Rangeley Lakes: The Majestic Maine Woods
By Everett Potter
When I was a kid, my grandparents and their next door neighbors, the Newells, would head north to the Rangeley Lakes region of Maine every September. Into the Oldsmobile would go the cooler, the fishing vests, and my grandfather’s bamboo fly rods. For the next two weeks, the men would fly fish Rangeley Lake, as well as the Kennebago and Rangeley Rivers, for the legendary wild brook trout and feisty landlocked salmon that inhabited these storied waters. What my grandmother and her friend Vida did I can’t remember. But in photographs from those trips, everyone is wearing standard issue 1950’s khakis, smiling, and standing with the stringerfulls of fish they had caught.
These photos – and the magical tales my grandparents would tell when they returned, their deep Northwoods tans a hallmark of healthy outdoors living — are part of family lore. So when my old pal Frank and I decided to take a long overdue fishing trip this summer, we pointed the car in the direction of Rangeley Lakes.
Located in northwestern Maine, the Rangeley region consists of six major lakes and literally hundreds of smaller lakes and ponds, as well as rivers and streams. Mountains and woodlands stretching into Canada surround this water. In the 1860’s, tales of enormous brook trout caught up here reached well-heeled sports in New York, and Rangeley was shortly transformed from a rural farming community to a resort destination for sportsmen. Sporting camps and large wooden resort hotels were built to accommodate the fishermen and their families who came by train from the big eastern cities, for a stay measured in months. There were characters like Fly Rod Crosby, a woman who was a master guide but actively promoted the area’s fishing and hunting in those big cities. She was followed a few decades later by Carrie Stevens, a milliner who summered at Upper Dam. Stevens designed and tied shockingly beautiful streamer flies, the best known of which is the Gray Ghost.
There are two ways to appreciate the beauty of the region. You either arrive by seaplane or get there as we did, by car, going north along Route 17 from Rumford to a pull off called Height of Land. Whatever this moniker lacks in poetry it makes up for in directness and sheer majesty. This is the promised land of the Northwoods, a vast interconnected network of lakes – sheets of it – and mountains stretching into Canada. These are storied waters such as Upper Richardson and Mooselookmeguntic, the latter our destination. For my money, it may be the most dramatic view anywhere in New England.
We checked into to one of the last remaining sporting camps in the Rangeley region, Bald Mountain Camps Resort, which stretches along the shores of Mooselookmeguntic Lake. Meeting us was Stephen Philbrick, a solidly built bear of a man with a big smile and a direct way of talking.
“How’s the fishing?“ I asked.
“Oh, they’ll be jumping in the boat,” he replied, as any true Mainer would.
Philbrick’s grandparents bought the camps in 1940, and he grew up there, taking the reins from them in 1978. There are 14 cabins, rustic but impeccably kept, recently renovated and winterized for snowmobiling. Each cabin offers a private porch with rocking chairs, a fireplace or wood stove, private bath, spacious living room, individual bedrooms, and daily housekeeping. The furnishings are rustic indeed, with old dressers and vintage beds.
Gravel paths lead to the lakefront, where clumps of white birches thrive and enormous log floats serve as swimming platforms and docks. The waves of deep blue Mooselookmeguntic mean business, and often crash over the edge of the gently rocking docks, having likely been blown by winds from Canada. Look south and 80 miles away is the distinctive mass of Mt Washington, the highest mountain in the northeast. On a clear day, they say, you can see a plume of smoke from the cog railway that snakes its way up that peak. The lake is ringed by pines, with a fraction of the private homes that surround other lakes in the state. I spend my summers on a lake in Southern Maine, less than 100 miles south, but up here, I felt like I had entered another time and place.
Frank, a veteran of many such trips in our youth, flailing the waters of the Upper Humber in Newfoundland, Maine’s Moosehead Lake and Vermont’s Lake Willoughby, had his usual ragtag assortment of vintage roods, reels and much-used flies with him. Like the gear head I’ve morphed into, I had a quiver of LL Bean fly rods, shiny reels, and a dozen fly boxes. In truth, we were perfectly matched for the expedition. At the end of the day, it’s what’s on the other end of the fly that counts. In order to ensure that we had some success, we stocked up on variations on the legendary Rangeley streamers such as Gray Ghost and a fly called Sneeka at the excellent River’s Edge Sports Shop in Oquossoc.
The deep blue waters of the lake stretch for 26 square miles, with the volcano-like shape of West Kennbago Mountain rising at the northern end. We took out one of their 14 foot Lund boats – broad beamed and built for large swells. We trolled the waters using lead line, hooking small brookies, gorgeous fish upon whose dynamic shape and fighting ability the reputation of the Maine woods rests.
At day’s end, we returned to camp. The lakefront centerpiece of Bald Mountain is a wooden lodge, also recently redone, where a spacious white tablecloth dining room overlooks the lake. Festooned with wildcats, moose heads, great horned owls, fisher cats and salmon, it’s a taxidermist’s homage to the great traditions of the deep woods around Rangeley. In the rafters is suspended a vintage wood-ribbed canoe. The small living room has both a player piano and a flat screen TV (the only one at the resort) and a welcoming bar serves up draft versions of such Maine brews as Allagash White and Sebago Saddleback.
After a drink overlooking the lake on one of the Adirondack rockers, we adjourned to dinner. The food is hearty and nicely prepared — my favorite entrée was a pork tenderloin — by Meg Godaire, who’s been cooking at the camps for 18 years. Bald Mountain Camps is one of the rarities in the north woods, a resort that still offers American plan dining to its guests. At the end of a long day outdoors, it’s all you can do to stroll to dinner.
The next day, we took to the Rangeley and Kennagbo Rivers, waters restricted to fly fishing. Here we walked into dense woods with thick moss covering the rocks underfoot, wading after the bookies and getting mostly chubs for our trouble. It was still fun, but the fact is, July is not ideal for angling. There’s some sort of aphorism about the warmest weather and the lousiest fishing. Still, these are American trophy rivers, even though the fish we were catching were not trophies. The waters were still grand. But while the lake and nearby rivers beckoned us, fly rods in hand, Philbrick estimates that no more than 10 percent of his guests come exclusively to fish anymore.
“Those that do come are avid and voracious fishermen,” he adds. “But the world is changing and we’ve had to adjust our approach to the future.”
To keep four and five generations of Bald Mountain guests (from 29 states and four countries) happy and coming back, Philbrick puts more focus of the resort’s other activities, such as canoeing, sailing, kayaking, boating and water-skiing. There’s a clay tennis court, with hiking and mountain biking trails are literally out the back door. A sandy beach is ideal swimming for those with small children.
“And you can always sit, look out at the lake, and read a book,” Philbrick says, an activity many people seemed content to do. The average stay is now more like four or five days, and those who stay two or three weeks “are few and far between.”
As we got ready to leave, the number of brookies each of us had caught was muddied by fishermen’s memories and perhaps a tad too much Malbec at dinner the night before. In the end, we declared it a draw.
Looking across from Bald Mountain, Philbrick told us that the thickly wooded far shore of Mooselookmeguntic is protected forever, put in a land trust years ago by some forward thinking owners.
“What you see now when you look out across the lake is what you’re grandkids will see in 100 years time,” Philbrick says.
Indeed, this is the wilder, primeval side of Maine. Times have changed but don’t lament the lack of fishermen. Just enjoy the loons, the tranquility and the incredible beauty of the Rangeley Lakes Region.
IF YOU GO
Bald Mountain Camps Resort, Oquossoc, Maine 207-864-3671. Lodging and all meals starts at $155 per person, per day.
The town Rangeley still feels like a charming little town, on the edge of Rangeley Lake. A sprinkling of restaurants, an ice cream stand (Pine Tree Frosty overlooking Haley Pond) , and an independent bookshop, Book, Lines and Thinkers, are highlights. Float planes sit ready for adventure and on the ride into town, the imposing bulk of Saddleback, with its network of ski trails, looms over the area. The Rangeley Region Sport Shop is a good source for locally hand-tied flies.
A few miles outside of town is Orgonon, the former home of Wilhelm Reich, a student of Sigmund Freud and a pioneering psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and scientist. Now it’s something of a museum of curiosities about Reich, a highly controversial figure whose theories and experiments concerning human orgasms led to his eventual imprisonment during the McCarthy era.
In the hamlet of Oquossoc is the Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum, a world class regional museum that’s barely two years old. Inside is an actual 1890’s sporting camp, photos, flies, rods, and an authentic Rangeley Guide boat, all of it artfully arranged and nicely displayed. The gift shop has the usual assortment of books and cards but also fly tying equipment and vintage flies tied by the legendary Carrie Stevens, ideal for those with an extra $400 to $600 to spend. Each, it should be added.