WAITE, Maine — With fewer than 70 residents, this remote Washington County town has way more trees than it does people.
But it also may have pieces of a meteor that lit up the daytime sky last weekend before it broke apart with a boom and fell to Earth near the Canadian border. When searchers show up to try to find pieces of it in the woods in hopes of collecting a $25,000 bounty, it’s hard not to notice them in such a small town.
“I’ve had five phone calls since noon,” said Joe Ruff, co-owner of Waite General Store, on Wednesday.
People also have been stopping to ask about it at the small store, which is the only retail business in Waite, and the only one for at least 10 miles in either direction on Route 1, Ruff said.
“That amount of money goes a long way, up here especially,” Ruff said.
The handful of residents who live on Bingo Road, which is the only public way in town other than Route 1, have told him people have been driving past their houses and stopping at gated private dirt roads that weave their way into the forest, he said. Some have brought metal detectors, and some residents have said they’ve seen military-looking vehicles rumbling by, according to the store owner.
Donna Renaud, who lives on Bingo Road, said Thursday that some of her neighbors have told her about seeing unfamiliar vehicles parked off the side of Bingo Road, where muddy side roads lead off into the woods.
“They must have walked in from there,” she said of whoever parked the vehicle.
Route 1, which skirts along the town’s western boundary, lies roughly a dozen miles due west of the Saint Croix River, which divides Maine from Canada. Aside from a smattering of houses on Bingo Road, the vast majority of the land east of Route 1 to the border, including the neighboring townships of Dyer and Fowler, is heavily forested. The town has a population of 66, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.
Information about the meteor posted online by NASA indicates that pieces of the meteor, or meteorites, most likely fell in eastern Waite or in Dyer or Fowler.
Roberto Vargas of Hartford, Conn., told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that he was in the region hunting for pieces of the meteor on Monday. According to NASA, the potential landing field for meteorites also includes part of New Brunswick near the town of Canoose.
Vargas, a full-time meteorite hunter, plans to return to the area this weekend, the CBC reported. If he is lucky enough to find pieces of the meteor, he likely will keep some for his personal collection and reserve some for the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum in Bethel, which has offered up to $25,000 for any piece that weighs a little more than two pounds. That’s roughly the size of a softball.
“There’s nothing like that feeling of being the first person to touch a 4.6-billion-year-old rock that was in space, you know, a week ago,” Vargas told CBC.
But searching likely won’t be easy.
Ruff said Waite is 40 square miles and estimated that 90 percent of it is owned by Wagner Forest Management. A fair amount of it is “wet,” he said, especially in April, when the springtime thaw saturates the ground with melting snow. Many of the private logging roads that cut through the forest are closed to vehicles this time of year because the ground is so soft, he said.
“It is easy to get lost,” Ruff said. “GPS ain’t going to help you. If you go out there, be safe.”
Officials with Wagner, a New Hampshire-based firm that manages 2 million acres of forest in the Northeast and eastern Canada, did not return voicemail messages left at their offices on Thursday.
The Bethel museum has said that anyone searching for meteorites should get landowner permission before going out to look on private property.
Renaud, who also is a longtime member of the local ATV club Tomah Country Trail Riders, said the club’s trails, which can be found on each side of Route 1, extend east all the way to the Saint Croix River and as far away as Vanceboro, nearly 20 miles to the northeast.
The club’s trail system is currently closed, as it is every spring when the snow thaws and the ground gets soft, and it won’t open until May 15, she said. People can venture out in the meantime along the trails on foot, but for now it would be a long slog through the mud to cover the 10 or so miles from Bingo Road to the border.
“That’s way out there,” Renaud said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.