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Evelyn Dunphy sat outside a cabin at the century-old Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps to capture images of sunrise at the lake.
Evelyn Dunphy sat outside a cabin at the century-old Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps to capture images of sunrise at the lake. (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff)

Painters with a Maine cause

Artists flock to Katahdin Lake with canvas and a mission -- to protect it from development Drive to save site is $3 million short

KATAHDIN LAKE, Maine -- Evelyn Dunphy woke before first light in a tiny log cabin deep in the north woods of Maine. She threw a log into the woodstove and dressed in the dark, packed tubes of paint and brushes in a backpack, and set out through the trees with her easel tucked under her arm.

As Dunphy padded over damp leaves in the pre dawn murk, headed for a narrow beach on Katahdin Lake, the 66-year-old painter followed a trail blazed by some of the great names in American art. Since Frederic Church first immortalized the lake in the 19th century, dozens of artists have been seduced by the natural drama of the spot, where Mount Katahdin, the tallest and most storied mountain in Maine, looms above the wild shoreline of the undeveloped lake.

This fall, artists have flocked to the lake with a new and urgent mission. An opportunity for preservationists to acquire the remote property and make it part of adjacent Baxter State Park -- protecting it forever from the threat of development -- will be lost if the $14 million needed for the land deal is not raised by mid-December. With about a month left, the Katahdin Lake Campaign is short by $3 million.

Determined to do their part, Dunphy and 15 other artists have raised $27,000 for the preservation effort by auctioning off new paintings of the lake and mountain vista, considered an icon of American landscape painting.

Katahdin Lake was first targeted for protection 80 years ago, when former Maine governor Percival Baxter began piecing together the vast wilderness preserve that would bear his name. After leaving office in 1925, Baxter spent three decades assembling the 200,000-acre state park with his own money. He coveted the small lake 3 miles from the base of Katahdin, but failed to pry it from its owners before he died in 1969.

The latest attempt to buy the lake and 6,000 surrounding acres began more than three years ago, when Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit, began negotiating with the property's new owner. A land swap was proposed in which state forest and private woodlands, paid for by preservationists, would be exchanged for the lake. The deal weathered months of heated debate, including vigorous opposition by hunters, before legislators approved it by a wide margin.

Plans to build large resorts in other wild areas of Maine, such as Moosehead Lake, have infused the deal with a sense of urgency.

The state has contributed $2.5 million toward the purchase, and three individuals gave more than $1 million apiece. But much of the $11 million raised has come in small checks from donors who treasure memories of climbing Mount Katahdin, the 5,268-foot jewel of Baxter State Park.

Painters have long sought to capture sunrise at the lake, and the phenomenon known as "alpenglow," when a fast-changing kaleidoscope of colors plays across the east face of Katahdin. A. L. Holley , who trekked to the lake with Church in 1877, likened the effect to "opening the Book of Revelation ."

Dunphy hikes 3 1/2 miles to the lake several times each year, carrying her supplies on her back, to seek the same painterly prize.

When she emerged from her cabin in the wee hours of Oct. 31, the wind that had roared through the forest the night before had calmed. Dunphy planted her easel in the icy sand, sipped her tea, and waited. By 5:30 a.m., the sky was growing bluer, and the snowy face of the mountain seemed to glow.

Just after 6 a.m., the sky turned purple over the mountain, and the show began in earnest.

Dunphy's home base in the woods, the century-old Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps, has long hosted artists and hunters. Maine-born painter Marsden Hartley visited the rustic cabins in the 1930s, making landscapes he ranked among his most important works, and James Fitzgerald retreated there each fall in the 1950s and 1960s.

Artists who support the current conservation campaign held a benefit auction in July where they sold future paintings of the lake. This fall, they flocked to the camps to finish works promised to the high bidders.

A leader of the Hudson River School of painting, Church painted his masterpiece "Mt. Ktaadn" in 1853, as national debate about nature conservation was beginning. The painting is a sublime vision of nature, but also includes fictional human elements including a farmhouse and bridge.

"We're still concerned with how to balance wilderness and settlement," said John Wilmerding , an art historian and part-time Maine resident. "The battle is the same."

Jenna Russell can be reached at