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Home » PEOPLE AND PLACES » MAINE » The Other Maine
The Twin Rivers Mill in Edmundston, NB, connected via a pulp pipeline to the mill in Madawaska, ME
The Other Maine

Aromatic Aroostook

By Alex Seise | November 30, 2011

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There’s an old proverb that floats around Maine’s mill towns. A visitor to some Downeast town or another stops dead in his tracks, sniffs the air incredulously and turns to a resident.

A stockpile of small wood logs for a woodstove

“What IS that smell?” he asks, grimacing.

Without missing a beat, the resident replies, “That, my friend, is the smell of money.”

While the smell of a paper mill isn’t actually the same as the slightly sweet, acrid aroma of a worn dollar bill, the tale isn’t entirely fictitious. In Northern Maine, including Aroostook County, the mills make up much of the local industry. Without them, the population would be without a vital source of economic viability—and without the fleeting odors that drift on the wind.

A comparable smell is hard to pinpoint. It’s intriguing more than anything else; some visitors to Madawaska have likened it to a whiff of charred paper while others call it a faint nutty toasted popcorn aroma. It hangs in the air momentarily, but it does not permeate indoors or linens hanging outdoors. The smallest shift in the wind carries the fumes far and wide; it may be imperceptible on one street, yet pungent on the next block.

A cast iron woodstove

Truth be told, the smell is nothing like fresh baked bread or sharp, herbal eucalyptus. But it’s hardly unpleasant, and after several weeks of exposure, it becomes barely noticeable. In fact, for me, it’s become a comforting sensation that I associate with crisp autumn days; it complements the tannins in the leaves and the chill in the air quite nicely.

Of course, with the number of paper mills dwindling in Northern Maine, the wafting ribbons of pulp fumes are steadily fizzling out. Outside of town, just a mile or two away from the mill, other fragrances take center stage.

Last month, David and I set out on an autumn hike. The weather was unseasonably warm, and Madawaska’s Four Seasons Trail beckoned. Stepping onto the barely marked trails, flanked by gorgeous foliage and robust natural beauty, it was a slice of pure, untouched paradise. The earthy aromas enveloped the senses, and the fresh air was invigorating.

About twenty minutes into our adventure, something piqued my interest. I stopped on the trail and pulled on David’s sweater. Silently, we raised our noses in unison and took in a gloriously sweet, clean scent. All around us, fresh, wild balsam firs gave off a beautiful aroma, much like the perfume used in scented pillows found at coastal tourist traps. But this was different; there were no fillers or preservative chemicals. This was a sample of nature’s purest olfactory delight.

The balsam was a wonderful treat, one that we committed firmly to memory. But it’s not the only pleasant aroma abundant in Aroostook County. The next is spawned from a unique combination of necessity, local abundance and economic thrift.

Driving along any populated road in winter, be it a byway in Presque Isle or a tiny lane in Saint John, there are two inescapable images. The first is snow; the second is the curling ribbon of smoke rising from chimneys. Many of these homes run on fossil fuels. However, a good number still rely on wood for heat.

Fragrant balsam firs in Madawaska, ME

The smell of a woodstove or furnace is archetypically New England. The smoke is both deplorable and delightful, singeing the eyes if too close and tickling the nose from afar. But in small doses, it is ever so pleasant. North of Augusta, it’s a staple of the winter landscape.

Burning wood has its downsides. The maintenance—from cleaning the chimney to sweeping ashes and constantly feeding new logs—is tiresome and unending. There’s also the chopping and stacking of wood for winter; a tremendous amount is needed for even the smallest of homes, and the labor is backbreaking.

But it’s not without its charms; wood is an immensely less expensive method for heating than oil, and it’s available in bulk from every angle in this sparsely populated locale. Plus, owners of wood-burning appliances reap the benefits of a toasty, delicious aroma during the long winter months.

As we drove through Ashland on Route 11 during a recent trip to Bangor, we rolled down our windows to take in some of the local color and aromas. From woody forests to muddy farms to the sweet tang of sawdust at the lumberyard, every part of the landscape had a distinctive, beautiful smell. It’s not all balsam and warm woodstoves, for sure; but here in the Other Maine, it’s perfection all the same.

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