Up the Penobscot in search of Norumbega

Mt. Katahdin, in Maine's North Woods.

Mt. Katahdin, in Maine's North Woods.

Moosehead, also in the North Woods, is the biggest lake in a state with lots of them.

Moosehead, also in the North Woods, is the biggest lake in a state with lots of them.

"The woods come first, then water. The trees are evergreen and endless. They hug the road like an emerald carpet. From the sky, Maine’s twelve-million-acre North Woods extend to the horizon in every direction.... 

We follow the west branch of the Penobscot River north from Interstate 95 and enter the town of Medway. The Penobscot’s east and west branches merge there. At 264 miles, the river is the second longest in Maine. The watershed it drains is 8,570 square miles. The Penobscot Indians... could once access half the state by paddling and portaging lightweight birchbark canoes.

Europeans had never seen a canoe when they first arrived. They thought the Penobscot was a route to Norumbega, a mythical Indian city of jewel-encrusted turrets, bountiful farms and rivers north of the forty-third parallel.  {See poem below.} French navigator Jean Allefonsce reported in 1542 that he found the city along a massive river, presumably the Penobscot. 'The people use many words which sound like Latin,' he wrote in his log. 'They worship the sun. They are tall and handsome..."'

-- From "Maine's North Woods,'' by Porter Fox, in Nowhere magazine


"Not on Penobscot’s wooded bank the spires

Of the sought City rose, nor yet beside

The winding Charles, nor where the daily tide

Of Naumkeag’s haven rises and retires,

The vision tarried; but somewhere we knew        5

The beautiful gates must open to our quest,

Somewhere that marvellous City of the West

Would lift its towers and palace domes in view,

And, lo! at last its mystery is made known—

Its only dwellers maidens fair and young,        10

Its Princess such as England’s Laureate sung;

And safe from capture, save by love alone,

It lends its beauty to the lake’s green shore,

And Norumbega is a myth no more.''

- -"Norumbega Hall,'' by John Greenleaf Whittier