Vacationland is an outdoor adventurer's wonderland with acres of wild, undeveloped landscapes. Travel sections are crowded with books devoted to off-the-beaten-path treasures in Maine, but one trek in particular is the intrepid explorer’s fantasy wilderness adventure: a winter journey through the woods by snowmobile to two turn-of-the-century trains abandoned in the early 1930’s by the Eagle Lake & West Branch Railroad.
On June 1, 1927, the ELWB railroad made its first successful trip from Eagle Lake to Umbazooksus Lake in Northwest Piscataquis with two one-hundred-ton locomotives. No. 1, built in June 1897 at Schenectady Locomotive Works (4-6-0 stamped #4552), was purchased in 1926 and hauled pulpwood in the Allagash from 1927-1933. ELWB Locomotive No. 2, built in December 1901 at Brooks Locomotive Works (2-8-0 stamped 4062), was purchased in 1928. Both steam trains were converted to burn oil to eliminate the threat of flying cinders as they rumbled through the easily ignitable Maine forest.
When the railroad permanently suspended operations, they were left as-is, stored inside a shed on a narrow slice of land between Eagle Lake and Chamberlain Lake. Despite spending the last eight decades in the woods, they are well preserved and remarkably intact.
When the snows come, there are several trails that snowmobiles can follow to reach the trains, the quickest from Chamberlain Bridge just north of Telos Mountain. For longer journeys, start at Shin Pond Village in Mount Chase or Kokadjo Trading Post & Cabins in Kokadjo, both 70-mile one-way trips, or Libby Camps in Ashland, a 40-mile one-way ride.
If you're new to snowmobiling and the North Maine woods, the Maine Snowmobile Association recommends hiring a guide for the off-road journey, which you can get at the starting points for the three longer routes. Expert navigators, familiar with the various rules and regulations in place to protect the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, will ensure your trek is successful. You have to wait until February, when lakes and rivers are fully frozen, no matter which trail you follow, as they all require water crossings.
An ideal winter journey would break up the 140-mile round-trip trek to explore the region. If you don't have a snowmobile, you can rent one directly at Shin Pond Village, or pick one up in Greenville and trailer it to Libby Camps or Kokadjo. Spend a day exploring First Roach Pond or take the fire road trail up to the summit of Number 4 Mountain, then take off toward Eagle Lake the next morning. Stop at the Chesuncook Lake House, an isolated wilderness lodge that you can only access by floatplane, boat or snowmobile, and rest up at a Chesuncook cabin. On a cozy island in a sea of snow, sit on your porch and star gaze all night. Then, refueled, take your time doing the 42-mile round-trip run in one day.
Any way you make the journey, you are assured stunning landscapes that few people in the world have been privileged to enjoy. When the locomotives were burning oil down the tracks over 80 years ago, their route took them through the center of the last recognized wilderness area in the eastern United States. It's the white whale of wilderness trekking and, if you are into snowmobiling or vintage trains, this is the Maine adventure for you.
(An important side note: if you decide to make the journey, invest in DeLorme's “The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer,” the gold standard of Maine maps. All internet directions to the site use this book as a reference. Even if you don't visit the abandoned trains, this road bible has saved many wayward wilderness adventures where GPS and cell service have failed. Also, “analog” navigating is still one of the greatest perks of off-road rambling.).