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    Thursday, September 28, 2023

    Serenity and adventure on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, Part II

    A calm morning on Mooselookmeguntic Lake in Maine. (Steve Fagin)
    A picnic table at the Echo Point campground overlooks Mooselookmeguntic Lake. (Steve Fagin)
    Gear waits to be loaded back into kayaks at a portage site between Upper Richardson and Mooselookmeguntic Lakes. (Steve Fagin)
    Steve Fagin pulls a kayak in rain along Carry Road, from Haines Landing to the village of Oquossoc, preparing to return to Rangeley Lake on the final leg of a 50-plus-mile trip. (Andy Lynn)

    “Do loons ever sleep?” I asked.

    “Good question,” Andy Lynn replied.

    He and I had just emerged from our tents before dawn at a campsite overlooking western Maine’s Mooselookmeguntic Lake, where the birds serenaded us all night. We also kayaked past numerous swimming loons, and heard their hauntingly melodious calls at various times during the past three days.

    Not that we were complaining. The loon is an iconic northern lake bird, and we were on an iconic northern lake expedition – kayaking and camping on a 50-mile section of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a 740-mile corridor established in 2006 that connects Old Forge in New York’s Adirondacks, to Fort Kent, Maine, at the Canadian border.

    Surrounded by glorious mountain peaks and lush forests, we savored tranquil solitude while enduring a few white-knuckle stretches of rough seas – all part of a grand adventure.

    As described in the initial installment published last week, Andy and I began our expedition on Rangeley Lake, some 320 miles north of New London.

    After kayaking to the village of Oquoccoc, we rolled our boats with folding carts on a road to Mooselookmeguntic Lake, where we paddled in whitecaps and 25 mph wind gusts before reaching a campsite on Toothaker Island. The next morning, we paddled to a dam and then portaged on a path leading to Upper Richardson Lake, where we camped on the western shore.

    The following day we portaged back around the dam, returned to Mooselookmeguntic Lake, and camped at Echo Point, a tiny, remote peninsula accessible only by boat.

    Originally, Andy and I planned to camp that night at Students Island, but we stopped at the Stephen Phillips Memorial Preserve, which oversees the lake’s 67 wilderness campsites, to switch our reservation to Echo Point, several miles farther north.

    That way, we would be closer to Bald Mountain Camps, where we hoped to meet friends for dinner. After two nights of cooking over portable camp stoves and eating at picnic tables, we deserved dining in comfort at a classic lakeside lodge.

    It had been unusually calm that morning, but stillness was shattered by two fighter jets that roared less than 1,000 feet overhead. Air National Guard pilots from Westfield, Mass., occasionally train with F-15s over the Rangeley Lakes. They were gone in a flash.

    By the time we stopped for lunch on a beach and paddled along the west shore of Mooselookmeguntic, past Birch Point, Farrington Island, Wildwood Cove and Shelter Island, it was mid-afternoon when we reached Echo Point. It took another hour to unload waterproof bags containing gear and food, and set up tents on the hilltop campsite.

    By then, the wind had begun to pick up. Andy and I would have to cross the lake and paddle almost 3 miles to Bald Mountain Camp, eat dinner, and then paddle back to camp for the night. We had stowed headlamps and inflatable solar-powered lanterns for the return trip.

    We left camp about 3:30 p.m., just when whitecaps appeared. Our destination appeared tantalizingly close across the lake, but the appeal of making such a challenging crossing twice – before and after dinner – diminished in direct opposition to the speed of wind and size of waves.

    After getting tossed around for nearly an hour, Andy and I paddled into calmer water in the lee of Lunch Island, rafted our kayaks together, and discussed our options. Not worth it, we agreed.

    I pulled my cellphone from a drybag and tried to call a friend, Stuart Adler, who was to meet us for dinner. No surprise: No service. Then, to my astonishment, I got through to Ed Goff, another friend, who, like Stuart, spends part of his summer at a vacation home on Rangeley Lake.

    “Ed!” I shouted over the whistling wind. “Don’t think we’re gonna make it for dinner!”

    “Where are you?” he asked.

    “Bobbing around, not far from Stoney Batter Point, but we still have to get across Mooselook, and it’s getting ugly,” I replied.

    “But you’re so close…”

    “Yeah, but we might as well be trying to round Cape Horn!”

    So, we canceled. “The right call,” Andy said.

    Back safely at our campground at Echo Point, I boiled one pot of water for my dinner of instant mashed potatoes, topped with a prepared package of saag paneer, a favorite Indian dish, while Andy had a second pot going for his chicken-flavored ramen noodles.

    That night we tossed sticks on a campfire while listening to a recording of “Don Quixote” on Andy’s cellphone. We packed spare batteries for just such a contingency.

    “I bet we’re the only campers listening to Cervantes on Mooselookmeguntic Lake,” I said. I might just as well have said anywhere.

    Heavy rain and strong winds began not long after we retreated to our tents, which mercifully kept us dry all night.

    Precipitation subsided to showers in the morning, but the lake continued to churn.

    “I say we go for it,” Andy said. So, we packed gear, loaded kayaks, gobbled energy bars and set out.

    “Blankety-blank beam waves,” I grumbled, as one washed over my deck. A southeast wind kicked up chop, but snug spray skirts kept water out of our cockpits. What would Don Quixote or Sancho Panza do in this situation, I wondered.

    Happily, we weren’t tilting at windmills, and managed to make it across to calmer water along Mooselookmeguntic’s eastern shore. It was an easy voyage, in light rain, to Haine’s Landing, followed by a road portage to Oquoccoc, and finally, a paddle back to the cabin on Rangeley Lake’s Bonney Point.

    But before driving back to Connecticut the next day, we achieved our version of the impossible dream: Dinner with friends at Bald Mountain Camps.

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