A trail from Maine's Atlantic coast to Quebec is a timeline of human and geological history

Email|Print| Text size + By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2004

For more than 10,000 years, a corridor formed by two great river valleys -- the Kennebec in Maine and the Chaudire in Quebec -- has connected people on both sides and either end. Native Americans paddled through it. France and England squabbled over it. Benedict Arnold marched up it. Canadian immigrants followed it to jobs in Maine's mills and forests.

Today a highway, labeled Route 201 in Maine and Route 173 in Quebec, traces this 233-mile route from Popham Beach to Quebec City. Road trip, anyone?

I didn't unearth the route's history on my own. A commission made up of government agencies and nonprofit organizations on both sides of the border did that in 1997, dubbing it the Kennebec-Chaudire (shoh-dee-AIR) International Heritage Corridor. The commission hopes that by promoting the route's diverse sights and activities, visitors will follow it off the beaten (coastal) path.

The organizers say the route is to be experienced more like a buffet than a sit-down dinner, and they have carved it into five zones: Tidewater Kennebec Maine, steeped in maritime and Revolutionary War history; Central Kennebec River, studded with mill towns; Forest Highlands, a height of land threaded with whitewater; the rural Beauce region in the Chaudire Valley; and metro Quebec City.

There are scenic villages and wonderful inns and restaurants -- somewhere in the vicinity. But organizers say the corridor is a working landscape: farms, mills, factories, and industrial forest. Observing how this landscape changes, and imagining how great the changes have been over the centuries, is like reading a story written in topography. In the words of Jay Adams, director of Old Fort Western in Augusta and a past president of the corridor commission, ''The corridor is very much about 'Wait, we still live here.' If that means that pieces of it aren't green and scenic any longer because people are making a living on it, that's part ofthe story."

Maine's mill towns, the state's forested interior, and the Qubcois borderlands held instant adventure appeal for this Franco-American and native Mainer. So my husband and I chose the three middle zones, starting in Augusta, driving through to the Beauce, staying overnight in the small city of Sainte-Marie, and cruising back to Augusta the next day.

The First Leg: Central Kennebec River. Augusta, Maine's capital and one of a string of old Kennebec mill towns, shows signs of revival as we watch kayaks float past the new riverfront park from Old Fort Western on the opposite bank. The fort encloses the oldest standing wooden military building in New England, from about 1754, and the ground on which it stands has a much longer history. Native American villages came and went for millennia. An English trading post stood here in 1628, and Benedict Arnold's expedition decamped from here to Quebec in 1775.

Following Route 201 north, we drive through the farming community of Vassalboro, the setting for the ''Bert and I" storytelling punchline, ''You can't get thayuh from heeyah." Vassalboro is fast becoming an Augusta suburb of vinyl-sided ranch houses. Fast-food restaurants and gas stations mark the Winslow city line, where the Sebasticook River meets the Kennebec. Across a short bridge, many of Waterville's red-brick mills stand as quiet as churches, a world apart from the pastoral Colby College campus a mile away. Route 201 passes through the deflated downtown and into the rural fringe of Fairfield, another former mill town struggling against entropy. The price of gas, which in Massachusetts topped $2 a gallon when we left home, drops to $1.83 here, two cents less than in Waterville.

Farm country opens up and we lose sight of the Kennebec. For the next 45 minutes, fleeting images float by the windows. Clapboard houses. A neoclassical prep school. A truck piled high with logs. The Skowhegan drive-in. Blue mountains to the north. Mill ponds. Cloud shadows darkening swaths of forest. Vegetable gardens. Neatly stacked firewood. Animal statues (bears, fawns, moose, and more moose) in town after town.

My husband observes, ''What's noticeable so far is not what's here, but what's not here." He means any sign of affluence.

The price of gas is $1.77 in Skowhegan, but rises to $1.84 in Solon, about 40 miles north of Augusta. Here the forest changes from deciduous to coniferous, a sign of higher elevation. Solon's cluster of Greek Revival buildings and perennial gardens feels like an oasis in a desert of failed modernity. A dual sign by the edge of a driveway advertises Stained Glass Wizard/Mr. Autobody. People around here need more than one occupation to make ends meet.

From Solon to the Canadian border, 201 was once known as the Old Canada Road. Now, it's a national scenic byway. Ahead lie Caratunk Falls and The Forks, some of the best white water in New England.

The road hugs the Kennebec through blips of settlement en route to The Forks. Caratunk -- a drumbeat of a word -- is a handful of well-kept buildings. Despite an ominous sign for Crusher Hole, we can't spot a drop of white water from the road. So we pull off 201 for a half-mile hike to Moxie Falls, billed as Maine's highest waterfall, hurtling 90 feet into a series of pools and cascades. Just the smell of its spray in the balsam-scented woods is worth the easy walk.

It is 12:45 when we hit 201 again, arriving shortly at The Forks, where the Dead and Kennebec rivers converge. As the Kennebec veers northeast to its headwaters in Moosehead Lake and the Dead curls southward, 201 heads northwest into the high country between the Kennebec and Chaudire valleys.

The Interior: Maine's Forest Highlands. From the top of a hill, we see miles of forest broken only by the road's gray line. The trees now are mostly spruce and fir, the softwoods prized for making pulp (for newsprint, for instance). A sign for Plum Creek Timber Co. signals why human habitation is scarce: This land belongs to big industrial owners, as most of northern Maine has for more than a century.

Not far from Parlin Pond we spot a young cow moose nosing around in a bog. Rolling to a stop, we stare from the car. The moose allows her liquid brown eyes to rest on us for a full minute before she vanishes into the brush with a kick of her hind legs. Moose-crossing signs are common now, and swerving skid marks underscore the warning.

A marker announces the town of Jackman. At the top of a ridge, a view of Attean Pond, dotted with pine-covered islands, spreads out below, what Mainers call God's country.

At the edge of the Moose River Valley, a carved wooden bear and a row of toilets planted with pink flowers guard a crimson building: the Jackman Trading Post. A moose statue stands on a rear porch, where the words ''Eat Here" and ''Get Gas" decorate the side of the building.

Twenty minutes later, a chaotic cluster of Jersey barriers and concrete buildings greet us at the border. The 25-minute Canadian customs inspection stops just shy of a pat-down. Perhaps the alert level has climbed into orange, or perhaps the guards are on the lookout for people carrying a suspicious number of suitcases for one night. Whatever the reason, we have to account for every pill and electronic gizmo.

The Beauce: Farm and Factory Villages in Quebec. Released into the Canadian wilds, we follow the road, now called Route 173, toward the horizon. Maine's mountains descend into hills covered in the birch and poplar that sprout after logging.

After about 10 miles, a rolling farmscape opens up, the Chaudire River coursing out of sight to the west. We pass signs for Saint-Thophile, Saint-Cme-Linire, Saint-Ren. As French becomes the reigning tongue, Roman Catholic icons mark the landscape: Silver-painted steeples sparkle in the distance, and a near-life-size Christ hangs bleeding from a cross in a field. Settlement thickens, and newer homes of tan brick sport rooflines that flip up at the eaves, like the young Doris Day's hair.

On the outskirts of Saint-Georges, the highway cuts west, and the Rivire Chaudire, placid and shallow, emerges to hug the left side of the road. Downtown Saint-Georges comes as a shock: Industrial outskirts merge into a jumble of a city, all hard surfaces and bright colors, with few trees to soften the impact. This streetscape, more than the French signs, announces that we have left Maine far behind, though we are less than 30 miles from the border.

We find respite in a riverfront park near the glise Saint-Georges. Before pressing on to Sainte-Marie, we explore one of the country's longest covered bridges, about five railroad cars long, on the edge of town.

Cruising through the villages of Beauceville and Saint-Joseph-de-Beauce, we are smitten with the lush pastures and huge sky. At a roadside tourist center we pick up a self-guided ''follow the bells" tour map of quaint village churches and decide to do it en route to breakfast in Saint-Georges the next day.

Our motel in the utilitarian burg of Sainte-Marie, chosen randomly over the Internet, is wedged between fast-food restaurants on a noisy strip. Next time, we'll peruse bed-and-breakfast listings near Saint-Georges and do more restaurant research. Lacking the promise of better fare, we settle for a sad meal of rubbery chicken at the closest eaterie.

Return: Bells and Belgian Chocolate. The morning finds us following the bells to our breakfast destination: the dairy bar L'Everest in Saint-Georges, purveyor of Belgian chocolate-dipped ice cream. The tour then takes us east on Route 216 into Sainte-Marguerite, Saint douard-de-Frampton, Saints-Anges, and Valle-Jonction, where my favorite sight is the dainty angel statues holding globe lamps to light the church steps.

Outside the dense villages, Guernsey and Charolais cattle graze in the open fields. In front of one farm, a bigger-than-life statue of a Hereford bull rivals any devotional icon.

We loop back to Route 173 and the Chaudire after completing about a quarter of the bells tour. The call of ''le chocolat Belge" spurs us into the parking lot of L'Everest in Saint-Georges. The sole customers at 10 in the morning, we sit at a picnic table licking dark chocolate off towering spirals of softserve.

We savor this moment, knowing that such small pleasures as a waterfall, a grazing moose, and memorable chocolate are the rewards of a road trip that promises glimpses of everyday life and ordinary people in places far from home.

Jane Roy Brown is a writer in Western Massachusetts.

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