Paddling season is upon us. Time to get out the kayaks and canoes, check all fastening points, inspect bow and stern lines for wear, and loosen up muscles that have been put to other use for many months. Most important, at this point in the year, as our Maine spring begins its turn toward summer, it is a good time to freshen powers of observation – how I gather myself to be watchful, and to listen well – that come into play when I am on the water in the quiet setting of a backwoods pond.
I call an old friend who has accompanied me on many an outing – cross-country skiing, good walks, and times on the water. “ In my barn I have a cedar ribbed and planked canoe that is calling me to get it into the water. Want to come along?” He is all in, as the saying goes. Early the next morning we head for Hills Pond in Perkins Plantation, south of Weld, at the base of Bald Mountain.
Why Hills Pond? This quiet 19 acre body of water lies sheltered from prevailing winds – which on this day are whipping up white caps on Wilson Lake well down the road in Wilton, and surely so on the big, north-lying lakes – Rangeley, Mooselookmeguntic, and such. Much as I like the big waters, and have fashioned much-appreciated multi-day canoe trips on them, today I seek an experience a bit quieter, and more attentive to signs of emergent life on and by the water, than might be the case should I would be fighting the wind, precisely feathering my paddle, perhaps working from my knees.
Hills is compelling quiet water. Deer and small forest mammals visit its shoreline for water. I have known black ducks to chose the pond for a nesting site. Pink Mountain Azalea, and other flowering shrubs populate the narrow strip of shoreline between water and the surrounding mixed growth forest. Poke around the outlet – headwaters to Wilson Stream, and I might see a mink or raccoon. Head up the pond to have front-on view of Bald Mountain, with the mass of ledges that give it its name bright in morning sun. Turn around, look down the pond, and against the skyline rises the imposing cone of Mt. Blue. Although the Wilton-to-Weld Road passes by the lower shore, there is surprisingly little road sound. In fact, with a kidney bean shape, the pond offers stretches of water where there is no view of the road at all.
We launch, maneuver past near rocks that barely break the surface of the water, and a few more that lurk below the surface, and paddle quietly in the direction of the center of the pond. Here depths range from 20-30 feet. The wind, whipping in out of the northwest blows bow-on, keeping us mindful of cutting into it, and not drifting sideways. The canoe is built for far stronger buffeting than this and responds well to my companion’s drawn stroke from the bow, and my j-stroke from the stern. Tops of high white pine and balsam fir wave in the wind. Leaves of popple flutter – a song and dance show. At water level, we catch a gust or two, but the forest stand and arc of surrounding hills deflect the full force of the winds of the day away from the surface of the pond.
A pileated woodpecker drums, well back from the shoreline, and out of sight. We paddle towards the shoreline, turn to make a course parallel to the shore. I alternately peer into the woods, and across the water. We hold silence, for doing so increases chances of seeing wildlife. Critters of the forest have hearing that is much sharper than that of humans. Many a hiking or paddling party reports seeing no wildlife after a time in the Maine woods. The wildlife is there, but upon hearing the human voice usually head for cover. Sit in silence in a kayak or canoe – or sit by the side of a hiking trail – and wait with patience. See what happens.
A dark blue bird with a dash of white advances before us, from overhanging branch to branch. Just as we draw near enough for what I hope will be a better look – off it goes. By its behavior I take it for a kingfisher. On other days, on river trips I have followed a kingfisher for a good half-mile or more on my way downstream. Today we turn away to leave the bird to its own business.
Along the shore a dead pine of 18” diameter bears a vertical succession of holes – food sites for some birds, hollow cavity homes for others. Such dead trees provide food and shelter for wildlife and are a vital part of the make-up of a healthy forest. Who lives here? Squirrel? Weasel? Nuthatch? Wren? Bats? Quite a variety of wildlife, birds and mammals, make use of such dead tree or “snag” holes. Just think – all that life abounding out here on Hills Pond, as the Wilton-Weld traffic passes by in the distance, out of sight.
At the upper end of the pond we paddle close to two small inlet streams that drain the slopes of Bald Mountain and nearby Cherry Hill. Just off the inlets the water is quite shallow. I look down through clear water to see tadpoles darting about. We stop, ship our paddles, watch these frogs-to-be in action. Attached to the submerged branches of a white birch that has blown over into the water are clusters of what we take to be frog eggs. Busy place out here!
As we continue our paddle, peering into the clear water – a discovery! A wooden rowboat lies on the bottom, about 10’ down. The innards appear filled with silt and an accumulation of leaves. For as many times as I have paddled these waters, I had never noticed it before. The sun is over my shoulder, shining directly on the long-sunken boat.
Three generations ago the surrounding terrain was active farmland, there were nearby settlements. What is the story of this boat? Someone crafted it by hand. The same someone or someone else rowed it on the waters of Hills Pond to fish. What is the rest of the story?
After circling the lake clockwise, we reverse direction. A fish rises in the distance. The circular ripple from the rise spreads outward across the pond, subsides, and disappears. I notice pollen, sure sign of spring, scattered broadly over the pond. Fresh views of Bald Mountain and Mt. Blue greet us. I spy three old beaver lodges at separate locations along the shore, and one well beaver-gnawed white birch, but no active sign of beaver. The changing angle of the sun reveals more azaleas – if that, indeed, is what they are. We paddle full bore for a few strokes, lift our paddles, allow the sleek canoe to run with its momentum, lean back to watch the wisps of high clouds – let it run.
I have seen much, heard much, smelled the coolness that hangs just above a mountain pond early in the day, dipped my hand into the water that a few weeks rested as snow cover for nearby woods – all the while knowing the good feel of hand on a hand-crafted spruce paddle. The canoe is ready for comes next. We land, load the canoe, and head for home.
Looking for a good water to learn to paddle, or to teach someone else – or to share with anyone of any age the gifts of watchfulness on a Maine pond? Hills Pond, and dozens like it, await!
Remember your PFD, particularly when on the sharply cold water that is common in Maine early in the paddling season. To be effective a PFD must be zipped and otherwise fastened, and fit snugly. Children age 10 and under must wear a PFD when in or on watercraft, but Maine waters can be numbing, and common sense calls for people of all ages to wear them. When there are children present adults should be wearing a PFD in order to be of help to a child who accidentally winds up in the water.
Paddling on waters shared by motor boats? In the pocket of my PFD I carry a boat horn, to go along with a whistle. In the event that a boater is coming too close and may not see me, a blast of the horn provides an alert to my presence.
I hope to see you on the water!
Text and photos copyright
Doug Dunlap 2021