Paddling the Umbagog & Aziscohos

Part One - The Umbagog

by Charles Underwood
Appeared originally in the April and June 1999 Wraparounds

Click on the photos for larger images.

One of northern New England’s finest treasures is the beautiful lakes that form the Rangeley Region. Lake Umbagog, Aziscohos, Parmachenee, Cupsuptic, Mooselookmeguntic, Richardson and Rangeley, are like a string of pearls that glisten with clear water and mountain scenery. This region is also known for one of the best wildlife areas to sight moose, black bear and waterfowl of a variety of species.

um1.gif (23558 bytes)It takes months to explore this northern wilderness of upper New England. Our goal had to be limited to a mere taste of it. We had one week in September.

The trip was divided by a two-fold itinerary. One, paddle the west side of Umbagog to the National Wildlife Refuge and camp one night, the last night in the season. Then secondly, take out and drive to the Aziscohos Dam area. Put-in there and then paddle up the Aziscohos (19 miles), camping several nights along the way.

Umbagog, pronounced "um-bay-gog," the first part of the trip was organized by Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS). It was a free promotional trip. Several times a year EMS invites customers out to try new camping equipment; for example, everything from lightweight tents to the hi-tech freeze dried meals. In this case EMS also arranged a campsite right on the West shore of the lake. Surprisingly, even with logistical items prearranged, our group was only 6 in number. The advantage however, permitted quality time for us to play around and experiment with the new equipment.

To start, Gail and I drove in caravan until the small town of Errol, New Hampshire. The road after the Errol Bridge leads to the boat ramp or put-in on the Androscoggin River. From the ramp, it was an easy 3.5 mile paddle via the river to Umbagog. The river cuts through wilderness. The start is busy with other boaters. This being my partners first kayak trip, I was a little anxious about things, initially. Soon the strokes of the paddles assumed a natural rhythm and I breathed easier. Actually, it was exhilarating to paddle in a flotilla - four Kayaks and a canoe.

As we paddled we kept keen watch for hawks beginning their migrating season. Shortly, before the confluence, a large bird sat perched three-quarters up a pine tree. We paused for a better look. It was a large broad-wing hawk. He was the size of an immature eagle. The bird seemed as fascinated with us as we were with him.

The confluence enters Umbagog near Molls Rock, a very shallow area. Umbagog, is an Indian word meaning "shallow lake". The lake depth is generally no more than 12 feet, here it was less than 2 feet in several spots. One must take care to avoid the many opportunities to become stuck on a sand bar. The afternoon sky was gray and cloudy and the water murky making it even more difficult to pick our way to deeper lake water.

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Lake Umbagog Campsite

The poor visibility marred a view of the entire lake. An area guide describes it as 7,000 acres; the East Side begins in New Hampshire and the West shore is in Maine. Once in deep water, we paddled along the shoreline for about a ˝ mile South toward campsite # 25. The campsite was secured through Umbagog Family Lake Campground at the cost of $10 per person. Sites on the West shore line, ( 25 26, and 27) are in close proximity to the National Wildlife Refuge. The sites are secluded because of the thick and rich green conifer trees that permit plenty of shade on a hot sunny day. (Site # 27, with its sandy beach is ideal. Unfortunately it was occupied.)

um3.gif (69272 bytes)Near our camp, swam many loons. The loons apparently have had much exposure to humans. We paddled close to many before they became alarmed, and some were very entertaining. In fact, directly off shore of the campsite, a pair of loons began serenading around dusk. I have long admired these lovely birds, about the size of ducks. They are the recognized icons of New England wildlife with their smooth black head and checkered body. Loons are well suited for diving, and descend deep to snare fish. But it’s their maniacal laughter that echo’s for quiet a distance that sets them apart from other birds as my favorite.

I had recently observed a pair and a new fledging near my cabin. They were very protective of the young loon as well as kept track on each other. One day, however, upon my arrival I saw only one adult with the fledging. Moments passed. Still I saw nothing more. I was getting worried. Then at a distance I heard a faint call from the second loon from another pond, a considerable distance. The nearby loon immediately answered to the call. Incredibly, the distance between the ponds was about two miles. They kept track of each by their yelling until rejoining as a family.

After the tents were up, we sat on the rocks overlooking the lake and began exploring new EMS equipment. I was particularly interested in the hand held PUR Water Filter systems. One of the guys gave a tutorial on how simple it was to use. There was no expectation to purchase.

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Charles Underwood and Gail Fool’n Around?

As night fell the lake came alive with noises. A different serenading occurred. From out of no where, a high pitched sound was heard then another. We looked up skyward and saw something flicker by. It was a bat. Then another tiny bat. As the night darkened more bats flickered just over our heads. Witnessing a magnificent aero display the bats were a delight to watch as they effectively snatched insects out of the sky, to our approval, I might add. The bats were in size about 6 inches and probably the "Hoary" species. They had to be small enough to dart in and out of the thick pine trees. We retired early, but slept restless because of the noisy loons who incessantly called out the entire night.

That evening EMS hosted the dinner. Kevin, the store Rep. prepared an excellent freeze-dried Beef Stroganoff dinner. This was topped off with a rich freeze-dried chocolate cake that was tasty and moist. Surprisingly, it was indeed good, and I was so glad. I had provisioned the rest of the trip with large quantities of similar rations.

That night, as customary with paddlers after a hard day, we sat around the campfire swapping spirited stories of past excursions. Trips here, or rivers to paddles there, and so forth. The fellowship was congenial and informative. If you want to learn about wilderness trips, go out with a group. Everyone has his or her favorite river story to share.

The next morning the sun arose with a mighty, redden glow over Pine Point. What a morning to be on the lake and what a habitat the morning revealed. The lake, visible for the first time was much larger than anticipated. Directly north 600 yards on the edge of wildlife refuge, was a surreal sight. Perched high on a tree mast were the famous pair of bald eagles! Proud and majestic, the eagles were sunny themselves. It was a scene one expected to see only out of National Geographic.

Below on Molls Rock were the offshore birds. Then across the lake on the Maine side about a mile off was a figure resembling a moose appearing through the mist at the foot of Pine Point. Past Pine Point, was Sunday Cove and the inlet of the Rapid River- two areas with noted nesting habitats for ducks and Ospreys. What I saw in 5 minutes would take at least two days to explore. I made a mental note for a future trip!

As a group, we could barely wait for morning coffee. With an urge to explore and especially get a ring-side view of the Eagles we quickly broke camp and manned the boats. North we paddled for about a half-mile. The Eagles had probably endured the likes of us many times before and remained on the tall tree, both waiting patiently. Thought to be the only breeding pair in New Hampshire, they did not disappointment us. We were able to get within 75 yards- the roped off perimeter around their inner wildlife sanctuary.

With an urge to explore and especially get a ring-side view of the Eagles we quickly broke camp and manned the boats. North we paddled for about a half-mile. The Eagles had probably endured the likes of us many times before and remained on the tall tree, both waiting patiently. Thought to be the only breeding pair in New Hampshire, they did not disappointment us. We were able to get within 75 yards- the roped off perimeter around their inner wildlife sanctuary.

um5.gif (137371 bytes)New Hampshire’s Most Famous Couple

The eagles proved very photogenic. After close-up photo’s, we paddled back and explored Leonard Pond Marsh. Leonard Marsh is a remote marsh. In one cove another red hawk was spotted. He had a wingspan of four feet and he gracefully glided over the marsh. The other interesting sight was the unmistakable bear tracks, which dotted the mud shoreline. They were wide and covered a size eight shoe, indicating a hefty size bear.

We lunched here at the edge of the water. Then kayaked back to the Errol boat ramp concluding the first part of the trip.

With Kayaks securely loaded on the Jeep, we said our good-byes. Before departing, Kevin loaned us a Kayak skirt insisting we take one to keep the cockpit dry in the event of foul weather so common, as we found out, later.

In early afternoon we headed north by Jeep for the rest of the trip- the Aziscohos. [Next issue will include the second part of the trip which is on the Aziscohos.]

Click here for part 2

Copyright 1999, Charles Underwood. All rights reserved.

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