At mid-spring the ice is off the lakes and ponds of the Western Mountains of Maine, and rivers and streams run free. A new paddling season is upon us. Time to retrieve kayaks and canoe from winter storage, gather the paddling gear, and head to the water.
I begin my paddling season early when a canoeing buddy contacts me in late April with the news that the ice is out of Hunter Cove, on the north shore of Rangeley Lake. Most of the big lake itself remains ice-covered, but half-mile long Hunter Cove, fed by the swift-running inlet stream from Dodge Pond, is clear. We gather a party of four – a canoe and two kayaks, launched at the Mingo Loop Road bridge, and away we go.
Cold Water Precautions
Well, not quite that fast. I should mention the weather. Overcast, rain, temperatures in the 30’s. Occasional bursts of wet snow pelt us. I did say this was early in the season. Before our craft and paddles touch the water, we conduct a gear check and confirm a rescue protocol. The water is as cold as it can be and not freeze. We must be well-prepared in the event of a mishap.
For clothing, each of the four of us wears a dry suit. These are water repellant, and consist of a long-sleeved top and a separate long-leg bottom, elasticized to keep water out.
Underneath we wear multiple wool layers. My headgear is a fleece-wool combination, with a balaclava to protect my neck from the cold. For footgear, each of us has high topped paddling boots, waterproof with built-in shoes, that can be cinched tight at the top – and wool socks, of course. I wear paddling gloves of fleece with a water-repellant outer layer.
We review how our boats will align, and what to do should if a boat should tip. Our plan is to paddle close by the shore and proceed close enough to reach another craft in a few seconds. Everyone wears a PFD, of course. In the canoe I carry a throw-rope and a boat cushion that can be tossed to someone in the water for supplemental flotation.
Ready to roll – or paddle.
Hunter Cove on Rangeley Lake
We launch at the east end of the bridge, where there is basic carry-in access to the water. Although there is wind about, the narrow configuration of the cove, well-wooded along the shore, provides a pretty good lee. We make our way up the cove, just off the east shore. Beyond the head of the cove rises Spotted Mountain, its highest ground hidden in cloud cover.
It is not only we humans who are aware that the ice is out. A pair of common mergansers bob at center cove, the female with its distinctive rusty red head with feathers resembling whiskers trailing off the back of the neck. The male is markedly different, bearing a green-black head, white sides and a black back. Both have pointed orange bills as a common feature. An osprey, perched on a high pine, surely on the lookout for fish in the ice-free water, lifts off from the east shore, makes a half-circle surveillance to check us out, relocates to the far shore. These magnificent raptors have a wingspan of up to 5 ½ feet. This one, when it passed directly overhead, was all of that.
Overcast though this day may be, there are mirror images in the water of the cedar and fir that ring the cove along the shore. Eastern white cedar, among all confers, has a particular way of reaching laterally away from neighboring growth, to have access to sunlight, then shoot upwards. One such stand of cedar, in its reach, and mirrored reflection
forms a near circle on the water.
At the head of the cove, Dodge Pond Stream rushes in, so swift and full as to produce standing waves. We paddle hard to enter the current, maneuver a 180-degree turn, and shoot back toward the main waters of the cove, propelled by the pulsing inlet water. A bit of fun, a brief break from paddling, a moment to marvel at the sheer power of moving water.
Our party pokes along the shore, looking for signs of growth or wildlife. We come upon a pair of Canada geese, largely camouflaged behind a stand of brown cattail stalks, most likely at a new nesting site. They raise their black and white heads, watch us in silence as we paddle by. Off the south shore I see my first loon pair of the season. Loons build their nests near the water’s edge, and are susceptible to nest destruction from wakes of power boats, or from high, wind-driven waves. Hunter Cove sees only light power boat traffic, and locals know to keep speed to a minimum to protect loons. The same lee feature to the cove that we enjoy today offers protection for loon nests.
Off the west shore I spot the point where the Hunter Cove Upland hiking trail meets the cove. No hiker traffic today. I have hiked this trail on two occasions, from its trailhead off Maine Highway 4 north of Rangeley. This is one of the newer Rangeley Lake access trails maintained by the Rangeley lakes Heritage Trust. We paddle back to the boat launch, heading west, with a look across the ice-covered lake to the Four Ponds Range. It will not be long before paddlers and boaters return to Rangeley Lake in good numbers. Today, we have this quiet water to ourselves.
My next paddle trip, 10 days later, is under markedly different conditions. On a bright, sun-filled, day, my buddy and I choose the Kennebago River for a 3-mile downstream canoe paddle. Our launch is from Steep Bank pool on the Boy Scout Road, north of Oquossoc, 2.0 miles from Maine Highway 16. This is a popular paddle trip during the summer season, but there is no one else paddling on this day, early in May. Launch is down a set of steps dropping to the water, over the high bank that gives the pool its name. We lower the canoe carefully, as we do not want to lose grip and watch it float downstream without us.
The air is warm, but the water continues to be very cold. We don our PFD’s, and carry the same throwable devices we had on our Hunter Cove outing. The water runs high and swift. The Kennebago River is fed by snow melt from a vast drainage issuing down from Franklin County sub-4000’ peaks seldom visited by hikers, such as West Kennebago, Kennebago Divide, Whitecap, and Snow Mountain. We are alert from the get-go.
Riding the current out of the pool we enter an s-turn that ends with a ledge drop, one spot on this section of the river that requires quick maneuvering. Here the current drives the canoe towards the east bank, where a boulder rises out of the water, and makes a sharp turn to the south. There is a nice chute here. We execute the turn, enjoy a short bounce down into the run-out water, continue downstream.
Sightings and More Sightings
Time to look around. I am on the watch for red-winged blackbirds, common in streamside locations where there are willows and alders, high grasses, and such. I see none, but do spot my first kingfisher of the season. This medium-sized bird, blue in color, has a white rump as a distinctive marking. Its flight pattern is a good identifier. It perches on tree branches that extend over the water. When a canoe appears the kingfisher flies downstream for a hundred feet, perches, waits for us to draw near, flies off downriver again. The thought does not seem to occur to them that if they flew upstream, circling around us, they would be behind us, and not have to bother with us. Far be it from me to advise a kingfisher on flight patterns. But it is a curiosity.
As we paddle downstream views open up northward toward West Kennebago Mountain. The sky is a cobalt blue; the pine, fir, spruce a deep, dark green. Cedar offers a lighter green, and a distinctive browse line. Deer feed on cedar growth in winter, grazing to a height as far as they can reach. A pattern forms, about 5’ off the ground, or snow., as though someone had trimmed the cedar all along the shore, to that same height. The hardwoods – red maple, white birch, among them, are still many days from leafing out.
Much of the downstream paddle is cruising down a lazy river. The river is moving at lazy speed, but the paddling is easy. We have ample time to talk, and chat about how these waters were the highways for people of the Wabenaki Federation, including the Penobscots. Wabenaki people have lived in what we now call Maine, since the end of the last ice age, some 11,000 years ago. I have seen a map at the Outdoor Heritage Sporting Museum in Oquossoc that details water routes and connecting portage routes that they followed. Indeed, these routes, as ways for through-travel, were once far more paddled than they are now.
We explore a few coves, and discover a pair of buffleheads, my first sighting of these waterfowl with their black heads with a large white spot toward the back, and bodies of black and white. Common along the seacoast, they may be found on inland waters, especially when migrating north. Spring paddling affords the chance to sight birds on their spring migration flight to Canada, who are not often found during the summer or winter months in the Western Mountains of Maine.
The Highway bridge, our takeout point comes into view. Here we have spotted a vehicle to load the canoe, and then head back to Steep bank Pool for my truck. We execute a sharp turn to avoid sweeping past the takeout point, and slip quietly to the shore. As we do, we meet a pair of fishermen about to launch a rubber raft in a downstream direction, who we learn are on their first fishing trip of the season. We wish them well!
‘Tis indeed the season.
I hope to see you on the water – and do wear that PFD.
Text and photos copyright Douglas Allan Dunlap 2023