage a camping area off the Golden Road,” she responded.

“Are you kidding me?  Was it before Ripogenus Dam?”

“Past it….on Chesuncook Lake,” she said.

“If I did a story on that general area, would you read it?”

“Absolutely,” she replied.

Just like that…my market research was done and a new feature was born.

(Click on pics to expand)

Jon James and Jay Hanson from Mix Maine Media

SIDE NOTE: At the Lion’s Den, I ordered the steak tip salad with blue cheese crumbles and poured blue cheese dressing all over it. That and a buttery baked potato made for a mighty tasty and filling lunch. Wherever I go, food is usually part of the reason for the choice of destinations. You will see that over time as I embark on this endeavor. Jay had some seafood dish. I forget what as seafood isn’t my thing. Jayde’s either.

Back to my story…..

Though yet unnamed, I will visit places I’ve been to and love and other places I’ve never been to, capturing photos, videos, drone footage, and interviews with folks who will give you a reason to come and visit their little corner of the world.

I won’t be doing places like Portland, Kennebunk and Ogunquit…there’s already a ton of stuff about those places out there.

I’ll focus on smaller, more “out of the way” places like Kokadjo, Deer Isle-Stonington, Frenchville, Millinocket and the like.

I’m not a city dweller by nature, even though I’ve grown up around cities….smaller cities, but cities nonetheless.

I like places where I can sit back on a summer or fall afternoon and hear nothing but nature….birds, brooks, a breeze through the trees and zero traffic…so sirens or loud voices.  Places devoid of other humans. If that makes me a recluse, so be it.  I am a big believer in recharging the mind and spirit and reconnecting with myself.

Am I anti-social?  Absolutely not.  I love people and I love conversing with people about all sorts of things.  But I want to do it because it’s what I desire and not as a result of, “Well here we are….we might as well talk or this is going to get really awkward.”

What I mean by that is, when I seek out solitude, I like the option of also seeking out people, if I want to.  I call this “exercising my right to converse,” and doing it on my terms.

I have met so many people over the years by simply bumping into other travelers as I drive along woods roads or by stopping by a country store or sitting at an out-of-the-way bar.

Recently, on a solo trip to Millinocket, I stopped by the North Woods Trading Post (also the Golden Road Yacht Club, a restaurant and bar) and talked with one of its owners, Tom Bell.

Tom is a real, Maine guy and I felt a bond with him immediately and, although the visit was fairly brief, the conversation was fun and friendly.  I plan to make this a stop (and maybe a stay) whenever I’m in the area.

Tom and his wife, Sandy, own the establishment, which sits in an area between Millinocket and Ambejejus Lakes, where the Golden Road and Baxter State Park Road run right next to each other.  You can cross from one road to the other easily there.

Not only can you get hot food and drinks (during warm weather) on the deck at “The Golden Road Yacht Club,” but in the attached store you can pick up whatever you need from hunting and fishing supplies to food, sundries, soda, beer and liquor.  It’s one-stop shopping!

As of this writing, I’m not sure what next year looks like for the Trading Post. Construction is being done and it’s my guess…and only a guess, mind you, that there will be some indoor seating at the Yacht Club.

Learn more at the Golden Road Crossing Facebook page.

One of the must haves for me…and I’m going to get one on my next trip up, is a ball cap. If you love the area, you’ll want one of these…..

Golden Road Caps (Facebook)

Below, see the video about Northwoods Trading Post and enjoy some of the beautiful scenes captured from the area.

Every time I travel the Golden Road, which I’ve done countless times, both alone and with friends, I get indescribable energy and conjure up a lot of great old, often bittersweet, memories of years past.

If you’ve never traversed this area and these roads, and you truly love Maine, it’s something that has to be on your bucket list.  It’s natural beauty at its best.

So, what’s the attraction of this road?  For me, simply the sights and the photo-ops. For others, hunting, fishing, four-wheeling, etc.

WARNING: The paved portions of the Golden Road are marred with potholes, some pretty deep and the dirt portions (most of it) can be rough and like a washboard if not recently graded.  Right after grading, it’s as smooth as any interstate…but watch your speed….it’s tempting to go fast but the shale stone in these areas, at faster speeds, can destroy tires.  There aren’t any garages nearby and cell phone service is spotty or non-existent.  Drive at a moderate speed and, if you’re smart, bring an extra spare or two.  Ask me how I know!

One of the first amazing sights driving over this road (from Millinocket toward Jackman) is a remarkable view of Mt. Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak.  This is definitely a photo you want to get.  You may have to wait if any vehicles are coming or going because:

1-      You’ll want to take this picture from the middle of the road and

2-      The dust from vehicles hangs in the air for quite a while and will ruing what will, surely, be a remarkable, if not frameable, shot.

Shot of Katahdin from The Golden Road

Next is another favorite Katahdin photo op…and it’s the least easy of my favorites to access but it isn’t that tough and is worth it.  It’s shooting over Compass Pond.

The Compass Pond cabin (yes, it’s a cabin you can rent) is right across the road from the well-marked “River Pond Trails.”  It’s a narrow road (path) on the right (again, heading FROM Millinocket…which is always the perspective I use).

While you’re there, you may want to visit the River Pond Trails. The walking is pretty easy and, though not spectacular for its views, it is a beautiful and quiet walk through a little section of Maine woods and it’s well marked.

As I recall, you have a couple of options…the longer walk is a mile or a little more and you do get some pretty good views of River Pond, which you can also see from the Golden Road.

My friend Rita and me on River Pond Trail

As I said, the access to the little cabin is across from the trail turn off (which is on the left. The cabin, again, is on the right)

Though it does look more like a path, it is easy to navigate by vehicle and is just a hundred yards, if that, to the tiny little primitive cabin.  It has never been occupied in all the times I’ve been there.  If it is, you may want to nix your photo excursion because the area is made for those who are staying there but, if no one is in the driveway, you have my permission to walk down the path to the water for a great view of the big mountain.  (disclaimer: I have no authority whatsoever to grant permission for this)

Compass Pond cabin side

Compass Pond cabin (front)

If you do make this worthwhile stop, you may want to walk down to the camp from the main road to save yourself the hassle of trying to turn around if somebody is there.  Also, if you get in and go down to the pond for a picture, be very careful….you will have to navigate over a rocky and sometimes wet area.

Katahdin over Compass Pond

Drone shot of Compass Pond

The next great (my second favorite) photo opportunity of Katahdin you’ll get is from Abol (pronounced “A-ball”) Bridge.  With the Penobscot River’s dead water in the foreground and the mountain in the back, this is a scene made to be captured.  It’s most beautiful in autumn as the aforementioned Compass Pond.

Somewhere, I have pics from that bridge but could not find any of them.  You’ll just have to trust me that it makes for a beautiful photo opportunity.

FUN SIDE STORY: One weekend while I was filming some gun safety videos with my friend, Morgan, in a pit near Abol Bridge, a young moose leisurely sauntered out and just hung around us for a while. Here’s the proof….

PRO TIP: If it’s a nice day and you like to walk, a trip to the Blueberry Ledges is easy and beautiful. It’s off the beaten path just before Abol Bridge (heading west). There are no signs but, if you know where the old road to Baxter Park merges, that’s where you need to look. There is a pit (shown in the above video) just off the road. A little exploring will yield success in finding the trail.

Onward along the Golden Road and you’ll come to some popular fishing areas like the Big Eddy campground.  This is a primitive camping area popular with fly fishermen.  Not being a big fan of angling myself, I can’t provide a lot more information about that or other “fishing spots.”

PRO TIP: If you’re used to using a GPS, I recommend you ditch it in favor of a DeLorme Maine Atlas and Gazetteer.  If you use this, the Golden Road starts on map 43 (at least on mine) at the former Millinocket paper mill, which was shuddered years ago.  The East Millinocket mill was also closed down.  But I digress.

Anyway, I’d recommend picking up the Golden Road where it and the Baxter State Park Road come together, at the aforementioned North Woods Trading Post.

So, where was I?  Oh, right…we were talking about sights along the way.

After the Abol Bridge, you’ll drive for quite a few miles (I never clocked it, for some reason) and you will drive for awhile, at times you’ll get glimpses of the river.

Don’t be afraid to pull over and explore if you see a trail going down toward the water. You’ll sometimes see things that are worth a look, even if there are no signs.

For example, here’s something I found on just such a jaunt through the woods next to the road, where there was a barely visible trail.

This is a “log cable crossing” I found near the river

Another “must-see” and picturesque stop is where the Telos Road begins (like everything else I’ve mentioned, it’s on the right).

There are plenty of signs identifying it and it is a large intersection so, if you’re not totally mesmerized by the gorgeousness of your surroundings, you can’t miss it.

As you turn right onto this road, you’ll see a bridge that crosses the Penobscot and, as you cross the bridge and, again on the right, you’ll see plenty of whitewater.  These are the famous, Class V, Cribworks rapids.  Not only can you see them from the bridge, but just a quick drive past the bridge and you’ll see a small parking lot and trail that takes you to large rocks overlooking them.

Be very careful walking to the rocks.  There are many rocks and often pools of water and mud to avoid and somebody I know took a digger on his last trip up there while carrying a very expensive camera and a drone.  This person is a klutz and I will not shame him by mentioning his name (LOL).

Oh, be very careful on the rocks, too.  Not recommended for little ones as the rocks are sheer drops and are very dangerous.

The Cribworks shot with a slow shutter speed

Rafting through the Cribworks rapids

More rafters

Here’s a video I did from a couple of drone shots….the first part is looking over the Cribworks rapids and revealing Katahdin….and the second part is revealing the mountain from over Compass Pond.

The next sight to see is where the Penobscot whitewater rafting trips begin….Just below Ripogenus Dam at the McKay power station.

The remarkable thing to see here is the awesome Ripogenus Gorge.  Not a place to visit if you fear heights, have had anything to drink (or smoke), or are a klutz, like “the guy I know.”  Like the trails at the Cribworks, this is NOT a place for littles, either.

There is no fence keeping you from falling 240ish feet from the top of the canyon into the whitewater below.  There are only trees to hang on to.  Do this at your own risk.

Just a short drive up the road brings you to “Rip” Dam.

Ripogenus Dam is kind of neat.  It’s a huge structure which you can drive across.  There is a trail on the further end (to the right) which has a gate.

You can easily walk around the gate and walk down the trail, along the river, to the opposite side of the McKay power station.  This gives you a good view of the water that powers the turbines exiting the structure.

My son, Matt, on the side of the river opposite McKay Power Station

FUN FACT: The water from Ripogenus Lake gets to the station from a large pipe that comes out of the dam.

Like the two previous stops, this one also contains sheer cliffs and is not recommended for kids.

My son, Matt, and me on the North End of Rip Dam

My Dad and I standing on the south end of the dam

Now, here’s a little more information about the dam and a personal story that you might find interesting.

First, as you take the road TO the dam (which angles off the Golden Road), you’ll go through an area that contains some very nice cabins.

When I first started coming up here, my friend Steve Pratt of Dexter and I would stay at a line of rooms (a motel-like structure) just past the owner’s home…which is the last building on the right.

At that time, the cabins were owned by Charles Pray, who is a former Maine legislator and previous Senate President. 

When Charlie wasn’t doing government work, he was likely there with his wife, Nancy, a lovely and friendly lady, who has since passed.

There was a store across from the home that sold some groceries, beer and wine and had a small bar and a few tables where you could get a hot meal.

Steve and I had many great conversations with Charlie and some very good breakfasts, however, the conversation Steve and I remember most was on September 1st, 1997, early in the morning.

It was Labor Day and we made our way over to the store where Charlie was at the grill cooking up breakfast and we were ready to eat.

After exchanging greetings, Charlie asked us, “Did you hear what happened last night?”

I remember freezing, knowing there was some news coming that wasn’t going to be warm and fuzzy.

We shook our heads. “No.”

“Princess Diana died in a car crash,” he said, somberly.

That was one of those “you always remember where you were,” times.

We both looked at Charlie incredulously, knowing by his expression that there was no way this was a prank,

As I recall, he had a Canadian station on at the grill and we listened as we ate breakfast…still numb from the news.

Although I was never a big fan of the royals, Steve, I and almost everyone respected Diana for all the great things she did for people in her short life and her humility, real or imagined.

My son, Matt, at the old “Pray’s Camps” store

FUN FACT: Steve and I began a tradition of “Dam Standing” whenever we stayed near a dam, literally walking onto and standing on the actual dam. I believe this practice began in Kokadjo back in the late eighties near the road at First Roach Pond. Rip Dam was a favorite and I recall one night, when we may or may not have imbibed a bit, walking (weaving and bobbing) outside of the motel room and into a thick fog and, using a little flashlight and the sound of rushing water, found our way to the structure, where we stood for a few minutes in verbal silence before making our way back.

FUN FACT 2: Steve, a musician and retired teacher, put “dam standing” as an occupation on a resume’ once and was actually hired as a result of it. The employer was so intrigued by the unique entry that they felt he was the kind of guy that would be a good fit…and he was!

While I’m on a bit of a somber run here (I’m suddenly a Debbie downer), I have to mention the plaque on the Pray’s Camps side of Ripogenus Dam.  Another photo op.

In January of 1989, two divers who were doing repairs on the dam, Albert H. Harjula, 29, of Thomaston and Daniel Sullivan, 30, of Boothbay, were sucked up against a gate at the foot of the dam during their dive.  Both died of injuries and hypothermia.

Other divers went in, including Brian Michaud of Millinocket.  He also became trapped but was able to get out. 

I won’t go into the gory details of what happened that day but you can find them if you look for the court records.  Here is a UPI story that recalls the incident.

The plaque is a memorial to the two men.

So….do you want to keep on going along the Golden Road?

I’ll stop here for now…just short of Chesuncook Lake, where my friend Jayde worked for a while.  It’s a place with great views of a beautiful lake surrounded by, not camps but….listen….can you hear it? Desolate wilderness.  Just the way I like it.

So, get the atlas out and find a place YOU’D like to hear about.  Maybe I’ll travel there and do some deep research into what makes it special!

BONUS CONTENT, GOLDEN ROAD FACTS:

Where does the Golden Road begin and end? It begins at the former Great Northern Paper Mill in Millinocket and runs 96 miles, east to west, ending at the St. Zacharie, Quebec, Border Crossing, north of Jackman.

When was it built? Started circa 1969 and completed (to Canada) in 1975

Why was it built? To connect Millinocket and the pulpwood hungry paper mill(s) to many millions of acres of timber

Why is it called the Golden Road? Does anyone know for sure? According to TheMaineMag.com:

Depending on what version you hear, the Golden Road earned its name because the private road cost Great Northern so much to build (the legend is one million dollars per mile), or because it offers a direct passage into one of the largest patches of contiguous forest in the United States, creating new access to the natural riches of northern Maine for the timber industry. Either way, the name invokes images of grandeur. And then you get there.

Here’s a video show by a couple of travelers that really give you a taste of what it’s like to travel the remote “highway.” There are some cool things to see, including Abol Bridge and Rip Dam.

THE PELLETIER’S LOGGING OPERATION

Just about everyone in Maine is aware of the Pelletier’s in Millinocket. They were the subjects of the Discovery Channel’s American Loggers tv show, which ran for three seasons, from 2009 to 2011. It featured the family’s two companies, Gerald Pelletier, Inc and Pelletier Brothers, Inc. and there was much footage of travel along the Golden Road, Telos Road and others.

Here’s a clip from one of the episodes featuring a short-lived driver who had never driven on woods roads before.

When you travel these roads, be aware…these are TREE LENGTH LOGGING TRUCKS and they, NOT YOU, have the right of way.

You can find more short videos from the show here.

Now, as an interesting aside, you may or may not know that the Pelletiers capitalized on their fame by opening a restaurant in downtown Millinocket, which was one of my favorite “foodie destinations” while it lasted.

Here are some photos I took on my visits with the descriptions in the captions.

(Me) hanging at Pelletier Loggers Family Restaurant

This is the only pic of the outside I have, after it became a bookstore and wine bar for a short time. The Pelletier truck was still on the building, though

American Loggers film crew at Pelletiers

With my buddy Mike at Pelletier’s

With my friend Morgan at Pelletier’s

The menu (a classic)

While this story is all about the Golden Road, I included Pelletier’s because the family is such a part of that stretch of secluded “highway.”

Pelletier’s sign on Golden Road

So there’s a little bit about a road that, over the years, has become a HUGE part of my “happy place.” You may love it too….or not. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea (or glass of whiskey), but I’m pretty fond of it.

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