(State #19/50) There are some places in the country where I get odd looks for having a 16-foot canoe strapped atop a 14-foot car; Northern Maine is not one of them. As I motored up 95 and onto smaller highways, it seemed every 4th car I saw was carrying a canoe. Rider was finally home.
Driving north, I weighed my options. I wanted to camp in a place called Sugar Island (who wouldn’t?) near Lily Bay State Park, but a ranger said all sites might be taken due to the Memorial Day weekend. Then there was another option: to pay for a car site at another state park with a nice lake where I knew there was open camping. For the majority of the drive I leaned towards that safer option.
Then it hit me — I was the Northwoods of Maine, a place I’ve always wanted to visit and why the hell was I out here, unemployed and living out of a car, if not to take some risks? Risks can be — need to be — calculated and weighed. You know, it’s the quest to find that sweet middle ground between free solo climbing in Yosemite and spending most of your free time on a couch, waiting to die from heart disease.
I know I’ve grown more risk averse over the last decade (which according to those fancy brain scientists has to do with the development of the prefrontal cortex). At 21, for instance, I never worried about jogging under large trees on a windy day; now I do. Awareness of danger comes more instinctively now, and it’s not a bad thing. Yet, it’s easy to let this spirit of hesitance become an aversion to anything outside your comfort zone, whether or not there’s much risk involved. After staying 3 wonderful and lazy days in a bed with meals being cooked for me, I began settling back in to that mentality. I’ll just camp at the drive-up campsite at the state park. But, no! That’s not an adventure! I didn’t quit my job and drive 6,000 miles to Maine to go car camping! So, I plugged Lily Bay State Park into the GPS and made the decision to canoe to Sugar Island, available campsite or not.
When I arrived in the early evening, the sun had broken through and it was almost warm outside, but still not summer. With rubber boots, a long sleeve and my shemagh, I set off from Rowell Cove. It was a calm little bay, encased by pines and white bole birches growing right up to the water. I paddled with a light breeze out towards the main lake and Sugar Island, which was nearly a mile out, but appearing much closer as land often does across water. Looking back, dark blue low mountains, in the shade of clouds, filled the background behind the sunlit lake and light green shoreline.
I canoed out between two tiny islands; trees grew on every available bit of rock and soil and clung to the outposts like an overcrowded lifeboat. Then something caught my eye in the water to my right. I fixed my gaze on the black head of a water bird, mostly submerged in the lake. It dove for a moment, showing it’s white speckled back and I knew what it was — a loon! Not having them down in Texas, they fascinated me as a kid when we saw them on family vacations to Yellowstone, Wisconsin and New England. On one such trip my Dad, because he’s my Dad, even bought a CD of loon calls set to classical music, which, I’ve confirmed, he still owns. For my own part, I bought a little painted wooden souvenir, which had been the only loon I’d seen over the past 20 years, so I was floored.
Bobbing upon the lake, I studied a paper map, found a point to aim for and began paddling strong, wind and waves at my back. Eventually, I rounded the northeast point of Sugar Island and found the sun now emerging from the bottom of a distant bank of clouds. It cast diagonal beams towards a floating sheer-faced mountain. The undulating lake surface shattered the sun’s reflection and the lit clouds turned shades of gold.
Of course, the dramatic sunset also meant nightfall and I had the little matter of finding a campsite. The map showed 3 nearby sites and even if the rest of the Sugar Island (4 miles long, 2 miles wide) was uninhabited wilderness, it didn’t seem like the trees were going to give an inch for a tent spot. If all the sites were taken, I decided, I might have to just wrap myself in a cocoon of tarps and tent and bed down between a few fallen logs.
But it didn’t come to that. I reached the first campsite and, paddling the contour of the cove, I saw no boat or signs of inhabitance. “Hello?” I called to the woods. They didn’t call back. Satisfied, I made my camp, a fire and dinner at Sand Cove.
With an Alagash beer in hand (they were 50% off for reasons I’d rather not uncover), I looked up to see an open black sky, scatted with a multitude of stars. Then I remembered that people had seen the Northern Lights in Southern Maine the previous night. I’d never seen the aurora borealis, so I took the canoe out at 10:40 p.m. I paddled a mere 75 feet into Sand Cove, looked up and drifted. The night was soundless, save the small waves lapping at Rider’s hull. I didn’t see the lights or a shooting star, but took the moment to think about exactly where I was and what I was doing, happy for the risks I’d taken.
At noon the next day, under overcast skies, I donned my ski jacket and canoed further up along the island’s coast. Rounding a bend, I saw the island stretch on for another 2 miles and decided to head back the way I came. Idling in the bay, I watched a doe pick her way along a rocky shore, hundreds of yards away. While the lake appeared pretty untainted by man, I did spot some trash to pick up. I stepped out of the boat and found a real gem — a commemorative Pepsi can for Star Wars Episode I, The Phantom Menace (an installment of Star Wars, which, many will argue, is the greatest of all time). The can was in remarkable shape for being nearly 20 years old and I gently placed it in the bow, knowing it was likely worth thousands.
Wind whipped across the unsheltered main lake body as I began the return paddle. Leaving Phantom Menace Bay, I heard a loon call, echoing off the low hills and through the cold air. Sticking close to shore, I passed two older fishermen, bundled up, rocking up and down in the waves. “Don’t you love summer?” I called out. “We had summer yesterday!” the man called back.
I had a nervous canoe across Moosehead Lake, against wind and waves. That fishermen’s boat was the last I saw out there that day. If I would have flipped in the middle between the island and shore (over a half mile apart), I would have been in real trouble. So, I stayed focused, tacking and heading against the wind and small whitecaps. With slow progress, I made it to the little islands I had passed between the previous evening, less enchanted with them now. As I got into the bay, the waves lessened until the wind died and it was just normal canoeing on a cloudy, chilly day.
Now, because I espouse taking calculated risks, that does not mean that I’m incapable to taking the mighty dumb risks too. Not having a wetsuit, regardless of where I canoed in Maine, was a dumb risk. In summary, betting on finding a camp on Moosehead Lake — good risk. Canoeing choppy cold waters without a wet suit — stupid risk. Chasing loons in a canoe (which I did the moment I was back in safe waters) — a fun time for all parties involved.
Lake Stats and Fun Facts:
- Moosehead Lake, Maine (largest mountain lake in the Northeast!)
- Dates Canoed: 5/28-29/2017
- Miles canoed: 7
- Weather: Partly sunny with highs in 60’s to overcast, windy and in the upper 40’s
- Launch/Takeout Point: Rowell Cove in Lily Bay SP (45.575994, -069.550291)
- Campsite: Sand Cove on Sugar Island (45.598059, -069.575713)
- Furtherest Point Reached: Galusha (not Phantom Menace) Cove (45.604438, -069.597294)
- Thanks to Carol and Ed Claus for the company, bed, warm meals (Hadick chowda!), new shirt and entire bucket of freshly made cookies (which became desert and breakfast over the next week and a half) and the jug of maple syrup meant for my parents, but won’t make it back to Texas.
- Also a thank you to Northwood Outfitters INC in Greenville for advice and Mark the Ranger at Lily Bay State Park for info on the lake and 10 bucks for a burger in town!
- Delicious Local Restaurant: Stress Free Moose Pub and Cafe
- Songs Sung on Lake: Broke Down and Give me One Good Year by Slaid Cleaves
- Wildlife Spotted:
- Birds: 4 Loons, 1 duck, robin, wren
- Mammals: 1 white tail deer
- Amphibians: A bunch of toads hopping around the leaves at camp last night.
- Noted Species: Moose! Black bear
- Dominant Trees: poplar, white birch, yellow bird, white pine, balsam fir and northern white cedar
- Current Threats: Ticks from mild winters (rangers comments). Moose population down over the last 20 years. Further Development and associated stormwater runoff. Excessive plowing/tilling and sediment runoff (laden with chemicals and fertilizers) associated with that.
- Ecoregion: Northern Highlands (58u) Moosehead-Churchill Lakes
- Trash Collected: 5 stacked styrofoam bowls, a huge pieces of hard foam, beer cans and a Star Wars Episode I Pepsi can