MILLINOCKET — While growing up in Bangor, Eben Sypitkowski would make trips with his father to Baxter State Park. He recalls being 8 or 9 and hiding from his father on his way up The Owl, one of the park’s many mountains.
Sypitkowski returned to Baxter to fly-fish in wild trout ponds while a graduate student at the University of Maine. After graduation, he landed “one of the sweetest gigs in forestry” as Baxter’s resource manager, a post he held for four years – but the task of overseeing the 209,000-acre park and a staff of 60 employees was never a career goal.
Yet today, at 35, Sypitkowski has become just the fourth director of the park since 1975. He takes over at a time when Baxter faces pressures from an increase in visitors and traffic, and demands for conveniences such as Wi-Fi – all of which clash with the ideals to keep the park a wilderness sanctuary. Baxter officials have run up against overcrowding on Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and questions surrounding plans for the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument along the park’s east border.
“I could see some of the challenges and opportunities, with cultural shifts,” Sypitkowski said of applying for the job after the retirement of Jensen Bissell in December at age 63. “And I thought perhaps I could help keep us pointed in a positive direction that would be resilient to the changes I see coming.”
Baxter is unique among the state’s preserved lands because it is not part of the state park system, as is often believed.
Baxter Park (as the park staff calls it) was given to the state by Percival Baxter, the governor of Maine from 1921-25. Baxter started purchasing land around Katahdin in 1930 and didn’t stop for 32 years until he had preserved 201,000 acres. He donated the land in 1931 with the stipulation that it “forever be left in its natural wild state.”
And Baxter left an endowment of nearly $7 million to assure the park would never have to compete for state tax dollars.
Percival Baxter wanted to guarantee the park’s guiding principle would remain: Wildlife first.
“He was crystal clear that he wanted the resource first and the people secondary,” said Doug Denico, director of the Maine Forest Service. “That’s not how parks usually are – usually it’s people first and the resource second. That’s not what he envisioned. It’s not a traditional park the way people think of a park. It’s an iconic place. There’s nothing like it in Maine.”
Denico is one of three people who serve on the Baxter State Park Authority, a governing body that hires the park’s director. (The others are Attorney General Janet Mills and Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock.) Denico said Sypitkowski’s success in collaborating with others and his intimate understanding of the Baxter ideals are why he was hired.
“You have to have a lot of people skills,” Denico said. “You also have to have a lot of skills in how to maintain that place. Most of it is made of wooden structures. He has gotten that experience. He’s been in the field and out amongst the people.”
Sypitkowski, who took over as Baxter director in June, freely admits he doesn’t have a grand plan. But he is certain of one thing.
He will follow Percival Baxter’s directives as laid out in the 28 deeds associated with his 12 land gifts.
“I think a large part of my job is to become a scholar of the governor’s wishes,” Sypitkowski said. “It’s important to keep the Deeds of Trust open to the right page, so any decision can be explored from the perspective of the directives the donor left us.”
Upholding Gov. Percival Baxter’s vision
Just getting into Baxter State Park is a journey. It’s a 20-30 minute drive from Millinocket in Penobscot County to the park’s southern gate. From there, it’s an hour drive along the park’s unpaved, logging road to one of 10 primitive campgrounds.
Baxter has no running water, no bathhouses or cement boat launches. There are no motorboats or playgrounds. Dogs are not allowed.
Visitors must carry in and out all of their provisions, including drinking water. The park is maintained in a rustic style, with wooden structures.
“The deeds of trust are really clear, as Baxter said over and over ‘forever wild’ and ‘in a natural, wild state,’ ” said John Neff of Wells, a Katahdin historian.
When park visitors have pushed in the past for more conveniences, Neff said, Percival Baxter’s vision was upheld by the park.
Neff recalls in the early 1970s when a storm left a large area of downed trees. The park initially wanted to clear them using modern logging equipment. In the end, the decision was to use draft horses to assure the forest and wildlife were not disturbed.
In the 1980s, snowmobilers wanted the perimeter road — the only place snowmobiles are allowed in the park — to be groomed. The controversy was heard in the Maine State House. It was decided that grooming equipment would make the trails fast and that would be detrimental to wildlife.
More recently, drones were forbidden in the Baxter rules.
“These things fly in the face of ‘forever wild,’ ” Neff said.
Yet the demands for greater access, more traffic and conveniences remain.
The number of visitors at Baxter has been on the rise since 2008, when 55,539 came to the park. In 2016, park visitation hit a 16-year high with 73,243 people, dropping slightly last year to 70,462.
Former Baxter Chief Ranger Ben Woodard, now the Bradbury Mountain State Park chief ranger, said Sypitkowski’s greatest challenge will be balancing an increase in visitors with the park’s directive to remain wild. Woodard said the increasing demand for technology is another concern.
“Something as simple as someone pulls out their cellphone on top of Katahdin and makes a call to say, ‘You won’t believe where I’m calling from right now.’ That takes away from someone else’s wilderness experience,” Woodard said. “You don’t want to have to regulate that. But how do you educate not to do that?”
Anticipating the challenges ahead
Just 16 percent of the park’s 220 miles of trails are on Katahdin, the most-visited destination in the park. The number of thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail more than doubled from 533 in 2007 to 1,186 in 2017, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
“I think a big challenge is going to be the hikers on Katahdin,” agreed Neff, a former president of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. “The park is restricted by the deeds that it can only let so many allowed in. I think AT hikers will be a major issue. There has to be a sense you’re coming into a wilderness.”
In 2015, speed hiker Scott Jurek brought a film crew up Mount Katahdin and then opened a bottle of champagne after setting a new Appalachian Trail speed record of 46 days. His public celebration made sense to Appalachian Trail hikers, but it broke several park rules, including limiting a group’s size on Katahdin to 12 people.
Bissell, the park’s director at the time, criticized Jurek for holding a “corporate event” in the park, which doesn’t advertise, allow for music or allow visitors to disturb wildlife.
“The story about the thru-hiker and the champagne party at the summit is one example” of the challenges ahead, said Denico, head of the Forest Service. “People take their kids up there. They weren’t expecting to see a champagne party on Baxter Peak. It’s an iconic park.
“And I suspect there are people who would like Baxter to have cell towers so they can communicate out. There is a small push to have those services. People are always challenging it.”
Another challenge to the park will be the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. The monument runs along Baxter’s eastern boundary, where there is no gate.
“I think there will be pressure to access the park from the east boundary by foot (from the monument),” Woodard said. “How does the park greet the visitors there, how do they pay a fee? Those things have to be decided by the director.”
Howard Whitcomb, who wrote a book about Baxter Park’s Deeds of Trust, said the new national monument poses a potential threat to Baxter Park because its bylaws have not been written.
“Establishing good working relationships with federal partners managing a contiguous border to the park to the east, that’s going to be a major concern,” Whitcomb said. “As the monument takes shape, it’s a concern in terms of making sure there are compatible principles with Baxter, which is a wildlife sanctuary. There’s no hunting and trapping in that part of the park. The wildlife is important.”
‘Charismatic, enthusiastic, energetic’’
A bird hunter who also enjoys being in the woods on his mountain bike, Sypitkowski lives in Millinocket with his wife, Lucille, and 1-year-old daughter, Maisie. He said being in a position to direct the park’s future and protect it is meaningful work to him.
“For a long time, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be,” he said. “For a long time I wanted to be a farmer. Then I went back to school for forestry. I never had a sense I could work in a place like this. I definitely feel lucky.”
One of his neighbors, Matt Polstein, said Sypitkowski should be well-suited for the job because he is approachable and appears to be a consensus builder.
“His enthusiasm has the potential to be a morale-builder,” Polstein said. “He’s charismatic, enthusiastic, energetic. We now have a younger person running Baxter than we historically have had. He has the potential to bring fresh insight.”
Polstein, who owns the New England Outdoor Center, one of the largest snowmobile rental businesses in Maine, was a vocal proponent of the national monument. He said the new Baxter director will face conflicting pulls between the Deeds of Trust and the community of Millinocket, where snowmobiling and ecotourism are the lifeblood of the former mill town. Polstein also believes the park’s Deeds of Trust should be adhered to.
“I 100 percent do,” Polstein said. “But if you want to see more visitation to Millinocket, there is pressure to accommodate in that way.
“There’s not a lot of latitude for the director because they’re bound by the Deeds of Trust. I think he’s well-suited to walk that line between the Authority, the Deeds of Trust, and the greater public interest.”
Sypitkowski used to spend 25 percent of his time in the field and 75 in the office at Baxter headquarters in Millinocket, a half-hour from the park. Now he said he struggles getting out of the office 5 percent of the time. But he’s determined to work closely with his staff as a team.
Sypitkowski knows he has a hard road ahead with the ever-increasing demand for more technology and convenience.
Still, he is opposed to having Wi-Fi in the park. And he is committed to the Baxter deeds.
“I think as long as I have a passion for the place and am interested in protecting and preserving it, I think I have a lot to offer in this role,” Sypitkowski said. “ I don’t know what all of that is yet. I’m still learning how we function as a park, and how the rest of the world functions with us.”
Sypitkowski already has plans to bring in a landscape architect to consider ways to redesign Togue Pond Gate, the entrance at the park’s south end, because of problems created by bottleneck vehicle traffic. An information center is located a quarter-mile from the gate, where 90 percent of traffic enters the park.
Sypitkowski is hopeful that the remarkable view of Katahdin near the gate – rather than crawling traffic – becomes a part of every visitor’s first impression of Baxter Park.
But he also said he will get input from everyone on his staff. And if they deem the current system the best – they won’t change a thing.
“All we’re left with is the directive from (Percival Baxter) to keep the facility simple and as natural as possible. I think I’ll develop a process to make sure we work within that,” Sypitkowski said.
Already he has researched Baxter’s wishes concerning what Sypitkowski calls “the ever-present potential conflict between recreational opportunities and wilderness.” He points to a passage from the Deeds in a letter from Baxter to the director of the Maine State Parks showing that Baxter did not want the park overcrowded.
“In fact we now have as many visitors as we can take care of … We should not advertise the Park as a tourist resort because it is well enough known now and we want to keep it for mountain climbers and people who are willing to put up with somewhat primitive conditions.”
Eben Sypitkowski inspects recent trail improvements along Abol Stream in Baxter State Park. (Kevin Bennett photo)
Eben Sypitkowski, 35, the new director of Baxter State Park, assists a first-time visitor, Tom Fegley of Germantown, Md., at Abol Stream parking lot recently. Sypitkowski took the reins in June following last year’s retirement of 63-year-old Jensen Bissell. (Kevin Bennett photo)