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Kayaking Among the Eagles in Maine/New Hampshire's Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge

By Steve Fagin

Publication: theday.com

Published August 04. 2012 4:00AM

Less than a minute after we launched our kayaks the other day on Maine's Magalloway River, my friend Mary Lou Lowrie cried out and pointed to the sky, where a bald eagle circled and screeched.

As if taking a cue, the giant bird swooped down only yards away, snatched a fish from the pristine water and calmly flapped away.

"Not a bad way to start a paddle," I said.

Mary Lou, her companion Nat Steele and I had all raced our kayaks two days earlier on nearby Rangeley Lake, and this outing was to be more of a leisurely sightseeing trip – though truth be told, when the three of us get together it inevitably becomes a friendly competition to see who breaks down first.

Over the years we've all dragged ourselves through daylong activities that have incorporated running, kayaking, bicycling and mountain climbing – sometimes, one after the other with few breaks.

This can be a losing proposition whenever Mary Lou is involved, considering she is the reigning world champion in her age group for the Ironman 70.3 competition, also known as a Half Ironman, which consists of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run.

Mary Lou won last year's race in Las Vegas in a time of 6 hours, 19 minutes and 15 seconds; she plans to defend her title in Nevada next month. Mary Lou also has competed in the prestigious Hawaii Ironman competition, has twice been the top overall woman in the grueling distance Sea to Summit Triathlon; has been a bronze medalist at the Masters World Cup Nordic Ski Championships in Rovaniemi, Finland and has been the Maine Bicycle Time Trial Series overall female winner.

I met her about 10 years ago while climbing with my wife, Lisa and son, Tom up 4,100-foot Saddleback Mountain in Rangeley, where we often vacation.

She was running up the trail to train for a foot race up New Hampshire's Mount Washington – a 7.6-mile race I once ran and vowed never to do again, probably because I not only loped up the mountain but also foolishly lumbered down immediately after crossing the finish line, which had the same effect as repeatedly smashing my quadriceps with a ball-and-peen hammer.

Anyway, that day a decade ago on Saddleback Mary Lou stopped running long enough to chat, and mentioned she would be competing the next day in a kayak race. I, too, would be racing, and to make a long story short, we became friends.

Nat, also a triathlete, cross-country skier and devoted adventurer, entered the picture not long afterward, and now whenever I plan a visit to Maine I get in touch with them and try to arrange a rendezvous. Nat and Mary Lou divide their time between homes in New Gloucester, Maine and on Cupsuptic Lake not far from Rangeley.

Though we've all kayaked extensively on the chain of lakes in Maine's western mountains, none of us had ventured to the nearby Magalloway River, a tributary of the Androscoggin River contiguous to the celebrated Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, just over the New Hampshire border.

Ornithologists and conservationists regard the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge as a northern treasure because it provides habitat for hundreds of migratory and resident bird species, including eagles, harriers, loons, bittern and herons.

The refuge also is home to mink, otter, muskrat, beaver, black bear, bobcats, fishers, and of course, moose.

We didn't see any bear or moose the other day, but the eagles were more than adequate reward. In addition to the one at our launch site off Route 16 we spotted at least half a dozen, including one pair that squawked noisily and repeatedly until we were out of earshot.

Before embarking Nat had roughly plotted our route on his computer, and initially calculated we would be covering only about six miles – a modest distance all of us favored since we had all either run, biked or swum earlier in the day.

Mary Lou tracked our progress with her Global Positioning System wristwatch, and after we had gone seven miles began pestering Nat.

"How much further?" she asked.

"Can't be much more than a quarter-mile," he promised.

Twenty minutes later, when we had covered more than eight miles, Mary Lou repeated her question, and Nat gave the same answer: "Can't be much more than a quarter-mile."

Nine miles: Same routine.

The wind picked up – in our face, naturally.

"I'm getting pretty hungry," I said.

"This is turning into a typical Lowrie-Steele-Fagin expedition," Mary-Lou grumbled.

Finally, we rounded a bend and spotted my car, which Nat and I dropped off earlier.

We sprinted to the bank, and Mary Lou checked her GPS a final time.

"Ten-point-six-three miles," she said.

Nat, meanwhile, was already thinking of a future adventure.

We had only traveled over less than a third of Umbagog and the Magalloway, which includes some whitewater sections not suited for the Kevlar sea kayaks we had been paddling.

"Next time we'll use plastic boats and go the whole way," he suggested.

"Count me in," I said, and Mary Lou nodded.

Game on – soon, I hope.

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