Before U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell got down to the serious business of enjoying herself on a pair of outings in the newly formed Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, she smiled after fielding a decidedly off-beat question.
“Are you going to call a moose?” I asked.
“I will if you teach me,” Jewell said.
Not 10 minutes later, after checking out a few exhibits at the Patten Lumbermen’s Museum, Jewell was ready for her lesson.
“You were going to teach me to call a moose. OK. Let’s do it,” she said.
It didn’t take long before the good-natured Jewell had drawn a crowd, as several others who would be touring the national monument land wanted to see if she could really, truly, learn to talk like a native Maine moose.
Quick answer: She could. And she did. And she continued to do so throughout the day, so long as she got a little tutoring before she tried.
Not-so-quick answer: Her teacher — me — was admittedly far from a world-class instructor in the vernacular of the state’s largest land mammal … and Jewell didn’t care.
“I’m always willing to make a fool out of myself for the sake of the media,” she said,
A group of media members, guides and Jewell’s entourage spent the better part of Saturday exploring the new national monument, which earned that designation on Wednesday. First, the group paddled eight miles down the East Branch of the Penobscot River; after that, many continued on, hiking to Grand Pitch Lookout.
And while Jewell may be a heavy hitter in Washington, D.C., she’s not a city slicker with an aversion to the outdoors. That shouldn’t be surprising: Jewell once served as CEO of one of the nation’s top outdoor retailers — REI — and has been enjoying varied adventures for most of her life.
And when she gets the chance to paddle a river and call it “work,” sign her up.
“I was paddling yesterday on the Mississippi with a group of kids, and before that I was paddling the Potomac with my husband,” she said.
Jewell shared a boat with Lucas St. Clair, the president of Elliotsville Plantation Inc., which transferred more than 87,000 acres to the federal government on Tuesday, paving the way for the national monument designation. St. Clair is the son of Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby, who purchased that land for use as a national monument.
Together, St. Clair and Jewell smoothly worked their way through modest rapids at Stair Falls, and Jewell celebrated by holding her paddle aloft.
After the paddle — between repeated requests to show off her moose-calling skills, and her repeated requests to a certain writer to refresh her memory, Jewell said she’d had a great time on the water.
“This has been a spectacular day. Not only perfect Maine weather, and a fast-moving river, which means you don’t have to work too hard — you can chat,” she said. “But also, to think of what’s been preserved here, and how incredibly special it is. It didn’t take very long [on the paddle] before we didn’t see a single house or structure around us.”
Jewell said the variety of vegetation, woodlands, and habitats she paddled through caught her eye.
Then she got a look at some mountains.
“When the viewshed opened up, Lucas explained to me how Baxter State Park came about two-thirds of the way down [the slope] and the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument meets it, so that entire area is protected.”
St. Clair, who has worked tirelessly for years in hopes of turning the EPI lands into a national park or monument, said that he enjoyed having the chance to step away from that battle and actually spend time on the water.
When one of Jewell’s staffers complimented him on the handsome wooden paddle he was using — most, including Jewell were wielding more modest aluminum-and-plastic models — he chuckled, even as he kept paddling down stream.
“It’s embarrassing to say that I’ve spent more time on conference calls, holding this paddle, than I have on the water,” St. Clair said, explaining that in a typical week, he spends about 30 hours on those calls. As he listens and talks, he often uses the paddle blade to flip a small cloth bag that holds balsam fir needles, just to kill time.
“It keeps me from checking emails while I’m on a call,” he said.
After a morning of using the paddle for its designed purpose, he said he’s happy to have the first phase of the process behind him.
“We’ve worked so hard for so many years, building trails, making [the land] more accessible, to just have the Secretary of the Interior here using them is a surreal moment, for sure,” he said. “But it’s also just so exciting for me to think that the national park system holds the crown jewels of America, the most beloved and special places, and now this part of northern Maine is included in that. That is just so exciting.
Before practicing one final moose call and heading out on a hike, Jewell echoed similar sentiments, and said she was impressed with what she’d seen.
“The wildness of this place, which is still so accessible — I drove here in about an hour from Bangor this morning — is a real gift not only to the people of Maine, but the people of the world, who will come to know this place and know what Maine stands for,” Jewell said. “If this is what Maine stands for, Mainers are very, very fortunate indeed.”