"A memorable canoe trip to Umbagog Lake in NH" - Natural New England, Fall 2006

Canoeing in wide open water with a stiff breeze to contend with is usually something my wife and I try to avoid.  Sure we’ve paddled before, but mostly on the ponds and bogs of northern New England where there simply isn’t enough water to generate big waves, or on larger lakes in the early morning before the waves pick up.  So this was something of a first - canoeing to our remote campsite in the mid-afternoon on the expanse of Umbagog Lake on the Maine-New Hampshire border - and we were a bit worried when we felt the breeze picking up, especially with a canoe full of camping gear.

Thankfully, those winds never materialized into waves capable of capsizing us, probably because the lake is only 12 feet deep on average.  So even though it is eight miles long and over a mile across in spots allowing the wind a large area to build momentum, the lake floor tends to truncate the waves that are generated.  Indeed, one of the rangers at the headquarters for New Hampshire’s Umbagog Lake State Park (www.nhstateparks.org/ParksPages/Umbagog/Umbagog.html) explained to me that the name is Abenaki Indian for “shallow water,” a meaning she said has slowly been bastardized by the white man to “clear water” over the years.

Regardless of the true meaning of Umbagog, we had come there for neither shallow nor clear water, although they both make for good canoeing.  No, we had come to see some bald eagles.  Following a 40-year absence, there has been a nesting pair at the northern end of the lake since 1989, and there are now three nesting pairs.  In fact the re-establishment of bald eagles to the lake was a key factor in the creation of a National Wildlife Refuge (www.fws.gov/northeast/lakeumbagog/) in the marshes around their nest in 1992.

The State Park affords bountiful opportunity to explore not just the refuge but the entire lake, offering three dozen remote campsites accessible only by water as well as the more traditional sites at their headquarters.  We were staying at R4 on Big Island, which provided a superb view of Thurston Cove and which turned out to be an uneventful, though slightly nerve-wracking, three-mile canoe away.  And we were lucky to be here, as this was one of only two sites still available when we had called a month earlier.

Sunrise on Umbagog Lake where dozens of remote campsites attract canoeists and kayakers.

That three-mile canoe was just a primer for our journey to the refuge the next day, over four miles to the north.  We made note of the other remote campsites we passed as we paddled peacefully, some on islands barely larger than the site itself.  Arriving at the refuge, we spied the bald eagles’ nest in a dead tree on the appropriately named Eagle Island.  Because there was already a crowd of on-lookers gathered at a respectful distance, we decided to investigate the marshes of the refuge first and then return for a closer look.

And wouldn’t you know it, not two minutes later we saw our first eagle perched in another dead tree at water’s edge.  It sat majestically on a top branch, hardly moving for the ten minutes that I spent taking pictures (in case you were wondering, using a telephoto in a moving canoe in the wind results in most shots being blurred).

Bald eagles love dead trees, according to Umbagog Wildlife Refuge Manager Paul Casey, not because they’re dead but because they afford a 360 degree view with which to track both predator and prey.  One certainly doesn’t think of the majestic bald eagle as having any predators, but on Umbagog at least gulls and crows will harass them, especially immature eagles, sometimes attacking in mid-flight.  Likewise, one wouldn’t think the majestic bald eagle would need to feed on carrion like a vulture, but they do, although the majority of their diet is fish that they hunt (Mr. Casey noted that just as gulls and crows harass the eagles, so too do the eagles harass osprey, sometimes stealing their catch).

A bald eagle and a merganser family - just another day on the water at Umbagog Lake State Park.

After several dozen photos (hopefully one would turn out!) we continued down stream.  We immediately came upon a mother loon fishing for and subsequently feeding her brown, furry chick.  We were fortunate to see this small survivor, as only three loon nests on Umbagog produced chicks this year - the unusually heavy rains this spring and summer flooded out most of them.  As a result the lake can no longer boast of the largest loon population in New Hampshire.

Paddling further along there were marshes to the left and marshes to the right, teeming with flora and fauna.  We saw herons eyeing us warily and then flying off.  We glimpsed a young moose crashing back into the woods as we drew close.  We watched water lilies effortlessly rising and falling with the waves.  And we saw another bald eagle, perhaps the same one, soaring on the winds over head, and then yet another perched in yet another dead tree.  Despite the occasional motor boat disturbing the peace (most of which were with the Wildlife Refuge or the State Park), this truly was a wild place.

And so after several hours of prime wildlife watching, we started the long canoe back to our campsite.  The wind picked up in our face like the day before, and although the rowing was hard at times the journey was quite manageable.  Even though this was far and away the farthest my wife and I had canoed in one day – well over ten miles - we weren’t that tired upon our return to R4.  Sun-burnt perhaps, but not sore like I expected to be.  I guess we had the “shallow water” to thank for that, and for one of the most enjoyable canoes we’ve experienced.  And as if to punctuate our day, that evening we had front-row seats as an osprey swooped down and plunked a fish right out of the water off our campsite.

We’ll definitely be coming back to Umbagog Lake again soon - but next time we’ll call sooner so we can reserve one of the two sites with an eagle’s-eye view of the bald eagle nest.