Guests of the Sanctuary
By Dennis Gilbert
Photographs by Jarrod McCabe
Late successional stewardship (and spring cleaning) at Borestone Mountain
Don Annis meets you in the lot at the foot of the trail and helps load your gear into his pickup for the shuttle ride up the mountain. A comfortable crawl over flinty switchbacks carries you to the Nature Center on Sunrise Pond, where two open boats are waiting to ferry you over to the lodge. Sunrise is the smallest of the three ponds: a quick punt to the narrows, and the far side of Midday swings into view. Dollhouse-like in the distance, the Boathouse seems about to be buried under the massive collapse of the Peregrine Ridge rock slide. A little farther on, the main lodge resolves itself into wood and stone out of the lemon-green mists of its leafy environs. There it stands on a spine of ledge, all spruce logs and porches and gabled roofs. For the simple fact of being so unobtrusive, its prominence now is surprising. From the top of the mountain, you can take in the entire sweep of Elliotsville Plantation without ever noticing this chocolate-brown Adirondack and its companion dining hall on the shore of Sunset, the uppermost pond.
Once you land, everything is heaped on the boathouse dock but the food and cleaning supplies, which are humped up to the lodge by anyone with a free hand. You’ve arrived just as the last heavy shutters have been unbolted from the dining hall windows; for the first time in six months, the light of day seeps into the lodge—fine, golden, May-morning sunshine filtered all the way down to a dusty twilight by spiderwebs and winter grime. The place smells like a barn without any of the sweet lived-in odor of farm animals and straw. No one here but us mice.
The plan of work has a familiar heft: sweep and wash the floors; bring up the linens from the mouse-proof room and make up the twenty beds; wash the walls and windows; clear the cobwebs out of every cranny, all the way up to peak of the dining hall ceiling; organize the library; restock the pantry; get the kitchen up and running. There’s maintenance work, as well: clearing the blowdowns from the trails; repairing the railing on the cook’s porch; and shingling the two dormers on the main lodge. One thing about a list of chores like this: there’s plenty to choose from.
Nothing absolves you of your winter torpors like the simple labors of spring cleaning. The tang of oil soap is tonic to the stiff back and weary mind alike. And though it may seem bitter penance, washing log-and-batten walls rising 14 feet floor to ceiling, no heaviness of hand or spirit can weigh down the buoyancy of a shared burden: our doughty crew takes one long collective deep breath, and suddenly everything is being attended to at once.
The founding force behind the Borestone “Ranch”, located 10 miles southeast of Greenville or 25 miles by road, was R. T. Moore, a Harvard University graduate and amateur ornithologist who gained his first toehold on the mountain by purchasing a small tract from the Ship Pond Lumber Company in 1908. By 1915, Moore had expanded his holdings by about 1,200 acres. This included the mountain itself and the three ponds. Moore’s business plan was to establish a fox farm and fish hatchery on the eastern shore of Sunset; the subtext was to allow the wasteland left by the clear-cutting of the mountain in the 1880s to reseed itself naturally and return to level of growth now known as “late successional.”
The first dwelling, the Guide’s Cabin, was built in 1909. That same year, construction began on the main lodge. Surprisingly spacious for an eight-room house, it was built of foot-thick spruce logs and trimmed entirely in tree bark. The main lodge is a fine example of that architectural oxymoron, rustic opulence. Design details and appointments sometimes teeter between elegance and kitsch: the Steinway concert grand in the living room stands at one end of the scale, the crossed-legged, split-birch log table next to it at the other. Everything else falls somewhere in between.
But the dominant impressions are of hospitality and comfort on the very verge of the wild. One of lodge’s finest features is described by Alan Bray, the landscape painter, as “the most beautiful front porch in Maine.” Here a rusticator might while away many an hour, enthralled by the glitter of a hundred-foot-deep, spring-fed pond and the graceful arc of a wooded ridge bending up and away toward the summit of the twin-domed mountain.
The fox farm became a lucrative venture for Moore, thriving throughout the 1920s and 30s and prompting the construction of a the dining hall in 1926. The intention here was to provide luxurious accommodations for clients and friends. The dining room itself is a vaulted-ceiling log pavilion dominated by a gigantic fieldstone fireplace and a redwood dinner table set before a banquette large enough to seat a dozen guests. The backdrop of the banquette is a broad band of windows that open onto the upper pond. In addition to the dining room, there is a butler’s pantry, a cook’s pantry, and a commercial-caliber kitchen.
There are servants’ quarters as well. The cook seems to have been favored here, enjoying a private sun porch at the back of the house. There is also a guest bedroom with a balcony overlooking the dining room. All tolled, the main lodge sleeps eight, and the dining hall an additional ten. Add to these the seven beds in the newly restored Guide’s Cabin, and you have capacity and comfort enough to make Borestone a more-than-appealing destination for people looking to commune with nature as they commune with one another.
In a 1958 bequest, R. T. Moore willed his Borestone properties to the National Audubon Society, reserving a lifelong lease on the 50-acre center parcel and the lodges for his son and daughter-in-law, Terris and Katrina Moore. Terris was president of the University of Alaska and an intrepid bush pilot whose wanderlust carried him to the far corners of the continent. While in residence, his seaplane was moored at the Boathouse. With the lodge out of sight of the summit trail, the revving of the seaplane’s engines and its precipitous launch into the blue yonder would have been the only evidence to the tell a casual hiker that the mountain was inhabited…or that there was even a lodge nearby to inhabit.
And casual hikers there were, and are, aplenty. Whether a native or a transplant to southern Piscataquis County, it is difficult to dwell in this locale without Borestone Mountain’s imposing presence absorbing itself thoroughly into your sense of place. Its broad shoulders and double-domed peak cut such a singular profile, and are visible from so many lowly prospects, it is as much a feature of local identity as of local geology. Looking up at it from afar never fails to awaken its magnetism and, for many, recollections of a day marked as special for having made the climb.
Both generations of the Moore family understood this, of course, which is why access to the summit was open as long as they held the property.
In 1984, the National Audubon Society dedicated the Robert T. Moore Nature Center at the juncture of the summit trail and the northeastern shore of Sunrise Pond, marking the onset of a regime that ran until 2000, the year Maine Audubon took the sanctuary under its own stewardship. From the start, the primary dilemma for the new stewards was whether to remove or retain the lodges. Having been vacant since Terris and Katrina had left, they were in need of much attention.
The arguments on both sides were compelling: It was logical, for example, that these were originally fishless ponds and should be returned to their natural condition, where a rich culture of invertebrate life could thrive without the stress of predation. Maintaining the lodges would be a drain on funds and personnel. On the other hand, these buildings were stately and sound; they presented a resource that could be exploited for other, equally legitimate ends.
It was a classic contest between conservation and outreach. What tipped the scale was a comprehensive strategic plan, drawn up by Maine Audubon’s property manager, Bos Savage, that clearly demonstrated the feasibility of fully restoring the lodges and converting them into a recreational or retreat facility. Under Savage and Don Annis, among others, that plan has now been implemented and will soon make the shift from the restoration to the maintenance phase.
The way the kitchen is thrumming and sputtering away, you might think you’ve wandered a hundred years off the trail and found your way into an old-timey lumber camp. Is there lunch? There is. But it is catch as catch can. The true object of the cooks’ passions at the moment is the banquet to come, which, judging from the evidence of aromas, will be remarkable—as it should be on opening day!
Once the vapors of the Windex and Murphy’s Oil Soap have been fully displaced by the savor of roasting chickens and boiling potatoes and giblet gravy, the spirit of the occasion takes a decidedly social turn. This is a hale and jocular crew, with appetites for sustenance both alimentary and aural. Although the day is not yet fully mature, you are over the hump of the afternoon. What’s more, out here on the frontier cocktail hour comes earlier than it does in town. And, as flowing wine loosens the tongue and excites the humors, presently the loose ends of any remaining chores are falling to fewer and fewer hands.
Whether those are attended to or left for tomorrow seems not to matter now, for the redwood table has been set. The napkins are smartly folded and the water pitchers filled. China and wine glasses gleam under a westering sun pouring through the now sparkling dining room windows. When word is sent from the kitchen that it’s time to get cleaned up for dinner, there is a general scramble for the lodge bathrooms and the washhouse on the ridge. The mood is one of unhurried excitement, with excitement pulling quickly ahead: How can you be so ravenous and not in a hurry?
By the time you return, the food is already being served and more wine is poured. The entire dining room seems enveloped in a cloud of aromatic steam as chargers and platters float from hand to hand, and bursts of laughter sweep up and down the table in gusts. The chatter is so boisterous, you can’t hear yourself think, the commotion so jovial you can hardly concentrate on filling your plate. Yes, you’d like some squash…and some onions, yes.
Everyone is so bent on eating, no one has remembered to toast the cooks, who are now so inebriated with delight that their art has finally found its audience, that they’ve hardly noticed the slight. When at last a voice rings out—hurrah for the chefs!—the acclaim is general and enthusiastic. These must be the magic words, too, because the table has begun to levitate.
Over the past decade, the accomplishments of Savage et al. have been nothing short of enormous. Capital improvements include foundational work on road surfaces, wiring, and septic systems; Maine State–certified drinking water; photovoltaic and hydro-generation power systems; new roofs for the lodges and outbuildings; restoration of the Guide’s Cabin; an expanded trail system, including a new interpretive loop trail near the Nature Center; and an elegant slate walkway connecting the Boathouse to the lodges. Savage gives much of the credit for implementation of the strategic plan to Don Annis, who became the site manager—and the public face—of the Borestone Sanctuary in 2004.
Don Annis is a good-t’-see-you kind of guy. “Capable” and “amiable” are accurate first impressions, but behind the easygoing manner, you recognize a seriousness of purpose: as a game warden, he must have been firm and fair—a good steward and a good neighbor.
Born in Harmony in 1951, Annis is the scion of shoe-shop stock, the first generation of hand-stitchers to earn their trade through the GI Bill. Annis himself took up the work during high school and came to appreciate both the income and the freedom it afforded: contracting by the case and working at home, he was able to set wage earning aside whenever the smelts were running or the hunting was prime. Later, a stint supervising the stitching room at Dexter Shoe’s Skowhegan plant introduced him to the fine and not-so-fine art of management.
At the urging of his father, a Registered Maine Guide, Annis applied for the Warden Service in 1977. For one who was already a student of the fields and woods, this seemed like a logical choice. After a successful course of training and a trial by fire in a remote corner of the Downeast district, he was awarded his first and last assignment: Monson and surroundings. There he would remain for 27 years.
Annis describes his warden work as a combination of law enforcement and public relations. He discovered quickly that “Monson-Maine-America was a small world,” and that violators were sometimes neighbors. Upholding the law at home required being able to cite someone for a game violation without giving the impression that either of you was a bad person.
He also came to the conclusion that the heart of his district, Elliotsville Plantation, had more to offer the outdoorsman than any other part of the state. What he loved most about this job was having the freedom to range about the territory as his instincts prompted and to interact with the sporting people who were enjoying one of the country’s finest resources. Even when some of them strayed from the path, as an avid hunter and fisherman himself, he was always among his own people. His familiarity with the land and his long-standing relationship with the local sporting public made him an ideal candidate to manage the Sanctuary.
These volunteers from the East Sangerville Grange understand the true nature of celebration. After they have worked like yeomen all the livelong day, and regaled themselves with food and drink to the outer edge of evening, they turn their attentions to the really important things in life: making music and playing cards. Out come the cribbage boards; out come the fiddle, banjo, accordion, and bass. The kindling in the fireplace is set ablaze, and everyone finds a comfy notch to settle into to practice that most civilized of the arts, conversation.
The grangers have been opening and closing the Borestone lodges every year now for ten seasons. Don Annis computes the time saved for him and his crew, the Conovers, as anywhere from two to three weeks at either end of the season, time they can devote to projects more commensurate with their skills. Even as the restoration phase comes to a close, maintenance will require innovations and repairs over and above getting things up and running in spring or putting them to bed for winter.
It seems exceptional, this partnership between the Sanctuary and the Grange, and of course it is. On one hand, it is the sacrifice of a prime weekend in the lives of working people that could have been either exploited or squandered at home; on the other, it is the ideal volunteering experience, the opportunity to take care of something you value. Going at it as the grangers do, it is a perfect marriage of service and revelry.
Encouraging and facilitating this kind of participatory stewardship has been the essence of Annis’s management style. He is not reluctant to ask for help, and people like being asked. This is how John Tatko, the manager of the Sheldon Slate Company, became Maine Audubon’s Volunteer of the Year in 2008. Among many other contributions, Tatko donated the finely milled slabs of Monson slate out of which a crew of stone masons led by George Libby, another volunteer, built the elegant stairs leading from the Boathouse to the lodges. Tatko and Libby are two on a long roster of partners.
First one up makes the coffee…or takes a hike. Since you’ve got a date with Garrett and Alexandra to tour the restored Guide’s Cabin, coffee duty will fall to someone else this morning.
The Conovers are exceptional people in unusual ways. Self-described nature nerds, they each grew up “inches away from an Audubon preserve,” but at opposite ends of Massachusetts. They met on a trail in Vermont, earned degrees in human ecology from the College of the Atlantic, and settled together in a canvas-walled tent in Willimantic where they founded North Woods Ways, a “classic wilderness guiding service.” Between them, they are the authors of numerous books and essays; Garrett’s chapter book Kristin’s Wilderness: A Braided Trail, was the winner of a 2008 Lupine Award. Alexandra has traveled to Finland to study the music of folk dance. Now she plays the accordion at the local Finn dances just as it was played when it first came to Monson, a treasure she is hoping to pass on to a young accordionist. Since 1978, she also been recording the recollections of lumbermen and guides for the Maine Folklife Center at the University of Maine.
These two remarkable people may have been sent by the great spirit of the mountain to keep Don Annis from being married to the Sanctuary as he was married to the Warden Service. They are indeed a capable backup—capable and amiable.
Morning salutations exchanged, you cross the narrow sluice that separates Sunset from Midday. Hawkeye the blind husky needs a steadying hand on this narrow bridge, but once on terra firma, he deftly navigates the winding trail by keeping Alexandra’s movements within range of his other senses. She literally saved this dog from starvation a couple of winters ago when she found him, not yet profoundly sightless, scratching at the frozen dearth of her compost. Now he is in a good place indeed, and once we reach a clearing that was once a tennis court, the dog lopes on ahead.
This may not be the only slate-dust tennis court in the state of Maine, but it is probably the only one in the world with a replica of a Plains Indian tepee standing at mid-court. The tennis court was for the amusement of R.T.’s guests, the tepee for his own. As the sedge has advanced over the years and turgored its way up through the playing surface, the tepee seems to have acquired a hospitable situation.
Further on, there is a stone-lined spring that was once piped underneath the pond to supply the lodges with drinking water. Here and there, bands of rusted chicken wire—all that remains of the pens and runs that held the foxes—are being absorbed into the earth. Along the way you have been talking about stewardship and ownership. Alexandra observes that, in our culture, you either own the place or you’re a guest. “In other cultures, the concept of ownership is so alien their language lacks the power to describe it.”
She has put you in mind of the words of a Sioux chief: “Whatever is cut by the feet of our ponies, that is our land.” The North Woods Ways translation might read, “Wherever we portage our boats, wherever our mukluks kick up the scent of bog rosemary and Labrador tea, that is our land…at least for a while.”
From the dock in front of the Guide’s Cabin, there is a grand view of the lodges, which have yet to awaken to the morning bustle of breakfasting and packing up. Except for the new roofs, and the fiberglass canoe tied up at the dock, you might be looking across the gulf of a hundred years.
Don Annis says the hardest part of his job is not always finding new projects to work on over at the lodges at the expense of neglecting the Nature Center. Someone has to be there-to welcome visitors, answer their questions, and teach them about the special character of the Sanctuary. This is what the Moores wanted: to keep the place alive with people and make it an important part of their lives.
The day Annis heard that the manager’s position was opening up was the same day he took his granddaughter on her first climb of the mountain. It was an anxious time for him because the first snow of the season had come and gone earlier in the day, and the trail was slick. Following a 6-year-old bounding gleefully from rock to rock had him on edge the whole way up. But they arrived safe and sound at the top, and the little girl threw up her arms and cried, “Grampy! I can’t believe I just climbed Borestone Mountain!”
On the way out, there is only a trace of that October feeling. You have to remind yourself that summer is coming, and that it can be the longest season of all for being so full. Unloading at the base of the trail, Don Annis thanks you again and tells you not to be a stranger, and you shake hands before heading down the road. Rounding the curve above the Wilson Stream gorge, you spot a fox trotting along the shoulder ahead. Terris Moore claimed he sometimes sighted red foxes carrying traces of a few black silver foxes that had escaped from the farm. Your piqued curiosity urges you in for a closer look. But when you get too close for comfort, this handsome little creature glances back, makes a sudden turn, and splashes out of sight into a pool of lupines.
Borestone Mountain Audobon Society | 157 Bodfish Road | Elliotsville Township | 207.631.4050