ALLAGASH – When registered Maine Guides Alexandra and Garrett Conover set out to walk from Allagash to Greenville in January, they expected to complete the 200-mile snowshoe trek, conducted as an educational outreach project, almost exclusively on frozen waterways.
Thanks to an unusually mild early winter, that didn’t happen. Alexandra Conover said Tuesday that she and her husband faced open water and found themselves in what she called an emergency situation that dictated that they cut limbs and trees in the restricted zone of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. Such activity normally is illegal, but because they had a special permit they were not cited by waterway rangers.
But as word got out that the couple had cut and trimmed hundreds of trees along their route, some began crying foul.
Conover noted that she and her husband go winter camping in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway once or twice a year, but “we never ran into what we did this winter.”
The Conovers made the trip to complete a loop they started last year during a snowshoe trek from Greenville to Allagash. Both walks – last year’s and this year’s, billed as Winter Walk 2006 – are repeats of adventures the couple originally experienced in the first two years of their 26-year marriage.
The couple operate North Woods Ways, where they teach people how to live in the wild, and they have written a book on this kind of trek through the woods in winter.
Because this was an educational project, schoolchildren were able to visit a Web site full of interactive components and follow the couple on their journey.
A summary titled “The Conover Trip Report” details what Conover said she and her husband had to do in an emergency situation and to keep out of danger themselves or those who might be called upon to rescue them.
The report was prepared by Marilyn Tourtellotte, AWW manager.
Some say the report will prove beneficial. For others, it raised eyebrows.
While the document had some surprises for the Bureau of Parks and Lands, BPL Director David Soucy said Tuesday that the report would be beneficial when considering the bureau’s approach to winter activities in the future.
As a rule, AWW users are required to practice low-impact camping, to camp at authorized campsites and to leave no trace of their presence.
In January and February, several park rangers checked campsites and trails used by the Conovers on their journey. Other people were also on the waterway during that time period, according to the summary.
At the end of the report, Tourtellotte concluded that “each campsite which has been located, except for Churchill Dam, contained live branches freshly cut and generally a live tree cut for a pole.”
“The branches were placed in the tent site, except at Churchill, Eagle and Chamberlain,” she said. “Trails were created by brushing and cutting of trees. Trails have been documented along Mud Brook and north of Round Pond. Camping occurred on only one AWW campsite during their [the Conovers’] 15-day walk on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.”
Before the couple’s trek started, the Conovers were issued a “special activities permit” approved by the BPL. The bureau issues such permits in situations where an activity is proposed that doesn’t fit well within existing rules but is consistent with appropriate use of waterway facilities.
Alexandra Conover acknowledged Tuesday that the couple did camp at unauthorized sites, but said that the permit allowed them to do so. She added that it is preferable for winter campers to avoid established campsites to preserve the firewood supply for the more numerous summer users. The couple’s fires were contained in a portable wood stove used inside their tent.
“There will be virtually no visual sign of our campsites in the spring,” Conover said, adding that ice fishermen also receive off-site camping permission.
On Feb 8, Rangers Tom Harmon and Eric Hall located a trail on the east side of the river north of Round Pond. The rangers walked the trail for about a mile and estimated 117 live trees, three-quarter inch and up, had been cut, and 118 live trees had been limbed to create a trail.
Conover said the trail was made so the couple could pass around open water.
“We made bypasses around open water because I did not feel like dying,” she said. “We cut brush because we were in an emergency situation. We had never encountered it before.”
Conover said the couple was following game trails when they cut through thicket, and cut a trail only wide enough to snake their toboggan through. She added that they had documented and photographed all that they had done on their trip, had put it on their Winter Walk Web site, and planned to show the material to Department of Conservation officials as an illustration of the challenges winter users face.
Nothing that the Conovers did on their trip was illegal because they had a “special activities permit,” Soucy said Tuesday.
“Had we not issued a special activities permit, surely what they did would have been illegal,” he acknowledged. “But they had the special activities permit, which essentially waived the rules.”
Soucy added that the purpose behind the couple’s trip and the BPL’s endorsement of their venture through the permit was so that more could be learned about AWW winter management issues, particularly in regard to nonmotorized winter use, and the challenges faced by such users. He said that the couple had been asked to gather information that would help the BPL in working to manage future winter use in the AWW.
“It is painful, but we are learning a great deal,” he said. “This type of [winter] use requires careful management and planning, and there are safety issues that we have to consider as well as how we ensure the safety of all of our guests without disturbing our natural resources … The Conovers’ trip will help us identify those issues, and it already has.”
Soucy acknowledged that the department was “surprised” by the cutting that the Conovers had to do.
“Had we known that that kind of cutting would happen, at the very least we would have sat down with them and decided internally whether it was a use we could have dealt with,” he said. “If we routinely had winter campers going up and down the river faced with emergency situations, we couldn’t allow cutting of brush because the waterway wouldn’t last very long.”
Barry Davis, proprietor of Two Rivers Canoe and Tackle in Medway, agreed.
A self-described “avid Allagash user,” Davis said Wednesday that he was disturbed to learn about the cutting of brush during the Conovers’ journey, and faulted state officials for allowing it to happen.
“I think that this whole scenario emphasizes the arrogance of state officials who do what they feel like doing, in terms of giving out these permits and allowing things to go on that wouldn’t normally be lawful,” he said Wednesday. “I don’t like it.”
Registered Maine Guide Peter Hilton was similarly upset.
Hilton said Wednesday that he read in the newspaper that the Conovers were going to be taking their second Winter Walk.
The Presque Isle resident said that he did not think any more about it until “someone told me that they were cutting trees and brush in the restricted zone.”
“I listened to the daily reports from the Conovers [on their Winter Walk Web site] and got all fired up,” he said. “I can understand that the Conovers had never seen what they did on this year’s journey with all of the open water, because the weather has been crazy for all of us and the conditions have been so unusual … But never once on their reports did I hear them express fear for their safety.”
Hilton added that he felt that the report should be “waved in front of the people” so that they can get an understanding of what has occurred.
Soucy said that he plans to schedule a meeting with the Conovers in the near future to discuss winter use and management.
Conover acknowledged Tuesday that the meeting was planned, and said that she and her husband hope to deliver a slide show and “present our thinking on what the rules should be to better represent reality and not a theme park.”
“The Allagash is not Disney World,” she said. “When you are winter camping and taking a canoe trip down the river, it’s reality. Things can elevate to a life-and-death situation. You have to deal with reality … I don’t feel that anything we did was wrong. If faced with the same situation, I’d have to repeat it, unless they want me to endanger other people.”