Advent, Day 2: 100 Maine Lakes

Dear readers,
 The Maine for an adventure a day, each day of this advent season — big or small, by land or sea, with friends or solo, in image or word, exuberant or contemplative, real or conceptual. We live in a state of wonder, its wide open spaces anticipating our
hope and joy.

On Day Two we have a report from the maiden voyage of the 100 Maine Lakes adventure earlier this year. Paddleboarder Amanda James of Little Vessels writes, “Maine. Miles. Water. Woods. These are a few of my favorite things. I am going to paddle the length of Maine’s 100 largest lakes, each one from end to end. This effort will require somewhere between 1200 and 1500 miles of paddling and consume and the better part of 100 days on the water. It will undoubtedly fuel my hungry soul, kick my overly ambitious ass, and deliver to me the Maine that I pine for. As best as I can figure,
that’s exactly what I need.” 

Day one, and I can live the rest of my life knowing that perfection in a maiden voyage is attainable. Today was it. I hit the water at the very southern end of Branch Lake. Down a road that I have driven past all of my life, yet never followed. Down another road that quickly turned to dirt and I quite liked that. It was just enough dirt to make me feel like I was venturing into the unknown Maine that I won’t shut up about. The public put in was an ideal little spot and patrolled by a very sweet and most helpful woman employed by the city of Ellsworth. Her primary duty was to inspect and register boats in an effort to minimize the spread of milfoil, a highly invasive aquatic plant that is making its way into many of Maine’s lakes. I was very happy to see her and impressed at the city of Ellsworth’s efforts. Maine has got it going on in and is downright proactive when it comes to vital environmental concerns. If I get nothing else out of paddling over 1,000 miles in Maine, I hope to get an intimate portrait of the state of our fresh water resources.

My first lake! Also, my Little Vessels first lake! First anything actually. I set her in the water for the very first time on Branch Lake. In an ideal world, her and I would have been on a number of training paddles and I would long have been familiar with how she performs. I’ve built and paddled several others, but each is unique in it’s own way. I flubbered around for nearly 45 minutes, adjusting my gear and attempting to minimize the bulk and keep the essentials handy. 45 minutes of prep time is embarrassing for a seasoned adventurer. Although I am young, I am still a bit old school in my gear selections, and this is the first trip I’ve been adorned with multiple gizmos. Between a waterproof cell phone, a new GPS, a SPOTtracker, and waterproof camera, my crusty old pdf looks and feels like Best Buy threw up on it. I wonder if it will still keep me afloat with all of this crap in it.

As soon as I hit the water I was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed in the most wonderful of ways. It’s rare that I know if and when I am doing exactly the right thing, and this moment was one of those occasions. It brought me nearly to tears (that’s so sappy and ridiculous!) to have that clarity and direction underneath me in the form of bright, cold lake water. It all came true! All my rantings about and research of how to find Maine are going to come true, and as I paddled my first mile I believed it more than ever. Here I was, only 40 minutes from where I grew up in territory completely uncharted by me. It was stunning too, in the way I only know Maine to be. I was immediately slapped in the face by tiny islands built of pine trees and huge granite rocks that littered the water. Already there were pockets and coves possessing rugged shorelines and hidden camps. The day was bright and the sun was strong, which can still be a rare occurrence in Maine in May. Perhaps if I’d sought out a therapist some years ago they would have told me “well, you just need to go home then”. I was not that clever and instead I longed for it, dreamed of it and compared it to every other place I ever set foot, and there have been many. And today, I was finally here. Maine was mine and I was Maine’s and if a day of paddling had perfection, this was it.

Branch Lake is six miles from one end to the other. In my mind, it is split in two halves by what they call “the narrows”, a slender passing in the middle of the lake. The two halves felt to be two different lakes. The southern half was quiet, and felt remote. On my first passing I never even saw another boater. The lakeshore camps were seldom and the forest dense. A mere mile out a headwind picked up and covered the lake with a light chop. Nothing that would set me back much, but enough to break my dreamy state and force me to have to start digging in. After passing through the narrows the lake opened up even wider than before and gave way to the rest of the lake. The air stilled and the sun shone strong and I booked it to the far side of Branch Lake. This northern half of the lake was home to far more life. Every couple of acres there was a camp or a home. There were other boaters out; a handful of canoes, three kayaks and no more than a dozen fishermen in total. I had myself all psyched up for Memorial Day weekend boat traffic. After guiding in places like Hawaii and Tennessee for the past several years, my Memorial Day protective guide reflexes were on point. I was ready for all the drunk yahoos who had managed to squirrel away enough cash over the winter to buy themselves a new-old bass boat. They don’t exist! Not here anyway. These boaters were quiet and deliberate in their course. They were either most friendly and curious about my choice of vessel, or entirely unfazed as if I was just another random glacial remainder poking up out of the lake. There seemed to be no in-between.

I may as well have had Branch Lake all to myself. Typically, I try to choose a somewhat shore hugging route, simply out of courtesy to the fast paced boat traffic. But today, I cruised right down the middle of this sucker. I paused in the middle of the northern half of Branch Lake only to take a few photos and to bask in my lake hogging glory. After tagging the far side shore line and rounding a perfect tiny island cluster, I turned around and made my way back. More often than not on this venture, I’ll have to paddle the length of each lake not once, but twice. It is no doubt a lot of redundant miles that I don’t need to paddle to accomplish this mission, but it’s really the only logistically feasible solution. I can’t be bothered by it, I’ve just got to do it. Branch Lake was so good to me it didn’t matter. I could have lapped it again and still been celebrating the first of 100 Maine lakes that are to be my playground.

There will be days to come that will not be as sweet as this one and I may even need to borrow upon the reflection of Branch Lake. For this day, I could ask nothing more. My 100 Maine Lakes adventure is underway. My Little Vessel did exactly what she should. My gear is all in its place and serving it’s purpose. My 1991 old but not tired 4-Runner got to visit a dirt road. I am ready for this. And, I am happy to be home.