Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Exploring Lake Umbagog – a Gem in the Great North Woods

Ominous dark clouds were overhead. White caps on Lake Umbagog were starting. The wind was gusting. Do John, Dundee and I continue paddling north three miles, or do we head back to our campsite?

We had left our Big Island remote camp two hours earlier paddling on the west shore of Lake Umbagog with the plan to reach the northern section of the eight mile long lake, and then return south to our campsite via the east shore. On the way we would explore the headwaters of the Androscoggin River and the terminus of the Magalloway River.

Fortunately, we heeded a fellow paddler’s storm warning, and decided to do a one-mile paddle across the lake to Tyler Point before heading south. Or did we delay our turnabout too long?

Planning the Trip

Weather was a major consideration for us. Originally we planned to do a ten-hour hike in Baxter Park, Maine to the terminus of the northern end of the Appalachian Trail. Two days of heavy weather were forecast, and we decided against this trek. Dundee suggested paddling Lake Umbagog. We went to and for the satellite views, and our consensus was the weather would be light scattered showers in the Lake Umbagog area.

The weather in this region can change rapidly, and the literature notes the lake can become very challenging in moderate to high winds.  Regardless, we decided it was a go!

Lake Umbagog

The Lake straddles the border between Maine and New Hampshire. Lake Umbagog is 7,850 acres with a north-south length close to eight miles. Using Google Earth ( we estimated at least 12 miles of paddling hugging the western shoreline to the northern terminus of the lake.  Shoreline campsites are operated by the State of NH. The web site to make reservations is

The Lake Umbagog State Park offers 34 remote campsites in isolated locations around the lake accessible only by boat. Wildlife viewing includes deer, moose, loons, eagles, osprey, and other varieties of birds.

For more information about canoeing and kayaking Lake Umbagog go to

To see a Lake Umbagog map with its 34 remote sites go to

The Trip – Day 1

We arrived at the Lake Umbagog State Park in early afternoon for three days of paddling and camping. Two park rangers welcomed us and were most accommodating. Upon our comment to them that we wanted to paddle the whole lake, and were seeking a remote site to help us accommodate our goal, they suggested campsite 4 on the north side of Big Island. Big Island is about three miles up lake from our put-in at the southern tip of the lake.

Our paddling crafts: John (Old Town Cayuga 110 kayak), Dundee (Grumman 15’ aluminum canoe) and I (Old Town Adventurer 139 kayak).

We paddled north near the western shore, and arrived at our campsite in about two hours. We set up our tents, including tarps over the camp table to protect us from rain. We started a fire in the fire ring, and relaxed to enjoy our earthly presence on this remote wilderness island.

Day 2

We awoke at 6 am. Chief Chef John made a delicious egg, bacon and cheese omelet wrapped tortillas. These, along with Dundee’s coffee, made a great start for the day. By 9 am we are paddling north along the western shore. The wind is calm and the water as smooth as glass.

Around 11 am we reach Black Island cove. The wind has begun to pick up and the lake became choppy with small waves forming. Fortunately, we heeded a camper’s advice to abandon our trip north and to head back to camp as the wind was expected to increase the already rough waters. We still wanted to see as much of the southern half of the lake as we could, and we felt we could return safely on the eastern side of the lake. We paddle across the lake to Tyler Point with the easterly wind and waves at our backs. As Dundee said, “With the wind at our backs we were surfing fast across the tips of the wave crests. Yes, it was fantastic!”

We went ashore at Tyler Point, and there we introduced ourselves to Leonard and Camille, two brothers raised in the area. Leonard suggested on our return paddle we stop at Tyler Cove for a ¼ mile hike to a natural flowing spring. The short hike was certainly worth our time, and as I scooped the delicious cold spring water into my mouth, I wondered if we had discovered the fountain of youth!

The wind was now gusting to cause us serious concern, and the waves were rolling and splashing such that I had visions of an ocean launching of our kayaks and canoes at high tide. We now needed to prove our mettle to get back to our Big Island campsite. The wind was blowing directly at us, and we needed to go perpendicular to it in order to move south along the eastern shoreline. We used whatever protection from the shore and trees we could fine to minimize our exposure to the strong winds and heavy rain now blowing across the lake from the west.

Dundee had the toughest paddle, as his aluminum canoe was like a sail in the wind. He had to paddle with his bow into the wind, at a near 90 degree angle in order to go parallel with the shoreline and not get swamped by the pounding waves. His paddling expertise and confidence were apparent as he gently moved along the shoreline.

John and I pointed our kayaks at a 45 degree angle into the western wind in order move south. We both wore kayak skirts, but some water did manage to leak into our kayaks. Our hope was we did not take too much water to avoid the need to go to shore to bail the kayaks, or worse case we would be swamped.  Bailing was nearly impossible in these winds and lake conditions, as constant paddling was needed to maintain both our direction and uprightness.

To quickly end the epic of our three hour return paddle journey, indeed we made it safely back to Big Island – a bit wet, but none-the-less without a "tip over". We had beaten the winds and white caps of Lake Umbagog.

We were drenched from the rain and water, and certainly cold, so once reaching our camp we immediately built a roaring campfire, changed into warm clothes, and boiled water for hot soup.

Never say, “I wish I had paddled Lake Umbagog”.

We would certainly return to Lake Umbagog for another paddle to explore the northern half of the Lake, including the headwaters of the Androscoggin River to the Errol Dam, and the terminus of Lake Magalloway from the Lake Umbagog Wildlife Refuge on Route 16.

  • Click slideshow to see all the pictures and videos for this trip.

  • Gift an inscribed copy of Steve’s latest book, Outdoor Enthusiast: Never say, “I wish I had…” for the upcoming holidays.  E-mail Steve at  Give Steve the number of copies and the inscription for each book.  The price is $34 per book, and this special price includes the cost of shipping.

Certainly, we never have to say, “I wish I had paddled Lake Umbagog."

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