Saturday, March 8, 2014
By MICHAEL PERRY
To celebrate the advent of summer, we headed up to explore the northern half of Cobbosseecontee Lake. This is a big lake, so monitor the weather forecast. At 9 miles long and with 5,543 acres of lake to explore, this is no place to be on a windy day or with the threat of thunderstorms.
Ladies Delight Lighthouse sits on a ledge outcropping a mile south of the Cobbosseecontee Lake launch site just off Route 202 in East Winthrop.
A boulder is reflected in Cobbosseecontee Lake near Hersey Island. The island is home to a huge osprey nest.
We put in at the boat launch facility on Turtle Run Road just off Route 202 in East Winthrop. The launch site is a mile west of Augusta Country Club and a hundred yards beyond the Lakeside Motel. To get to the boat launch, consult the DeLorme Maine Atlas and Gazetteer (Map #12).
Cobbossee is the only lake in Maine with an operational lighthouse on it. Ladies Delight Lighthouse is situated on a ledge outcropping a mile south of the launch site. At the turn of the century, Cobbossee was a popular summer vacation spot for wealthy folks living in the steamy cities to the south. The passenger boat trip around the perimeter of the lake and through the many islands took five hours to complete, and there were no sanitation facilities onboard for the women. You can imagine their absolute delight when they landed on the future lighthouse island to take care of any necessary business.
The light, constructed in 1908, is under the ownership and care of the Cobbosseecontee Yacht Club. Founded in 1904, the club is one of the oldest continually operating inland yacht clubs in the United States. It may look small from a distance, but up close this 25-foot high sentinel is very impressive. A sign is posted asking boaters not to land.
The lighthouse marks the northern edge of a jagged underwater reef that runs down the middle of the lake. The archipelago of islands and exposed ledges are the visible high points of that reef. Powerboat traffic can be significant on the weekends, but the bigger boats have to stay out in the deeper channels east and west of the reef. For canoeists and kayakers, it is like having a little bit of a Seattle-area San Juan Islands experience close to home.
Ospreys have made a big comeback on the lake. A few decades ago, there were none left on the lake. Check out the huge nest at the tip of Hersey Island east of the boat launch. It is one of the larger osprey nests we have seen in Maine. As we paddled through a protected cove in the middle of a maze of islands south of the light, we spied an osprey on a dead branch looking down at us. Up ahead on the far end of a branch near the top of a pine tree stood a blue heron also gazing down at us. The heron looked like an oversized Christmas tree ornament hastily placed at the top of an overwhelmed Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
Loons were everywhere. We often glided within 20 yards of them, and then they would effortlessly sink under the water and reappear a minute later, always where we were not looking. Near the lighthouse, six cormorants were crowded onto two pointed rocks. A mallard sat calmly at rest next to them on a flat rock. Two loons brought up the rear and completed the orchestra.
Low hills and ridges surround the lake. They lend the whole experience a northern Maine feel. Monks Hill and Allen Hill rise a few miles north of the lake, while a gray line of hills form a barrier down near Sabattus. There are many year-round homes and cottages along the shoreline, but there is much less development on the islands in the middle of North Bay.
Just south of Belle Island sits a striking 50-yard long ledge. The polished granite has "snooze in the sun" written all over it, and we did. When the water warms up, this just might be one of the best places to swim in the whole lake. You are surrounded by forested islands with only the occasional rustic cottage poking out of dense stands of white cedar along the shorelines. It was hard to believe there really was a big lake out there beyond our little cocoon of paradise.
We paddled over to the southwestern tip of Belle Island to see if we could find the ruins of the Belle Island Lighthouse that stood watch over the western side of the reef from 1916 to 1938 before it was heavily damaged by the 1938 hurricane. A jumble of cut stones at water's edge marked the spot.
Perry Island sits a half-mile southwest of Belle Island. It is the largest undeveloped island in the lake and one of the true gems of the many conservation projects undertaken by the Kennebec Land Trust since 1988. We landed on a small sandy pocket cove on the western side and enjoyed poking about the shadowy forest floor, with the sound of loon calls infiltrating the dense green canopy. We found a huge white birch 7 feet in circumference a few yards from our landing spot. Nearby are other beautiful KLT holdings: tiny Mosquito Island, four parcels on Horseshoe Island and the southern end of Hodgdon Island. Five hours of exploring were not nearly enough time to visit all the islands -- we will be back!
Michael Perry is the former director of the L.L.Bean Outdoor Discovery Schools, and founder of Dreams Unlimited, specializing in inspiring outdoor slide programs for civic groups, businesses and schools. He can be contacted at: