As much as I love ocean kayaking and the ever-changing face of the waters along the coast of Maine, this is the time of year when I’ll head to a pristine pond or two, usually up in the western mountains, to catch the first fall colors as they paint the mixed forest hillsides.
Last week such a trip took me to three tiny, interconnected ponds for what turned out to be one of the most pleasant paddles of the summer, as well as a chance to wet a fly in search of the elusive brookies that populate so many of Maine’s remote bodies of water.
As I usually do when combining a paddle on placid inland waters with a chance to cast for trout, I’ll pop into my wife’s comfortable little Old Town Dirigo 12 as the perfect platform for a fun day on the water.
That proved to be an especially good choice on my recent trip; some brief portages over and around some accumulated brush and a beaver family’s attempt to start some dam construction were required to get to all three of the ponds I’d selected.
Known as the Sandy River Ponds, a short distance above Madrid and below Rangeley on Route 4 in Sandy River Plantation, the middle of the three ponds is accessible via a well-marked launch site and parking area, only a few minutes north of Smalls Falls and just beyond the Appalachian Trail crossing.
It’s a carry-in launch site only, and requires a trek of about 100 feet to the shore, but the little effort is well worth it.
The middle pond, about 70 acres, is the largest and deepest at nearly 60 feet at its deepest point, providing good cold-water habitat for trout. It’s open to fishing all summer, with no live bait allowed.
It’s a short paddle from the launch site to the north end of the pond, then an easy maneuver, with a little dragging up the short connector between the middle and upper ponds. The upper pond totals only about 28 acres, and its maximum depth of 20 feet results in a habitat for chub, horn pout and the usual warm water suspects.
Heading south down the middle pond, you’ll pass under a bridge on Beech Hill Road into another narrow and shallow passage to the lower pond, again requiring an easy portage. The lower pond is less than 20 acres and a circumnavigation is possible in just a few minutes. A loon accompanied me around last week, adding to the unique charm.
The three ponds lie at an elevation of some 1,700 feet and are the headwaters for the 73.3-mile Sandy River as it cascades in its early stages on its rush down to Madrid, and then through Phillips, Strong, Farmington and New Sharon on its winding journey to its confluence with the Kennebec in Norridgewock.
There are lots of navigable stretches and launch sites along the river in Strong, Farmington and Farmington Falls that attract paddlers from early spring through foliage season.
Recent rains have filled the river, making a stop at Smalls Falls inevitable on my way home.
Due to the fact that the river is much wider above the area of the four cascading falls, there’s a powerful rush of water through the narrower and interconnected set of four falls that make up one of Maine’s most scenic rest stops.
A set of stairs leads to a bridge at the base of the falls where there’s a 20-foot wide circular pool into which the lower three-foot cascade drops. Above that, and viewable from the bridge, is a 14-foot horsetail at the base of which is a deeply carved oblong pool, inviting during the summer to swimmers jumping off the rocks above.
Further up there’s another 25-foot waterfall, above which is a 12-foot horsetail featuring a smoothly worn slide. A trail, guarded by a chain-link fence, allows visitors to ascend the entire four-fall spectacle and drink in the beauty of nature at its most powerful and unrestrained.
What a perfect way to spend an end-of-summer day in the great Maine outdoors.
John Christie is an author and year-round Maine explorer. He and his son, Josh, write in Outdoors about places to enjoy beauty only Maine has to offer. He can be contacted at: