By Russ Ford
During August 13–16, 2012, I paddled the Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Lower Richardson Lake to Rangeley as a three-night trip with my mom and two teenage sons (NFCT Map 9, Rangeley Lake to Spencer Stream). I’ve been section paddling the Trail with my kids since they were toddlers, beginning with short day trips near our home in Vermont. As they have grown we have had to drive further and further to paddle new sections of the NFCT!
We reserved our campsites in advance through South Arm Campground (for Upper and Lower Richardson Lakes) and the Stephen Philips Preserve (for Mooselookmeguntic). The sites where we slept and others we looked at were all clean and well maintained with fire rings, picnic tables, and privy. We hired a shuttle through Ecopelagicon in Rangeley so we left our car parked in town and were driven with our gear and two canoes to South Arm Campground on Lower Richardson Lake.
Rangeley, Maine and my home in northern Vermont are both in somewhat “you can’t get there from here” locations from much of New England, but the drive across the narrow top of New Hampshire is an attractive one. There’s a familiar roadside picnic area where we stop to stretch our legs. At this picnic area on the way to paddle the Allagash on a family trip in 2003, I took my just-out-of-diapers youngest into the woods to relieve himself. When we were done I looked down to discover he was happily chewing a mushroom he had plucked from the ground. Localvore tendencies run deep in my family, but I was somewhat panicked when I got back to the car with the boy and a partly chewed wad of mushroom in one hand.
Fortunately my botanically trained mother was able to examine what was left and say that it was not one of the really toxic varieties. Paddling with family is not always idyllic, and it pays to choose one’s paddling companions carefully!
One of the attractions of the Richardson Lakes is Forest Lodge, the homestead along the carry road to Umbagog Lake where Louise Dickinson Rich lived with her husband while she wrote We Took to the Woods (1942) and its sequels, tales of life among the loggers, Maine guides, dam keepers, and game wardens in this remote corner of the North Woods. The shorelines and carry trails around Maine’s lakes are full of relics from the days of posh sporting camps and steam-powered logging machines.
We launch our two canoes after lunch from the South Arm Campground and camp comfortably at one of the Bur sites a few miles up the lake. The next morning we backtrack to Middle Dam and enjoy a pleasant half day birding, exploring the carry road, and visiting Forest Lodge, where we are given an impromptu tour by the caretaker, a highlight being the chance to place a call to one of the neighbors on the local 80 year old hand-cranked party line telephone. There’s not much cell phone reception this far north. Sometimes old technology really is the most appropriate tech.
The shoreline of the Rapid River and Pond-in-the-River, between the Richardson lakes and Umbagog are permanently protected, thanks to the work of the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust, one of the many land trusts and conservation groups that are battling invasive species and non-point source water pollution, and protecting fragile shorelines and wetlands along the NFCT.
Returning to our boats we paddle the 7 miles north through The Narrows section to Halfmoon Cove on Upper Richardson Lake where we round out the night’s dinner with Cajun-style s’mores.
An early start the next day takes us across the lake to our first portage of the trip, a short carry to Mooselookmeguntic past the Shrine of the Blessed Trout Fly and the wreckage of an ancient mechanical tramway. With the wind increasing and visibility dropping we stay close to shore and in the shelter of a series of small islands to reach Stony Batter Point in time for a late lunch in camp. We had heard rumors of fine dining and paddler-friendly portions at the Gingerbread House restaurant in the nearby hamlet of Oquossoc, but rising winds force us to remain in camp for a home-cooked meal of Ramen Flambé.
Our carry the next morning leads us along the shoulder of a paved road in to Oquossoc, where we adjourn temporarily in favor of a second breakfast at the Gingerbread House. The food meets our family’s high standards. The mile-long carry through town to Rangeley Lake is my younger son’s longest portage yet, but as he tamps in his second order of sausage, Belgian waffles, and hot chocolate, I can see him deciding that portaging really can be the best part of a canoe trip.
With a steady rain now falling we gear up in our fleece and waterproof layers for the last leg of our trip, along the north shore of Rangeley Lake. Attentive NFCT paddlers may have noticed that accounting for 740 miles of trail among the 13 map sections can be a little idiosyncratic, and a friend had told me somewhat cryptically that Oquossoc to Rangeley will be the fastest ten miles I’ve ever paddled. Indeed, my GPS puts the distance at around 6.5 miles. The longer distance claimed on the NFCT map must reflect a side trip down to the South Bog at Rangeley State Park.
I’ve been reflecting during this trip on the perils of aging. The closer I get to 50 years old the harder it is for me to keep up with my parents. I’ve barely been able to match the pace my mom and the teenagers set on this trip during paddling and portages. At the takeout by the NFCT kiosk in Rangeley my mom makes a rare concession and asks for help loading her 54 pound Kevlar boat on top of my truck. A few days later I got a postcard from her from somewhere in the Adirondack’s announcing that she has just bought herself a custom-built 14 pound carbon-fiber canoe.
Russ Ford is a member of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail and devoted paddler. He participates in our Stewardship Program’s intern training each summer sharing his knowledge of water quality. According to his Facebook, Russ is Chief Logistics Officer for the Northeast Heffalump Monitoring Project.