A rising sun burned through the mist as I paddled on glass-smooth Rangeley Lake in western Maine the other morning, slipping silently past a pair of loons that dived below the surface in a flash.
About 4 miles ahead Doctors Island emerged from the fog, along with a more distant ridge dominated by 4,121-foot Saddleback Mountain and its lesser neighbors, Saddleback Junior, The Horn and Potato Nubble.
With both the Appalachian Trail and the Northern Forest Canoe Trail passing through, Rangeley is an outdoor Mecca, and thanks to a family cabin I’ve been kayaking and hiking there for years.
Mountain winds can kick up chop and 3-foot seas on the lake in mid-afternoon, but most mornings are calm enough that I feel comfortable paddling alone in my sleek, fast but slightly tippy 19-foot Kevlar boat. The biggest risk would be the wake from a powerboat, but this early in the season – the last vestige of ice melted only a couple weeks ago – I had the lake to myself.
The warm sun was ample reward for having endured such a harsh winter and relentlessly frigid spring. As much as I enjoy winter camping, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, I also savor getting out in a kayak wearing shorts, a T-shirt and sandals.
Of course, spring in Maine also is black fly season, and a biblical plague of the wretched insects, along with mosquitoes and no-see-ums – a trifecta of biting bugs –
swarmed the shoreline and followed me for several hundred yards before I finally outsprinted them. Once safe on the open water I settled into a comfortable pace and glided past Hunter Cove and the north shore.
Solo kayaking on such a delightful morning is the best way to clear your mind of all petty aggravations.
But no trip to Rangeley would be complete without sharing an adventure or two with longtime friends Mary Lou Lowrie and Nat Steele, who divide their time between a home in New Gloucester, Maine near Portland and a cabin on Cupsuptic Lake just north of Rangeley, so the next day I made plans for a rendezvous.
Mary Lou, Nat and I all share a too-much-is-never-enough approach to outdoor recreation and often plan a daylong schedule that depending on the season includes running, kayaking, hiking, bicycling and swimming. Nat is an accomplished triathlete and cross-country ski racer; I have dabbled in a variety of outdoor activities, but Mary Lou is the one with serious credentials, including a world championship in her age group for the Ironman 70.3 competition, also known as a Half Ironman, which consists of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and 13.1-mile run. In addition she twice has 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.
We began our day with a 9-plus-mile run around Bald Mountain, followed by a brisk plunge into the lake, where the water temperature barely topped 50 degrees. That felt particularly refreshing considering a sweltering heat wave had driven the air temperature to 90.
Next would be the kayak leg and after a quick snack we carried our boats down to the water.
As if on cue, though, the skies darkened and thunder rumbled.
We looked at each other and simultaneously mouthed, “Uh-oh.”
“Maybe we should give it a few minutes to pass,” I suggested.
So we retreated indoors just as rain began falling.
Half and hour later, with no sign of a letup, Nat and Mary Lou decided to drive back to Cupsuptic Lake and return later, assuming the weather improved.
After a few hours passed clouds lifted, the rain stopped and the sun emerged.
“Looking pretty good,” I said over the phone.
“We’ll be right over,” Mary Lou said.
As soon as I hung up, though, the storm blew back with a vengeance.
Lightning flashed, wind howled, trees swayed, rain pelted in sheets.
The lights went off in the cabin.
Some time later, the phone rang. It was Nat.
“Hey, we’re at the top of your road. But we can’t drive down. A big tree fell on the wires. It’s a real mess.”
It turns out the storm packing 60 mph winds had knocked down countless trees throughout the region, smashing cars, crushing buildings and knocking out power for 5,000 people.
“Maybe it’s just as well we weren’t out on the water,” I said.
But the next morning – still no power, and the tree still blocking the road – Mary Lou and Nat returned, bushwhacked around the downed wires and appeared at the cabin. Bright sun and a blustery breeze had replaced storm clouds.
Off we went, on a glorious paddle of nearly 10 miles, including a 2-mile detour to the village of Oquossoc so they could retrieve their kayaks without having to drive past the fallen tree.
“Worth waiting for,” I said.
I’m hoping to return to western Maine a few times this summer, and am sure Mary Lou, Nat and I will have more fun times on the water and in the mountains, but to tell you the truth I could do without the meteorological drama.