Foot and Paddle: To Rangeley Lake on Snowshoes: South Bog Stream Trail

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What discoveries have you made on your Maine woods hikes this winter?

On a clear, sun-struck, morning, I stand on a small headland at the edge of South Bog Stream Cove in the southwest corner of Rangeley Lake. Here, South Bog Stream, ice and snow covered on this mid-winter day, enters the lake on a journey that will carry these mountain-draining waters through the Rangeley Lakes Chain, into the lengthy Androscoggin River, and on to the distant sea. The mighty Androscoggin has its origin here, where, however rough and tumble those waters may be farther downstream – on the precipitous Rapid River, for example, or at aptly named Great Falls, the prevailing sound here, in these moments, is no sound at all. I stand as a solitary figure, on watch amidst utter silence, looking out over the bog, the lake, and to the high peaks rising far to the north and east to form the horizon. Quite the moment.

As for those peaks, from my shoreline viewpoint, I locate eight of Maine’s Four Thousand Footers – peaks of an elevation of 4000’ or above. Above them, there is only the bluest of skies. Their high ground gleams, radiant, freshly mantled in high-elevation rime frost. Below this high bright the great conifer forest that runs up their slopes, displays a rich, dark greens peppered (perhaps salted is the better descriptor) with the collective rime and snow cover of two months accumulation. Below this green line, stand the dark grays and browns of the leafless hardwoods – rock maple, ash, the various birches, among them.




Such a sight: West Peak and Avery Peak in the Bigelow Range; North and South Crocker and Redington Mountains in a cluster; Saddleback and The Horn, and Mt. Abraham (Mt. Abram to locals.) nearer on, beyond the low conifer-covered hills that line the lake shore. So situated, the Saddleback Range blocks a view of Sugarloaf and Spaulding, two more in the four-thousand foot category that lie beyond them a half-day walk.

The sky is sharply blue, electric, completely clear, save for the wisp of a ragged cirrus cloud here and there. The sun, riding low on the southern horizon in mid-winter, throws long shadows of high fir and spruce far across the unbroken snow pack on the lake. A slender stream-side alder, no more than a yard high, casts a shadow the length of a fly rod over the snow. Simplicity abides: sky, lake, mountains, foothills, shadow, silence. I spy no movement, and certainly not another human being.

There is no wind. No sound. Nothing moves. Yet, there are signs of life. A fresh line of tracks runs in my direction, unbroken and unwavering, a few feet off-shore, where there are no alders, low cedar, and such to interrupt the way. It is the efficient track of a coyote. Small wonder, for on my hike in towards the lake I came across many a track of snowshoe hare. Where there are abundant hare, expect coyote. More about this discovery, later.

As I made my way this morning by snowshoe to this lakeside vantage point, I spotted many a trailside sign – tracks, scat – signaling the presence of deer, grouse, red squirrel, red fox. There are few breaks in the day’s silence as I make my solitary way from trailhead to lakeshore. A single raven arcs overhead, issues a raspy squawk! flies off, as I stand at the trailhead adjusting my snowshoes to my winter hiking boots. Announcing my presence? Protesting my presence? I believe that in early February the nesting season for ravens has not quite yet begun, but perhaps this particular one has identified suitable territory, and I am in it? Snowshoes snug, I am on my way, leaving this corner of the Maine woods to that raven.

Once underway, I pass by a stand of snow-encrusted fir, where a pine siskin, a small, streaked winter bird, sings an odd tune from a perch just above my head. They feed from cones of fir, spruce, and pine. I suppose that I am snowshoeing through the dining room. The call is quirky – a twittering, followed by a sound like a zipper being pulled. Come again? I wonder just under my breath. The siskin reading my mind, or, more likely, simply singing its song regardless of my presence, does indeed repeat the call; then again, and again. The siskin concert is yet another discovery this day. I have seen many of them over the years. Today marks the first time I have heard that curious call.

Yet another sound. Where the winding path swings near to South Bog Stream I hear, even before I see it, the throaty, rush of run-off powering a way downstream. A muscular run of clear water bursts from under an ice shelf, bounces off center stream rocks, cutting through ice and snow, from broad pool to narrow channel. The sound is a combination of a low rush and a rattle. Emerging from out of the ice, where all else in the landscape lies still; running that course on a day when there is not a breath of wind, the stream is the source of all movement, all sound, in these moments. Quite a time.

Those are some of the discoveries. How did I get here? Let’s start at the beginning.



The Way To the Lake

The South Bog Stream trailhead, prominently signed, is located on the South Shore Road in Rangeley Plantation, 5.5 west of Maine Highway 4, and 0.5 miles west of the entrance to Rangeley State Park. The South Shore Road is 8 miles north of Smalls Falls on Highway 4. The trail is on land of the South Bog Conservation Area, managed by the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust. The parking area, which has space for three vehicles, is located immediately east of the road bridge crossing South Bog Stream. The parking area is plowed in winter.

The trail system consists of two routes. One, quite short at 0.1 mile (0.2 mile round-trip), starts at the sign board by the parking area, and parallels the stream in a northerly direction. For most of its length it runs close to the stream bank, and affords a fine look at swift water rushing from pool to pool. Here are interpretative signs, a picnic table, and a plaque honoring the work of Maine State Fisheries Biologist Forrest Bonney of New Sharon, who guided an effort, two decades ago, to restore trout pools washed away in the era of log drives. This short trail ends at the edge of the stream, where hikers might have a glimpse of the lake trail passing by on the other side of the water.

In warm months, when the water level is low, some hikers ford the stream to reach the trail to the lake (see below), but in winter, even when the stream is iced over, I do not attempt to cross here. The risk of wet feet is too great to take the chance. Further, when wearing snowshoes, there is a risk of entangling the feet during a slip into the frigid water. There is another option – the second trail.

This other trail, 2.3 miles one-way (4.6 miles round-trip), leads to the lake. To reach its trailhead, I walk 100’ west on South Shore Road, crossing the road bridge. Looking to my right, I spy a sign “South Bog Trail”. I climb over the snowbank, descend to the sign, spot a display board 50’ beyond it. White paint blazes on trees, and brown wands 3’ high, mark the trail. I am on my way.


The Lake Trail

With South Bog Stream to my right (east), I hike through a mixed softwood-hardwood forest of balsam fir, red spruce, white birch, and an occasional red maple. I have chosen to wear snowshoes, as the snow is a foot deep, with a rugged crust. My gear includes snowshoe poles – trekking poles that can be adjusted in length to fit the terrain, equipped with baskets that prevent the pole from sinking deep into the snow. Five-ten minutes of hiking (allowing for the pine siskin concert) brings me to a trail junction, with a map signboard. To my right, a spur descends 50’ to the streambank, ending across from the short eastside trail I describe above. I step this way for one more look at the clear, racing water; return to the junction, head for the lake.

I move over rolling terrain, the trail winding a way in a northwest direction, away from the stream. From time to time, I pass through stands of young fir so thick that the trail lies entirely in shade – a tunnel effect. The trail passes through an extensive alder bog, where in the warm months, foot bridges, constructed from rip-sawn cedar planks, keep hikers above the water and mud. These planks lie well under the snow on this day, and I walk over them in my snowshoes without difficulty. Snowshoe hare tracks abound here, along with those of red squirrel. I spot the track of a red fox – surely interested, as are coyote, in those hare.

Twenty minutes on trail brings me to a junction with the ITS 84 snowmobile trail, wide and well-groomed. The two routes – foot trail and snowmobile trail – coincide for a quarter mile. I could dispense with my snowshoes in this section, but they keep my feet from rolling in the snow, and I like to have them ready if I opt to step off the trail for a look at a track, or gain sight of another pine siskin – or whatever other discovery awaits.

Two snowmobiles approach. We exchange waves, head in our respective, opposite, directions. When I am on a major snowmobile trail, I am often waved to a stop by snowmobilers who are not local, who ask for directions, or inquire about a good place to eat in the nearest town. For my part, when I am on a long distance winter trek, I may ask them about trail conditions ahead. There are no such conversations today. Presumably, they, and I, have our bearings, and now are simply out enjoying the day.

The broad ITS trail passes a level area that served as a log yard for a harvest twenty years ago, swings west and ascends a north-south ridge. Half-way up, a prominent sign marks the divergence of the hiking trail to the right (north). I leave the dual-use section of trail behind, to make the first ascent of the day.

The forest here is quite open, showing evidence of the harvesting operation. The forest is regenerating with rock maple, white birch, yellow birch, and beech. I stop to inspect a yellow birch that glows in the sunlight – its name well-deserved. A few fir and spruce grow here, too, though this is primarily a hardwood ridge. I gain a fair-enough view through the leafless hardwoods, of the Saddleback Range and other high peaks, bright in their high elevation snow cover., 10 miles or more to the east. Those who venture this way in winter are treated to that view. In summer, when the hardwoods are leafed out fully, the mountains are hidden from view – unless one happens to be a raven, a hawk, or an eagle.

Speaking of birds, I discover the track of a ruffed grouse crossing the trail. In winter, grouse may seek shelter in a snowdrift. I have been startled a few times on winter hikes, when a grouse has exploded out of a trailside drift right beside me, beating its wings in quick take-off, snow flying. That gets the heart rate up. This one may have been heading for the alder thickets in bogland far below me and out of sight, for a winter day’s meal.

Near the top of a knoll, the angles right, leaving the main ridge, in a descending return to South Bog Stream over a series of switchbacks. The trail turns 90 degrees to the left as it joins an old woods road, well-overgrown except for the lake trail pathway that runs down its center. The lake trail follows this level pathway for 0.2 mile, with the stream, and broad treeless bog, now visible to the right through the trees. Here the forest is mostly softwood, with high white pine and cedar neighboring the fir and spruce. Many deer tracks lead down – and up – the slope, a sign of their moving to and from water. One winter day a few years ago, while snowshoeing on the Bonney Point Trail, on the north side of the lake, and I discovered a cluster of deer gathered to drink from open water of Smith Brook. Might I see that today?

The trail ascends a low headland, ending by a point where South Bog Stream enters Rangeley Lake. A signboard marks the spot. A picnic table once stood here, but has collapsed. Some inventive hikers have stacked a few boards to make a bench.


Reaching Rangeley Lake

My attention runs quickly past this small clearing amidst shoreline trees, to the vast, unbroken expanse of Rangeley Lake beyond, shimmering white at what is now high noon – and that great sweep of high peaks that form the horizon. Testing the snow cover and the ice with my snowshoe poles, I let myself down over the steep bank and out onto the lake. The point where the trail ends is deep in shade, darkened by the surrounding conifers. I seek the frozen, sunlit expanse of the lake, making my way beyond the reach of long shadows projected by the low-riding mid-winter sun. Stepping into the light, I do a 360 degree scan – In the northwest, Bald Mountain in Oquossoc sports a dusting of fresh snow. To the south, foothills of the Four Ponds Range run on and on.

Lunch time. I step to a bit of bog shoreline away from the trees, that lies in full sun. A bit of small bluff offers a ready-made seat. I pull from my pack a square of closed-cell foam to serve as a sitting pad, and a hooded puff jacket. Out comes the food: hot soup, hot tea, and home-baked trail-mix cookies. Wearing a warm layer, seated on the pad, food in hand, I am ready for that lunch.

These are unique moments – a see-forever day, the snow fresh, clean, endless; the sky so sharply blue, the silence a gift. I scan the horizon between bites and sips, note the undulating lings of far-off ridges, peer in all directions for signs of movement, listen to the quiet. I take my time.

Sitting, when the temperature is in the teens, even on an insulating pad, does not generate much body heat. I am cooling off. The time has come to pack up, and to move on. It is then that I discover the line of coyote tracks straight-lining over the snow. I imagine this trim, hunter – alert, trotting over the snow, on the watch as it is on the go. What a sight that would be! I have spotted coyote when on my hikes. When I do, I hold still, to gain as good a look as I might. But the slightest movement or sound on my part sends them shooting into the woods, for they want nothing to do with the likes of me. I see no coyote on this day, other than in my imagination, only the tracks.

I gather my gear and the remains of lunch, clamber up the bank, return to the trail, hike the old woods road pathway, ascend the ridge, reach the snowmobile trail, cross the alder bog, finish up in the mixed growth forest that borders the stream near the trailhead. As I near the trailhead where I began my snowshoe trek, I diverge to South Bog Stream, for one more look, before I reach the road.

Clear water races from under an ice shelf, cuts a channel, slides over streambed rocks, the water so clear that I discern cracks, angularities, in those rocks, so swift that aquatic plants bend over, flattened by the flow. So swift, relentless, are these waters, bearing that curious rhythm common to wild streams: rush, hesitation, rush, and on it goes. On this winter day that I feel that rhythm much as I hear it – a rhythm like a pulse.

I hope to see you on trail this winter.



Winter Hiking Tips

Never step onto an ice-covered body of water without surety that it can bear your weight and that of your party. Even on thickly iced waters, there can be spring holes or currents underneath the ice that create weak spots, and cannot be seen. Ice at the shoreline is not necessarily safe. When in doubt, keep off the ice and enjoy the view from the shore.

Have clothing for moving, and for stopping. I wear wicking layers under a fleece sweater, with a wind/rain shell handy in my pack – or to wear if conditions warrant at the start. If I become warm, I shed layers. When stopped, as for a lunch break, I carry a puff jacket with a hood, to limit loss of body heat. A wool cap, neck warmer, and mitts are standard gear.

Drink water regularly on winter hikes. In cold weather, hikers may be disinclined to hydrate. Dehydration can contribute to hypothermia. I take a water break every 60 minutes, and carry a filter or water purification tablets in the event that I run low on water.

I carry a small booklet with pictures of animal tracks (including birds such as grouse and turkeys; and their patterns. Pick one up at a local bookstore. Winter is the finest of times to study tracks!


Text and photos copyright Doug Dunlap 2024

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