It was obvious by the red-lettered sign that said "THE STORE" that we had found our destination, but I still felt a bit of uncertainty as we walked toward the building in the tiny village of Chesuncook, Maine. There didn't seem to be anyone around and this wasn't your average store. It appeared to be more of a home than a place of business.
But the sign was unmistakable, so we walked up to the front door and within a few moments an elderly man came to the door, welcoming us inside.
Jack, as he introduced himself, sat down in the corner of the enclosed porch and offered us the only goods he sold at this little outpost: homemade root beer and fudge.
The Store in Chesuncook village in northern Maine only sold homemade root beer and fudge when Ariel and I visited in early August.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
The goods in this store were definitely a welcome treat. It was Aug. 5 and I had paddled more than 600 miles since leaving Old Forge on June 28. As for Ariel, she had been with me for about 160 miles after starting on July 24 in Rangeley, Maine.
We were now in the tiny village of Chesuncook located in the Unorganized Territories of Northern Maine, a place with few paved roads and very little development.
Chesuncook is located on Chesuncook Lake, which is at the mouth of the West Branch of the Penobscot River, which we had just paddled down. The village dates back to around 1840, when the land was cleared by settlers.
Intent on Fort Kent
This is the 10th in a series of columns by Enterprise outdoors writer Mike Lynch about paddling the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine. His articles will appear on the Outdoors page every week until the end of the journey.
For the majority of the village's existence, it has been surrounded by forests that have been logged, although in the past few decades the state has bought up some of that land for conservation purposes.
A sign created by the state of Maine said that, in 1900, there were 65 residents in Chesuncook, then by 1920 there were 247. By 1950, only 16 people lived there. And in 1971, Great Northern Paper Company's log drive ended there. By 1975, the state began to buy the land.
The village, like the Adirondack Park, is now a mix of private and public lands. There are several seasonal camps, a few year-round residences, a church and a lodge. Otherwise, there are no other businesses. Only five full-time residents live in Chesuncook, Jack said.
From where we pulled up our canoe on Graveyard Point, there was a narrow dirt road that led through a collection of about a dozen camps and houses. The store was on a high point of land visible from the water. As you paddle past, you can see the red-lettered store sign.
The village was also a stopping point for Henry David Thoreau, when came through northern Maine in 1853. At that time, he found a small settlement run by a man named Ansel Smith, who had cleared 100 acres and built a log house and a blacksmith shop.
"Twenty of thirty lumbers, Yankee and Canadian, were coming and going ... and from time to time an Indian touched here," Thoreau wrote in his book, "The Maine Woods." "In the winter there are sometimes a hundred men lodged here at once."
My first impression upon hearing about Chesuncook from others was that it was an idyllic little village. But after talking to Jack for a little while, it turned out that it had its share of problems. Jack, who had emphysema and breathed through oxygen tubes in his nostrils, told us about a conflict that involved the location of the main road in the village.
The fight involved one of the seasonal residents in town who had moved to Chesuncook 10 years ago and at least one of the full-time residents. Apparently, the seasonal resident had the main road, which was an old wagon road on dirt, moved in order to put one of his buildings in compliance with the state building code. But moving the road upset the long-time, full-time residents because the road had been in place for decades.
As we sat there on the porch, Jack described the turmoil in the village that this created. He described one night in town when one of the involved parties burned the other person's homemade wooden bench in a bonfire, trying to instigate a fight. He said a sheriff was situated about five miles outside of town on one of the logging roads, waiting to be called in to the village. Jack noted that the resident who had his bench burned owned one of the few working phones in the village.
"I thought someone was going to get shot that night," Jack said, noticeably agitated by the situation.
Fortunately, nothing happened that night, but I later read accounts in the Bangor Daily News about a fight that occurred between some Chesuncook residents in September of 2008 during the heat of the turmoil. Apparently one of the residents flailed a machete at another person, who was packing a pistol. No injuries resulted from the incident, but the man with the machete was arrested for instigating the fight.
The Bangor Daily News quoted Piscataquis County Sheriff John Goggin in Dec. 2009 describing Chesuncook as "a village in turmoil They have fought about everything that could be fought about."
Ariel and I sensed this tension as we sat on the man's porch, listening to his stories. I found the situation strange and unexpected. We had visited this little village after it had been recommended by a Chewonki childrens' camp counselor the previous day on the West Branch of the Penobscot River. She had told us about the store and the fudge and root beer, mentioning nothing of the turmoil.
After about 20 minutes of talking with Jack,we decided to say goodbye, thanking him for the treats. Although it was interesting talking to Jack, the stories about the conflict in the village persuaded us to not hang around. The place appeared safe, but we got a bad vibe. Plus, we had plenty of miles to paddle ahead of us that day.
We arrived back at our canoe about 11 a.m. after a 10-minute walk from the store down a dirt road. Fortunately for us, it was one of those perfect north country days. The sky was mostly clear, the air was calm and the lake was still. It felt good to be back in the boat.