Friday October 5, 2012

’Top of Mind" is a key concept in the world of advertising. Basically, advertisers are hoping they can make the name of their product pop into your head the instant you start thinking about whatever category of product you are thinking about, whether that be cars or junk food or beer or whatever ...

So, if I throw the concept "autumn foliage viewing" (which is, after all, a product businesses sell) at you, what comes to the top of your mind? Chances are it’s New England, but more specifically, it’s probably Vermont or New Hampshire. The Berkshires, too, get a well-deserved market share. Somewhere farther down the list is Quebec, which has more sugar maples (the superstars of the foliage universe) than anywhere else in the world.

And then there’s Maine, which loses out on the foliage sweepstakes because, for most visitors, "vacationland" stops at Freeport, maybe Mount Desert Island ... Maine is top of mind for lobster, not foliage. That’s not surprising, because the foliage along the Maine coast is generally marginal -- too many oaks and spruces, not enough maples and birches and sumac.

To get the best of Maine foliage, you have to travel to the interior, which is exactly where Marilyn and I are as I’m writing this.

In one way, this trip has been in the planning for many years: We have done all the various parts of it before in different seasons, but we’ve never put the whole picture together in foliage season.


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We started with the long drive to Presque Isle in Aroostook County. If you’ve never been to "The County," you have missed one of the great Active Outdoor regions of New England.

In Presque Isle, we connected with Leo Freeman, the registered Maine guide who runs Perception of Aroostook (www.perceptionofaroostook.com). Whenever there’s enough water (it was dry this summer but rained just before we arrived), Leo runs 10- and 15-mile trips down the Aroostook River -- one of the rivers I listed as a great foliage paddle a couple of weeks ago.

The weather forecast had called for a chance of showers but, no sooner had we gotten settled in the kayaks and pushed off down the river than it started raining. From then on it was off-and-on showers (more on than off) all the way back to Presque Isle. The nice thing about kayaks is you can sit there comfortably with a spray skirt and paddling jacket, and the rain doesn’t bother you at all. We didn’t even get our feet wet ...

At one point we turned a corner and surprised several hundred Canada geese at close range. The spectacle of them taking flight all at once, honking their alarm calls, was a moment to be cherished. Elsewhere on the river we saw dozens of mergansers, plus kingfishers, herons, and once, high up and far off, what we think was a bald eagle.

As noted, this had been a dry summer, but the foliage display along the river and indeed all over "The County" didn’t seem to suffer at all. Each turn of the river (and every turn of the roads we pedaled) brought new and stunning vistas.

We could easily have spent our whole week exploring back roads and waterways there and had a perfect foliage-season getaway. Highly recommended ... we’ll be going back. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Magnificent Millinocket

From there, we went out to Ashland, then down Route 11 to Millinocket, where we began by eating a great lunch, then pedaling some lovely multi-use trails (the ATV riders were very polite, slowing down and giving our fat-tire tandem bike plenty of room).

At one point, we stopped in a foliage-encircled opening to watch a mature bald eagle circle in the sunshine only a hundred or so feet above our heads, close enough so we could hear the passage of wind through his wing feathers. What a spectacular moment that was.

We awoke the next morning to clear skies and a perfect sunrise on Millinocket Lake, with the waning moon still high in the west. We got an early start and paddled across the lake with guide Dave Weatherbee to a marsh and inlet stream alive with waterfowl.

Moose are common here, but we didn’t see any this morning. The sky was clear and blue, the shore-side maples were in full color, the lake was flat calm and we didn’t see another boat the whole time. What we did see was an ever-changing view of Katahdin looming to the north. If there’s a better view on any lake in New England, I don’t ever recall seeing it.

Now, we’re in Greenville with three more days to get out and have fun. Gotta tell you, it’s been magnificent so far (we’re only at the halfway point, and the rest should be as good). If I’m ever planning a foliage season getaway again (which isn’t likely until next fall), you can bet that Maine will be top-of-mind.

Eat ... sleep ... play

We started our trip two nights at the Presque Isle Inn and Convention Center (www.presqueisleinn.com), which is clean, inexpensive and convenient, with a good Italian restaurant, Gram Russo’s, right on site. Nice place to eat and crash after a long day outdoors -- which is exactly what we wanted. This is close to the Aroostook River and to some amazing foliage season biking on multi-use recreation trails and quiet back roads.

Our second stop was a night in one of the brand new, "green construction" Coveside Guest houses at Twin Pine Camps (www.neoc.com), where we ate a fabulous dinner at River Drivers, the best restaurant you’ll ever find in the middle of nowhere. Marilyn tells me she wants to live here. With a two-story window looking out to the sunrise, a complete modern kitchen, three bedrooms (sleeping eight easily), I’m with her.

Tim Jones is the executive editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email: timjones@easternslopes.com