NFCT: Maine - Lakes & Mountains
The Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) connects northern New York, Vermont, Québec, New Hampshire, and Maine, following age-old Native American travel routes across the Northern Forest Region.
Maine's 347 miles of the NFCT route traverses some of the most scenic, remote, and rugged landscapes the state has to offer. Multiple beautiful and unique kayak and canoe destinations offer paddling experiences for enthusiasts at all levels of experience and with a variety of interests. The Trail crosses lakes big and small, winds down quiet streams, and charges down brawling whitewater rivers. At times challenging, at times serene, the 6 mapped sections (NFCT sections 8-13) pass through diverse settings - historic towns and villages, and working forest and farm landscapes.
Paddling the entire Maine route is a big adventure and truly an expedition. This is the first in a series of four articles excerpted from the NFCT Official Guidebook of vacation destinations in Maine, with the intent of breaking this big adventure down into accessible trips. Each offers a great way to experience the state's natural wonders, spectacular beauty, and storied outdoors by kayak or canoe.
The Lakes & Mountains region in western Maine represents unspoiled lakes and mountains of stunning beauty. It contains more than 100 miles of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT), and provides paddlers with expansive lakes, sporting stretches of Class II-IV rapids, and close-up interactions with waters-edge towns and villages rich with lumbering and sporting history. Lakes on this portion of the Trail include Rangeley, Mooselookmeguntic (the state's fourth largest), Upper and Lower Richardson, with Flagstaff Lake to the north and Umbagog Lake straddling the Maine-New Hampshire border. The Rapid River runs westerly into Umbagog and serves up a long path of challenging whitewater, while the South Branch of the Dead River flows north into Flagstaff Lake.
A sampling of the amazing trips in this region are described below. Pick one or pick them all, and experience the wonder of Maine's interior:
- 4-5 Days - Rangeley Lakes Tour (NFCT Section 8):
Recognized for its beauty and diverse wildlife since the 1860s, the chain of Rangeley, Mooselookmeguntic, Upper and Lower Richardson, and Umbagog lakes offer one of Maine's premier paddle trips. Expect outstanding paddling, swimming, fishing, bird watching and glorious vistas in every direction. Bring a fly rod because the angling along the route and surrounding remote ponds and rivers is among the best in the Northeast. Plan from four to five days for the entire trip, or break it up into smaller segments-the only things to slow you down will be the chance of wind, a portage, and sweet overwhelm at the natural wonders that surround you.
Six-thousand-acre Rangeley Lake is a good option for a half or full-day paddle. The lake has many coves and bogs to explore, and some like Hunter Cove and South Bog are preserved by the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust. There are three public boat launches on the lake including one at Rangeley Lake State Park, which makes a good base for paddling on this section of the Trail. The town of Rangeley's Main Street - part of a national scenic byway that borders three sides of the lake - also has accommodations, restaurants and paddler services.
Mooselookmeguntic Lake is just west of Rangeley, and is accessed by a short portage in the village of Oquossoc. If you need to stretch your legs in between, you can pup down to Bald Mountain and scoot up the 1.8 mile trail for a panoramic view of the Rangeley Lakes area. Back on Mooselook (as the locals call it for short), the 15-mile-long lake has many waterside and island tent sites, making it ideal for an overnight trip. Keep an eye out for bald eagles nesting in tall pines on the shore, and for moose and deer hanging out at the water's edge - sights that are common on this stretch of the NFCT.
The tent sites take on a tropical look along the shores of Upper and Lower Richardson Lakes. Sand beaches grace the sites along these finger shaped lakes, and most must be reserved in advance. A portage connects Lower Richardson with the Rapid River, a whitewater canoe or kayakers paradise with technical Class III-IV rapids tumbling through a cedar-and-ledge-lined corridor for close to two miles. Calm water signals the entrance to Umbagog Lake and its National Wildlife Refuge.
- A Day... or a Lifetime! - South Branch of the Dead River and Flagstaff Lake (NFCT Section 9).
The South Branch of the Dead River provides a mix of challenging whitewater and gentle paddling north of Rangeley Lake. The southern half of the north flowing river has a mile-long gorge with a series of four Class III-IV ledge drops. Beyond these rapids (which can be portaged) there are sporadic Class II waves, quiet stretches, and a rush of Class II-III rapids. The river widens to a marshy corner of Flagstaff Lake where a view of the 4,000-foot Bigelow Mountain Range welcomes you. This segment of Trail is best accessed at higher water levels, and by more experienced (or just plain old tough) paddlers.
The 18,000-acre Flagstaff Lake was created in 1950 when a 20-mile stretch of the Dead River was flooded by the construction of Long Falls Dam. Flagstaff Lake holds the distinction of being the largest human-made lake in the state of Maine, and there are countless options for half, full-day or multi-day paddles on the lake. In a valley that has witnessed great change in the past half century, the 4,000-foot Bigelow Range has remained a constant feature of the landscape. NFCT partnered with local residents to create an itinerary and map, The Valley Below, which connects the paddling experience with the history that lies beneath the waters.
Views from the lake are dynamic in summer and fall, with ever-changing vistas of the four rounded and angular peaks. Cathedral Pines Campground, located near the mouth of the North Branch of the Dead River on the western end of the lake, is worth a side trip. Spend an afternoon beneath the centuries-old red pines and relax at the public beach with a grand view of the Bigelows.
The villages of Stratton and Eustis offer a variety of accommodations, restaurants and paddler services. While in town, consider a visit to the Dead River Area Historical Society where you can see an exhibit on the former village of Flagstaff and the flooding of the valley.
State-managed primitive campsites are free and first-come, first-served on the lake. The Savage Farm campsite rests atop a rise covered in pine. The exposed ledge provides a great place for swimming. Round the point and pass a series of small islands off the southern shore. Near the mouth of a marshy inlet (popular with moose) look for a tiny sandbar island covered in dri-ki - the remnants of trees drowned in the 1950 floodings.
Look over your boat for a chance to spy the eerie sight of a submerged chimney or rooftop. The foundation of the schoolhouse is also in this vicinity. The NFCT partners with Flagstaff Scenic Boat Tours' to give paddlers a detailed look at the villages that were abandoned before the river was flooded to create the lake.
The Hurricane Island campsite is equipped with picnic table, rustic chairs, and a journal that makes for interesting campfire reading. On the southeastern side of the lake, Myron H. Avery Peak and West Peak rise into view, sloping without interruption to the shoreline. Along the eastern end of the northern shore, a series of large boulders provide a nice rest stop for a picnic or a chance to relieve the heat of summer with a swim. Paddler access at Round Barn - offers an opportunity for a hiking break on the Safford Brook Trail, which feeds into the Appalachian Trail.
The Northern Forest Canoe Trail website has numerous trip planning tools to help you create the trip that best fits your interests, timeframe, budget, and paddling skills. Visit Plan A Trip, our Map Tool, and our Itineraries and Packages, selecting information on Sections 8 and 9 cover the Maine Lakes and Mountains Region. And, of course, every good paddling trip needs a good guidebook and good maps, all of which you will find at the NFCT Web Store. You are always welcome to call our office for more personal trip advice or to purchase maps over the phone:
Addition resources and attractions in the region include:
- The Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum in Oquossoc pays tribute to the men and women who helped define the region as an unparalleled destination for outdoor adventures. The rustic museum is fashioned after a 1900s taxidermy shop and shares the stories of hat maker-turned-fly tier Carrie Stevens, Cornelia "Fly Rod" Crosby, taxidermist Herb Welch and others.
- Rangeley Lakes Region Logging Museum displays tools, machinery and documents from regional logging operations, including one of the last of the bateaux used on the Dead River drives. Exhibits of traditional art by western Maine lumbermen include fan towers, gumbooks, model drag drays and logging sleds, chain saw carvings and oil paintings.
Dead River Historical Society:
Displays including a collection of old carpentry and logging tools, china, glass, a complete schoolroom, a memorial room to the lost towns of Flagstaff and Dead River, and a host of memorabilia from native homesteads.
Maine Lakes & Mountains Tourism Council www.westernmaine.org
Rangeley Lakes Chamber of Commerce www.rangeleymaine.com
Flagstaff Area Business Association www.eustismaine.com
Maine Office of Tourism www.visitmaine.com