Note: I originally posted this in the Shape Of Love: 200 Years In Maine film blog for Veterans Day. I wrote it after I stumbled onto an unlikely scene and an experience that felt like running around in a dream I couldn’t understand but wanted to figure out before I woke up. It happened on November 6, 2018.

I was in Aroostook County on Tuesday and wanted to go somewhere I’d never been and see something I’d never seen. Mission Accomplished. And then some.

Heading northeast from Caribou on route 89, I saw a sign for the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge, so I pulled off the main road to take a look.  Inside the refuge, I drove along an access road, stopping a few times to walk, watch and listen for wildlife. I came to a sharp turn in the road and that’s when I saw what’s left of the former top-secret nuclear weapons storage area.

The Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge is home to what was a maximum security weapons storage site that operated in secret adjacent to Loring Air Force Base from 1950-1994. Designed to look like a village from the air, the area called North River Depot, and also known as Caribou Air Force Station, held nuclear weapons that would arm Loring’s B-52 bombers if they were needed during the Cold War. 

I had never heard of it. Being there was like witnessing something I had missed, and acknowledging something I didn’t understand or know. I had the whole place to myself and ran from bunker to bunker. I ran inside them and listened to my footsteps echo. I climbed on top of them. I stood in the doorways of the buildings and looked out at the fighting towers. I was in a part of wartime history built and hidden in a landscape, now decommissioned and repurposed in a landscape.

The refuge opened in 1998, but 20 years later, it still felt like the scene of a new relationship between the former weapons storage structures and the wildlife. It felt tentative, vulnerable and raw. Near the old gate to the top-secret site, I saw a sign that said Bombers to Birds, explaining the transfer of land from the U.S. Air Force to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the transition of occupants from long-range flying bombers to long-range flying birds. Almost poetically, as I was reading the sign, I could hear geese and planes in the distance, though I saw none.

The “then some” I mentioned at the beginning of this post was meeting Richard, a retired Veteran from Loring Air Force Base and a volunteer at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office. When I made it back to the refuge entrance, I saw that the Open flag was out and flying 15 minutes early, so I pulled over and went inside.

That’s where Richard explained to me what it was like in the early 1960’s to be stationed on the base’s “clawfoot,” and where he showed me how to identify wildlife animal tracks. I couldn’t have met a more authentic ambassador, demonstrating his form of love and duty nearly 60 years after he was assigned to this land.

I left thinking about what it must have been like to work, guard and protect both the site and the secret; decades of “invisible” duty and quiet contributions by military personnel and the people close to them. It made me think about the many acts of service and sacrifice that go unknown, unacknowledged.  

That reflection extends to the years and acts of service and sacrifice made by the non-military stewards of the land, past and present.

This place is far more than a wildlife refuge. It’s a refuge of character.

Thank you, Richard.  Thank you, Veterans. Thank you, Friends of the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge.

Thank you also to Kathryn Olmstead for helping me think about what I experienced that day.