Lakes, Islands, Mountains, Moosehead

The ancient mountains and cliffs above Moosehead are tempting us. How do we get closer? For starters, we’ll need a motorboat and a floatplane.

Nearly 70 years old, the old bird just doesn’t want to start when it’s this hot outside.Pilot John Willard explains the situation while we sit behind him in the narrow cockpit of his 1947 Piper floatplane.

The engine isn’t turning after two, three, and four tries. Hot is a relative term—it’s mid-70s at most on this early summer evening—but this is northern Maine. Earlier, on the drive up Route 15, we’d stopped for a cone of maple-nut ice cream at a take-out, and I heard another customer complaining of the day’s “oppressive” temperatures. Willard admits he’s no fan of steamy weather himself. (Much of the year, this is snowmobile territory, and sleds fly across the frozen-solid lake.)

While we give the engine a minute to cool before one more try, he tells us that he began learning to fly when he was just a kid, after his parents moved the family to the wild shores of Moosehead Lake from Connecticut in the late 1960s. Now he owns the Birches Resort, one of the historic camps on the remote western shore in the village of Rockwood. Over the years, he’s added thousands of acres to the lakeside lodge property that his father originally purchased. At the resort’s marina, both Willard and his brother have planes afloat next to a fleet of the resort’s rentable motorboats, within yards of the resort’s tent campsites and lakeside cabins.

It’s only been a few minutes since Willard, who’s dressed in a Birches t-shirt and shorts, met us on the docks beside the antique plane. Yet I feel confident that this lifelong woodsman, aviator, and resort owner knows what he’s talking about. It’s common around here to have some flying know-how. Earlier in the day, a young waitress in the resort’s dining room mentioned that her family lives on the lake just a few minutes away, and her dad has a floatplane, too. The International Seaplane Fly-In is held every September on the lake. We’re here to stay in one of the log cabins for a few days, so we’re amenable to Willard’s suggestion that we scrap the sunset flight and meet in the early morning to try again.

ROCK, WOOD & WATER

A three-hour drive north of Portland (west of I-95) is the village of Rockwood: 20 miles past Greenville toward Canada, and besides a bait shop or two, there’s not an open business in sight. From certain vantage points around Moosehead Lake, you get an incredible across-the-water view of Mount Kineo’s cliffs that rise from the lake’s surface in a dramatic, 700-foot vertical wall of rock. I’ve heard that rock climbers sometimes arrive by boat and spend the day scaling the sheer main face. (That would be incredible to watch, but we don’t see anyone.)

Millions of years ago, the rumble, smoke, and molten ash of a volcano created this mountain that’s named for a legendary Native American warrior who is said to have killed an enormous moose that turned to stone and became Mount Kineo. The impressive mountain is distinguished by its deposits of rhyolite, a flint-like volcanic stone that’s been prized for centuries because it’s perfect for arrowheads.

Kineo has always drawn onlookers. By the 1800s, first a tavern, and then the “largest inland waterfront hotel” of its time was constructed beside the mountain. Looking across the water at the site, I have to take a minute to get my mind around that information. The grand hotel is long gone, lost to progress, demolition, and fire a lifetime ago. But it was once wildly popular as a healthy, natural getaway for city-dwellers. As many as 600 guests would take a steamship ride to stay at the Kineo House, open in various forms from the 1840s to the 1940s.

Shimmering in the sunlight, the largest lake in Maine is so vast that it looks like a sea. On the drive up Route 15, it was from the hilltop at the busy Indian Hill Trading Post that we got our first “wow” view of Moosehead—the deep, clear water around dozens of islands, spanning some 40 miles by 20 miles. (At that stop, we also picked up some groceries and shopped for gear, like socks with moose patterns and made-in-Maine New Balance trail-running shoes.) This is big land and big water to explore. You can’t go far before seeing a sign or reading a pamphlet boasting about how Henry David Thoreau or Teddy Roosevelt or a European princess famously visited here, marveled at the natural scenery, and traveled on the steamships that used to ferry guests from train stations to camps and hotels. Even as the ships and hotels have disappeared, the prime attraction of natural splendor remains. For me, that’s the draw.

With our pre-dinner flight postponed, we shift to some land-based sightseeing by car. The Birches is on an unpaved road less than 25 miles from the remote timbering passage across the North Maine Woods, the Golden Road. We are far, far away from anything urban. Passing very little other traffic, we drive across a bridge and down the road that follows along the Moose River and is lined with docks, motorboats, and camps. All is quiet. At one point, a female mallard duck and her fuzzy ducklings are resting on the end-of-the-day warm pavement. The feathered family doesn’t move out of the way as we pass—they don’t seem to have a care in the world.

A little later, we’re back at the Birches. A couple is sipping cocktails on the long porch and a few others are in the lounge with its handful of tables, bar stools, and a piano—it’s the only bar in Rockwood, I’m told. We’ve returned to have dinner in the adjoining wood-paneled dining room. A wooden canoe hangs from the rafters overhead, and on the walls are snowshoes, old photographs of lumberjacks who built the place during the Great Depression, and a mounted moose head—a large bull. We order a hot, gooey platter of poutine, followed by steak and haddock fried in breadcrumbs. These are large platefuls by the big lake, and a good portion goes with us back to the refrigerator in our cabin—which, by the way, was also built in the 1930s, but is equipped with modern niceties of electricity, a fridge, and hot showers. The North Woods men who constructed the Birches obviously made good use of their skills with wood in the lineup of more than a dozen log cabins that stand along the shore. Each is built with whole-log walls, wide porches, and a big stone fireplace inside.

COULD BE CAPRI?

We walk back to the dock before 7 a.m. for the morning flight, and the temperature is at least a dozen degrees cooler. This time, Willard confidently removes the entire cockpit door, opening up the right side of the plane so we’ll have the best views. On this second try, the old engine starts humming, and right away we begin to motor out of the marina on a channel connected directly to the lake. On open water, we hear gurgles and splashes as the plane accelerates and then lifts us above the rippling surface. It’s smooth flying after that. We go straight to Mount Kineo for a few passes over the forest and cliffs. From above, we can see wide rock ledges that extend underwater from the shore. As we head toward Lily Bay and Oyster Cove in the moody morning light, the surface of Moosehead looks like it’s glazed in silver. We’re wearing headphones and can hear Willard when he points out place names and geographical features. In every direction below us are islands, bogs, ponds, and worn ancient mountaintops. Except for the rare rooftops of remote cottages or camps, nothing is squared and there are no sharp edges. On a pond near Spencer Bay we see a moose walking below us, a young bull with new horns coming in. A few minutes later, we see another moose swimming. Willard says it’s common in summer to see them up to their necks in water, or plunging their heads under the surface to feed. Meanwhile, on Lobster Lake, groups of kayakers have pulled their boats onto beaches and are camping in tents. It’s startling to see people so far out into the unbroken landscape of water and woods.

When the plane passes near Mount Kineo one more time before touching down on the water, I look at the rocky rise of Kineo that’s now in bright sunlight and am suddenly reminded of the Italian island of Capri— much more developed but of a similar size and elevation, with tall cliffs and boats buzzing and crisscrossing between the shore and islands in the clear water. Likewise, here, from spring to fall at the Rockwood Public Landing, shuttle boats ferry guests to a landing near the clubhouse of the nine-hole Kineo Golf Course—a late-1800s remnant of the old Kineo House that’s been revived. We want to get in a boat on this lake ourselves, and after breakfast, we head back to the Birches marina to rent a 14-foot skiff.

TOWER TIME

We’ve already had a birds-eye view of the mountain (elev. 1,789 feet), and now as our outboard motor chugs along we’re looking up. I’m told there may be peregrine falcons nesting on high ledges. We tie up at the dock and from the nearby golf clubhouse and snack bar, I grab an island trail map. Most of the island is part of the Mount Kineo State Park. My goal is to try the shortest route to the peak from the dock, the mile-and-a-half ascent along the Indian Trail. Shortest, of course, means steepest, and we have to do plenty of scrambling upward and use our feet and hands, reaching for rocks and roots. The trail gets awfully close to the cliff’s edge in places. (That’s where I hold onto tree trunks.) At several points, though, the payoff is terrific—I’m rewarded with views toward Rockwood, and the golf greens, and the peninsula where the hotel once stood. I’ve got a backpack with some bread, cheese, and oranges inside, so we continue on to the peak even as the biting flies begin to get pesky. Relief comes at the firetower on the summit. We climb to the top of the metal structure, and unwrap our picnic on the wooden deck that’s above the trees and the bugs. The lake and boats are below, and Mount Katahdin is out there in the distance.

After a muddy slog down the less-steep Bridle Trail, we’re ready for the boat again, and soon zip around to a bay on the backside of Kineo (facing away from Rockwood). We heard that if you get close enough to the sheer cliff walls here, you can look up to see them arcing overhead. It’s true. That’s where we come upon a speedboat and a couple of personal watercraft that have cut their engines, and several teenagers are climbing up the rock wall. “Un, deux, trois!” they yell, one by one, and then each jumps out for a feet-first plunge into the depths below—the lake is more than 130 feet deep here. Wanting to get a full-day’s use of the boat, we motor over to what’s known as Pebble Beach, near one of the golf holes, and sit on the shoreline of smooth pebbles, and wade in the chilly, shallow water. Like a fly darting around moose ears, we zip around the 100-year-old Katahdin steamship that has a crowd of waving tourists on deck. It’s the famous boat that motors up the lake from Greenville for half-day cruises.

BACK AT THE BIRCHES

Hungry and sun-kissed from a day of hiking and boating, I’m ready to return to the lodge for an early dinner on the lakefront tables outside. Other customers are cabin guests, too, or they’ve come by boat. We order more haddock, this time in a sandwich with onion rings. Our server is a woman named Michelle who tells us she lives more than 20 miles further into the North Woods. Like John Willard, she and her husband moved here from Connecticut, and she explains that their aim was to get “off the grid” and away from crowds. They’ve succeeded so well that one of the reasons she values her work at the lodge is because it’s her primary way to see activity and meet people. “I call it ‘going to the city,”’ she explains. This idea gets me thinking about remote places like the Birches, including the fact that every day I spend here, I’ve noticed something new—the lodge library, game tables (how do you play Cribbage?), and even a trough of running water along a stone wall in the reception area that’s filled with live trout. (I ask, and learn that the fish pool feature was built in 1960, when the room was known as the Sportsman’s Lounge.) If not a city, the year-round Birches Resort is definitely a gathering place that fills with life—including, I’m told, the families and groups who come to ski and sled in winter. Michelle mentions it was her turn to bake the restaurant’s pies that day, including a four-berry recipe. That’s what I’ll have, I tell her.

After lunch I step down to the narrow beach of stones in front of the sturdy cabin where we’ll stay one more night. It’s a spot of shorefront we discovered within minutes of unpacking here, and keep being drawn to—somewhere to do nothing more than look, listen, and skip stones toward Mount Kineo. If they haven’t been here, I start thinking, maybe some of the people who visit those other Rock-towns on the coast should drive up to Moosehead sometime and see what they’re missing.

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