High atop the bluff that offers visitors the Oh My Gosh view that’s one trademark of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, artist Marsha Donahue worked at her easel, creating a painting of Maine’s tallest mountain.
This view, she said, has become among her favorites, and she has spent plenty of time painting here, at a scenic overlook on Mile 6 of the monument’s loop road.
But she knows when she displays this painting at her North Light Gallery in downtown Millinocket, visitors might have a difficult time interpreting what they see.
“That’s just not the Katahdin that they’re used to seeing,” Donahue said, explaining that most paintings of Mount Katahdin are created from the other side of the mountain, from within Baxter State Park. This view — from the national monument donated by the Quimby family and created by President Barack Obama in August, isn’t nearly as iconic … yet.
But Donahue and her fellow artists are working to change that, one beautiful painting at a time.
“When the artists come out, it’s kind of difficult for them to get used to the fact that they’re not looking at that same view,” she said. “You have this great, sweeping foreground. Today is perfect because you have clouds leaving shadows and you have other interesting pieces of the landscape that are articulated by the light and the clouds and the shadows.”
And this day was also perfect because U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and his entourage were en route to the monument. Zinke was in Maine as part of a systematic review of national monuments formed by presidential executive orders; the overt threat is that some may lose that monument status.
Donahue, a longtime supporter of the movement to create a national park or monument on 87,000 acres purchased by Burt’s Bees founder Roxanne Quimby, said she had a message she hoped to deliver to Zinke when he arrived.
“I’d like him to see that we use it, for one thing, and that we care about it. Artists love it,” she said. “I also just want to let him know that I think there’s been more than adequate public input. I’ve been to a lot of meetings. I think there’s a big difference between being heard and being agreed with, and I think that’s where the schism is right now.’
A young pair of adventurers who weren’t in the monument to see Zinke — 20-year-old Pearson Cost of Brunswick and 26-year-old Melissa Mann of New York City — were saddened to hear that a loss of monument status was even being considered.
Cost and Mann traveled to northern Maine from Portland, eager to take their first steps in the monument for one reason: Because it is a monument.
“I’ve been wanting to go to the monument for awhile now, since it became a monument,” Cost said. “I’ve lived in Maine all my life, but this about the best view that I’ve ever seen. To preserve that is important to our state. I also think that it’s important that the whole country get to see this.”
And if Zinke were to say that monument status wasn’t warranted?
“That would be awful. I think it only takes a pair of eyes to know that this is special … I’ve had a distaste of the mentality that when you’ve seen a redwood, you’ve seen them all,” Mann said, describing those who dismiss certain elements of the natural world simply because they’ve seen something similar elsewhere. “There are people across the state, and across the country, who want to be able to appreciate this place. I think to take away that opportunity, especially after so much generosity has come from the [Quimby] family to help get this off the ground, to not take advantage of that, would be a mistake.”
Cost said he’d been to Katahdin before, but not visited the monument lands until Wednesday.
He’d been looking forward to the experience and he’s sure that as time passes, many others will follow suit.
“All the time I see tourists picking up postcards and looking at beautiful landscapes of Maine and saying how beautiful it is. And it’s pictures of this — pictures of Katahdin and Katahdin Lake,” Cost said. “But if they actually knew how much better it was to be here than looking at a postcard, maybe they would come. And maybe having this monument as a national monument gives them that little extra bump to get up here and actually see it first hand. Because this is not the same as seeing it on a postcard. It’s not the same experience.”
Still, Gov. Paul LePage has said the land consists of nothing more than mosquito-ridden forests that have been cut over. Some local residents are still opposed to the monument, and a few anti-monument signs greeted visitors on the Swift Brook Road.
The fact that the first “National Park No” sign was on the lawn of a house with plywood over its windows and appliances on its lawn may or may not have indicated that local opposition to the monument is drying up … or moving away.
Zinke, though, seemed duly impressed, setting up his staffers for a photo at the overlook, the new iconic view of Katahdin in the background.
That, you’d think would mean something in a few weeks or months, when Zinke gets down to the business of making his recommendation to President Donald Trump.
“I’m an optimist. And from what I hear, I think all sides love the land. Everyone appreciates public access. Everyone appreciates the economy and [knows] jobs matter,” Zinke said. “And who cannot say this is a beautiful site?”
Reserving his formal judgment for later, he did tip his hand in one way: He wants people to be able to enjoy the same experience he did on Wednesday..
“If this [view] is an indicator [of what I’ll see elsewhere] I’ll be pretty happy,” he said. “But I’m not going to make a decision until we go through it. But I’ve talked to the [Quimby] family. I’ve talked to all parties. But I’m comfortable, certainly, with it in public hands.”
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke