Make it to Moosehead
From fishing to camping, kayaking to rafting, there are so many ways to enjoy the Moosehead Lake Region of north-central Maine that it would take an entire summer to sample them all. We tried to do it in three days!
Text & Photography by Tom Richardson
Let it be said that the crew of New England Boating TV knows how to have a good time at work. It would be hard not to, given the subject matter, but our action-packed, three-day shoot in the Moosehead Lake Region in September 2015 was over the top, even by our standards. Allow me to set the stage.
The sun was dipping behind the autumn-tinged hills west of Maine’s largest lake when we pulled up to the Greenville Inn with our Pursuit C260 center console and a Bass Tracker 190 aluminum skiff in tow. Occupying a grand Victorian home overlooking the lower lake’s East Cove and within easy walking distance of downtown Greenville, the largest town on the lake, the inn proved an ideal base of operations for our various excursions, both on and off the water.
Greenville itself has served as the gateway to the Moosehead Region since the mid-1800s. In 1857, transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau embarked from the town on a summer-long paddling and hiking sojourn that he later documented in his book, The Maine Woods. Today, Greenville remains the perfect place to get one’s bearings and stock up on supplies before hitting the water or venturing into the surrounding wilderness.
Casting About the Kennebec
Helping the cause is Northwoods Outfitters, the one-stop shop for any and all outdoors activities in the region. From moose-watching to white-water rafting to ATV rentals, owner Mike Boutin and his staff can make it happen—as they did in our case, starting with a fly-fishing excursion on the Kennebec River.
The mighty Kennebec, once a critical conduit for logs harvested from Maine’s interior, begins its 170-mile journey from Moosehead Lake to the Atlantic just west of Greenville. That’s where we met guide Matt Levine, who launched his fiberglass Hyde drift boat a quarter-mile below the East Outlet Dam. This stretch of the upper Kennebec produces excellent salmon and brook trout fishing, particularly in the fall, when the adult fish gather below the lake to spawn.
The entire Moosehead Region is duly famous for its river fishing, and names such as the Penobscot, Roach, Moose and Kennebec resonate with fly fishermen who seek native trout and salmon in an unforgettable setting. Spring and fall typically offer the best action, especially for those who prefer to cast dry flies, but it’s still possible to scratch out a decent fish or two during the height of summer if you put in your time. The upper reaches of the Penobscot’s West Branch continue to produce well all summer, given that it’s fed by cold water released from the bottom of Lake Chesuncook. No matter what the fishing is like, however, the riparian scenery never fails to disappoint!
After expertly positioning the skiff mid-river and handing my co-host Parker Kelley and me a pair of five-weight fly rods, Matt instructed us to cast streamers and caddis emerger patterns to the seams and pockets on either side of boat. Given the unseasonably warm conditions New England experienced last fall, the fish were still sluggish; however, I managed to land a small landlocked salmon for the camera before we had to haul anchor and head for our next location—Kelly’s Landing restaurant in nearby Greenville Junction.
Kelly’s & Kate
One of just two dock-and-dines on Moosehead, the casual Kelly’s serves a variety of dishes, including “endless” fried haddock, burgers, ribs, salads and an award-winning seafood chowder. Best of all, it has a long dock where boaters can tie up while they grab a bite to eat or enjoy a cocktail on the deck.
While we filmed the dining segment, the historic steamboat Katahdin passed by the restaurant, sparking a vociferous greeting by the Kelly’s wait staff. Known affectionately as “Kate,” the Katahdin—named for Maine’s tallest mountain—was originally used on log drives and to ferry guests to and from the celebrated Kineo Hotel in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After decades of disrepair, the venerable wooden vessel was fully restored in 1993, and now hosts tours of the lake and special functions from her berth at the Maine Maritime Museum in downtown Greenville.
Waters Big & Small
After lunch, we hitched up our boats and headed for the Moose River in Rockwood, on Moosehead’s western shore. Waiting to greet us was Mark Gilbert Jr., a third-generation Moosehead boater and the Sales Manager for Moosehead Marina, which offers transient slips, a launch ramp and a service facility. The marina’s convenient location at the midpoint of the lake gives customers the option of running north into North Bay, south towards Greenville or east to Spencer and Lily bays.
Wasting little time, we launched our boats and idled down the Moose River and into the central portion of the lake for a brief orientation. Along the way, Gilbert explained that Moosehead’s navigational system is based on the red and green buoys familiar to saltwater mariners, and that most hazards are well marked. For those new to the lake, Navionics offers a detailed digital chart of Moosehead, while Fishing Hot Spots sells an excellent print version, available online.
Any concerns about our 26-foot, ocean-bred center console being out of place were erased once we entered open water. Some 40 miles long by 10 miles wide, with an average depth of 55 feet, Moosehead is plenty deep and wide enough for big boats, and it demands respect. When strong winds blow up out of the north and south, big seas are possible, and there is no Coast Guard to rely on for help. Close monitoring of the weather is recommended, especially if traveling in a small boat, kayak or canoe.
That said, Moosehead’s many islands and coves provide good protection in most conditions, along with myriad sheltered places to pursue watersports activities, fish or go ashore for a picnic or a swim. Kayaking, canoeing and paddleboarding can be enjoyed throughout the lake, but of particular interest is the network of small islands and shallow coves comprising Lily Bay, on the eastern side of Moosehead. Many of the islands are uninhabited, and some feature course-sand beaches perfect for beaching a small craft or taking a swim. This is also a good area to encounter feeding moose, especially at dawn and dusk.
As we neared the end of our brief boat tour, Gilbert had a surprise for us. Taking the helm of the Pursuit, he brought us at full throttle to a deep cove on the southeastern side of Mount Kineo—a massive chunk of rock that rises 700 feet from the center of the lake. Kineo is the country’s largest known mass of rhyolite, a volcanic stone used by Native American tribes to craft arrowheads, hatchet heads and chisels. In the late 1800s, a grand hotel and a colony of Victorian summer homes built by lumber and railroad barons occupied the foot of the mountain, which now shelters a magnificent, 18-hole public golf course and a lodge, both accessible by boat (shuttle service is available from Rockwood). Private-boaters interested in climbing Kineo can tie up to the landing on the southwestern side of the mountain and make the easy hike to its summit for panoramic views of the lake and surrounding countryside.
The view of Kineo from the water is equally impressive. The mountain’s southeast face rises abruptly from 75 feet of water, allowing boaters to cruise within a few feet of its base. Just a few hundred feet from shore, the depth drops to over 200 feet. I could only imagine the massive lake trout that might lurk in such a hole!
Lakers & Landlocks
Indeed, Moosehead is famous for its lakers, also called “togue,” and specimens up to 29 pounds have been taken from its mysterious depths. Landlocked salmon also cruise the lake, typically preying on schools of smelt. In spring, salmon can be taken near the surface on spoons and flies, but move deeper once the water warms. During summer and fall, most trout and salmon are caught on slow-trolled leadcore line or downrigger systems, requiring the use of a good depthsounder and chart plotter. Local guides can help those who need a leg up on the proper technique.
Moosehead also boasts a population of smallmouth bass, which hold near the lake’s shallower ledges, rock piles, drop-offs and dock pilings. In summer, they can be taken on soft-plastic worms, spoons, shiners and jigs fished near structure. If you simply want to catch some panfish with the kids, break out the bobber-fishing gear and soak some worms in the shallow, protected coves for perch, bluegills, sunfish, chub and pickerel.
Sadly, we didn’t have time to fish the lake, as we had a special segment to film that evening. With the sun sinking fast, we dropped Gilbert at his marina, loaded our boats with camping gear and set a course for nearby Farm Island, a 980-acre state wildlife preserve just north of the Moose River. The island features hiking trails and two lakeside campsites with picnic tables, fire rings and a nearby latrine. Best of all, the sites are accessible only by boat and available at no cost on a first-come, first-served basis. Similar wilderness sites are located on Sugar Island, Moose Island and the northern part of the lakeshore.
The NEBO TV crew has camped together once before, but this experience was unique from the start. Shortly after assembling our tents and stoking the campfire for a steak-and-skillet-fries feast, the setting sun suddenly dropped below the ceiling of low clouds to bathe the eastern shore and Mount Kineo in magical golden light. It was a surreal experience, but one that’s far from unusual in this part of New England.
The next morning we were up at dawn, as we had another important date we couldn’t afford to miss. After a calorie-packed breakfast of corned beef hash, eggs and bacon (required camping cuisine, in my opinion) washed down with a heavy dose of potent coffee, we broke camp, cruised back to the Moosehead Marina and piled into the crew’s GMC Sierra Denali for a 30-minute drive south to the headquarters of Moxie Outdoors Adventures.
Upon arrival we were promptly outfitted with the wetsuits, helmets, PFDs and paddles we would need for a whitewater rafting adventure on the Kennebec River then boarded a retired school bus for a bumpy ride to our put-in spot below the Harris Station Dam, at the southern end of Indian Pond. Along the way, veteran guide Eric Sherman informed us that our trip happened to coincide with a federally required “release day.” That’s when dam officials test the turbines by releasing a super-high volume of water, which meant that the rapids we were about to encounter would be even bigger than normal. While Sherman and his fellow guides were visibly stoked about this development, Parker and I were beginning to have second thoughts.
But there was no turning back now, so off we went on a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through a couple of Class III rapids and a Class V known as “Big Mama”—the latter a 20-foot-tall standing wall of water that swallowed our raft. Along the way we stopped to dunk our heads below an icy waterfall and also had the opportunity to get out of tvvhe raft and float along in the river.
The Moosehead Region is a popular destination for whitewater rafting, and several outfits run trips on the Kennebec, the Dead and the Penobscot. These range from “soft” adventures suitable for kids to full-day, white-knuckle Class V rides. Either way, river rafting is something everyone should experience at least once.
That night we returned to our comfortable digs at the Greenville Inn, grateful for a warm shower and a soft bed—if only for a few hours. We were up again before dawn, ready for a moose safari with guide Steve Sullivan, who drove us to a remote pond in search of Maine’s signature ungulate.
Mist from the warming water swirled and eddied around us as we launched a set of canoes and paddled silently through shallow coves filled with aquatic moose forage. All eyes, ears and cameras were tuned to the dark forest of pine and spruce, from which issued the occasional and tantalizing snap of a tree branch. The table was set, breakfast was served, but the guest of honor had apparently chosen to dine elsewhere.
Two hours later we returned to our put-in spot, ultimately moose-less after several hours of waiting for one of the animals to emerge from the woods. Yet the morning’s efforts to capture Maine wildlife on film hadn’t been squandered, as a family of photogenic loons graciously allowed us to film them while they dove for breakfast, preened for the camera and issued haunting calls as if on cue. At least one of the state’s iconic critters had delivered, but so had the region as a whole—even if we had only managed to sample a small part of its many natural wonders and activities.
By the way, you can watch the Moosehead Region episode, as well as the other shows we filmed last season, by visiting NewEnglandBoating.com and clicking on the “TV” tab. Hopefully, it will inspire you to plan a road trip of your own to this beautiful part of New England!
Who says you can’t explore the great outdoors in comfort? Certainly not the crew of New England Boating TV, who were treated to great service, delicious meals and first-rate accommodations at the Greenville Inn while filming the Moosehead Region episode.
Owned and operated since 2003 by Terry and Jeffrey Johannemann, the inn is the former residence of lumber baron William Shaw, who initiated construction in 1890. Today, the beautifully furnished inn features comfortable, well-appointed suites in the main house, as well as accommodations in the carriage house and several cottages, all within walking distance of the Greenville waterfront. Guests can relax on the inn’s sweeping porch overlooking East Cove while they enjoy a cocktail or glass of wine.
The inn also features fine dining and a varied and delicious breakfast buffet (we can vouch for the quality of Jeff Johannemann’s homemade pancakes), and its friendly staff can help arrange activities in and around the lake, including moose-watching, fishing, float plane and boating trips.
Contact the Greenville Inn at (888) 695-6000.
— Tom Richardson