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Five days in the Maine woods: stories and lessons from north Moosehead

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Lightning flashed in the distance and rain began to fall, each drop forming a tiny bubble on the surface of Moosehead Lake. We’d watched the dark clouds gather during our short paddle, and with a few words, we agreed it was time for us to turn our kayaks around and get back to Seboomook Wilderness Campground, where we were staying.

By the time we dragged our boats on shore, turned them over and hurried across the campground to our tiny cabin, our clothing was plastered to our skin. For me, the storm was thrilling, and I had plenty of dry clothes to change into. But for my husband, Derek, and my mother-in-law, Geneva, who had arrived at the campground a day before me, the rain was starting to get old. It had rained, off and on, the entire time they’d been camping.

Derek’s brother and sister-in-law, Gary and Holly, welcomed us back into the cabin with something along the lines of “I told you so.” They’d been the first to arrive at the campground a few days earlier, eager to spend a long weekend in their new tent. It had been raining off and on the entire time, catching them unaware as they attempted various adventures on the lake with their two sons. Their tentsite had a big puddle, and they were starting to run out of dry clothes.

Fortunately, Derek had rented a cabin, and it had just enough beds to fit us all. The cabin was old but clean, small but free of bugs — and rain.

As we prepared supper, the rainstorm passed. My four-year-old nephew played on the wet lawn and splashed in the puddles. We grilled corn on the cob and chicken kabobs, built a campfire, roasted s’mores and watched a tiny fawn — the smallest I’ve ever seen — emerge from a nearby field and gallop awkwardly after its mother.

The rain always passes eventually.
Don’t underestimate Maine woods roads
The next day the sun shone and I popped a tire while stubbornly attempting to drive through a washout near North East Carry. Derek claims my vehicle was on three tires at one point during the stunt. I believe him.

We were trying to get to Lobster Lake, and we were about a mile from our destination when we were blocked by the washout. The gravel simply couldn’t hold up to the heavy rainfall.

After popping the tire, I was lucky I didn’t get stuck in the chasm of rocks and loose gravel. But I managed to drive out of the washout, screeching along on the rim, which I cracked several times. Back on even and sturdy gravel, we put on a spare tire and studied the Delorme Maine Atlas and Gazetteer — an invaluable tool for navigating Maine woods roads.

That trip, and during our following trip to the Moosehead Lake Region, we learned a few things about reading the atlas. For example, we learned that an open circle symbol means “bridge out” or “road blocked.” There are many of those circles drawn on the map around Moosehead, where logging roads are abandoned and rapidly revert back to forest.

Using the atlas, I managed to trace one alternate route to Lobster Lake. We could backtrack, drive across Seboomook Dam over the West Branch of the Penobscot River and hit the Golden Road, which would carry us past Hannibal’s Crossing to Lobster Trip Road, which then leads down to the boat launch.

We tried that. But at the North Woods Woods checkpoint after the dam, we used the call box to reach the operator, who advised us to turn back. Ahead, a grader had gotten stuck while smoothing the road. Our damaged SUV stood no chance at making it through to Lobster Lake that day.

So we decided to limp home.

However, along the way, we were happy to make a slight detour to the historic Pittston Farm, once a logging camp and now a campground and restaurant deep in the Maine woods. Under an antler chandelier, Derek and I sat at a tiny wooden bar and sipped cold beers, feeling better about our situation by the second. I had one of their famous grilled cheese sandwiches, which is made with thick slices of homemade bread and six slices of cheese, and Derek enjoyed a hamburger.

After our meal, we went for a walk on the property and it started to rain, so we ducked into a big, old barn that serves as a museum and storage for the campground’s many kayaks and canoes. As the rain thundered on the roof overhead, we wandered the dim interior of the barn, inspecting old logging tools and photographs in silence.
No phone? No problem.
I hadn’t played Battleship since I was a kid. Plucking it from a teetering pile of board games, I carried the iconic game to the kitchen table, and under the glow of a gas-fueled lamp, Derek and I battled with pegs and plastic ships until bed.

Cell phone reception, wifi and electricity are all non-existant at Spencer Pond Camps, and many will argue, I’m sure, that the lack of these things has a lot to do with the location’s charm. Nestled on the quiet shore of Spencer Pond, the cluster of historic and beautifully refurbished cabins are a peaceful getaway, complete with clean outhouses and comfy beds that are piled high with fleece blankets and quilts.

The camps also happen to be pet friendly, so we were able to take our dog, Oreo, along on our second adventure in the Moosehead Region this summer. At Spencer Lake Camps, Oreo had an especially good time looking out the windows at the various animals roaming the property, which included chickens, geese and friendly snowshoe hares. But he especially enjoyed when we went out for our daily adventures, riding on the dusty logging roads and exploring the country east and north of Moosehead Lake.

On our second morning there, I walked out onto the front steps of our cabin, Cricket Cabin, to find a chicken pecking bugs off the wood. It didn’t move away from me, so I sat down and pet the bird’s silky feathers. I laughed as it tried to pluck my ruby wedding ring off my finger, then drew my hand away, thinking a missing gemstone would be hard to explain to Derek.

Indoors, in addition to playing card games and boardgames, we read books and leafed through a bulky binder full of stories written by guests dating back to the mid-90s. Far removed from civilization, it was especially fun to be reading “Nine Mile Bridge: Three Years in the Maine Woods” by Helen Hamlin. I stumbled upon a first edition of the book, published in 1945 and signed by the author (along with a sketch of a tree), at an antique shop in Bangor. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It’s a fascinating (and humorous) first-person account of living deep in the northwestern Maine woods, first at a traditional logging camp, then with her husband, who was a game warden.

In some ways, Derek and I were living that simple lifestyle. In Cricket Cabin, we hand-pumped our water into kettles and boiled it to wash our dishes and bathe. We read by gas lights and cooked in a gas stove. And while it felt a bit odd at first, having no phone, no internet and no electricity was really no problem. After all, we had Battleship.
A different kind of fun
I’m happy to report that we did manage to make it to Lobster Lake on that second trip, traveling to it from the opposite direction (on a new tire and rim). The weather still wasn’t ideal. In fact, it was raining as we drove to the boat launch. But by the time we got there, the rain had stopped — or maybe “paused” is a more adequate term — and we started out our adventure relatively dry.

That didn’t last long.

The rain held as we traveled down Lobster Stream and across Lobster Lake, but it returned as we hiked up Lobster Mountain. By the end of our outing, we were soaked. But we had covered the ground (and water) we had wanted to cover; we had seen some beautiful things along the way; and our muscled burned from miles of paddling and trudging through the woods.

“I think there are different kinds of fun,” I said to Derek as we paddled back to the boat launch in the rain. The sun was starting to break through the clouds and I could feel its warm rays on my goosebumped arms.

Perhaps Derek responded with a grunt, or maybe he humored me with by saying, “Yeah?”

Unsure how to put my thoughts into words, I ended up saying something like: “Well, there’s the fun that comes with instant gratification and comfort, like playing video games or eating really good food. And then there’s the fun of going through something that’s difficult and uncomfortable and being successful, like today … and then there’s the fun of enjoying anything after that, like a warm shower or a cold beer.”

I think he got what I was trying to say, and I hope you do, too. Because I find that outdoor adventures are full of different kinds of fun, especially the kind that includes addressing difficulties and struggling through discomfort. Adventures often don’t go as planned. Sometimes it rains.

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