The Onawa railroad trestle towers above Onawa Lake, as seen from Ship Pond Stream at the outlet of the lake. Christine Wolfe photo

If you like your boulders big and your scenery large then we have a place for you: Onawa Lake, 10 miles southeast of Greenville in Piscataquis County. At 1,200 acres, and with 15 miles of shoreline to explore, a whole day of poking about awaits. Paddlers should be proficient in open water travel, and confident in windy conditions.

Onawa is nestled in a forested basin between mountains. Borestone to the west changes appearance dramatically as you glide up the lake. At the boat launch, it is a cliff-scarred pyramid rising straight up from the water. As you pass by it to the north, it becomes much broader, more like a beehive.

To the east sits the Barren-Chairback ridgeline, traversed by the Appalachian Trail on its winding journey toward Katahdin. The conspicuous ledges of Barren Mountain will be in your sight all day. They are mesmerizing. A vast talus slope at the base of the tortured layers of exposed vertical cliffs gives a snapshot testimony to three phenomena at work over the ages: uplifting plate tectonics and volcanic forces millions of years ago, glacial advance and retreat thousands of years ago, and the annual freeze and thaw of the seasons.   

Midway along the ridgeline, you will see the faint outline of the fire tower on 2,670-foot Barren Mountain. If you have hiked along that ridgeline, you well remember the astounding view down to Onawa, with its tiny granite-ringed islets dotting the shimmering expanse of blue.  

Pickerelweed leaves among a large bed of water lilies on Onawa Lake in Elliotsville. Christine Wolfe photo

We enjoyed six hours of exploring along the shoreline of the lake, first heading up the lake toward Barren Ledges, and then south toward the outlet of the lake, Ship Pond Stream. A brisk breeze slowed progress, but we hugged the cedar-lined shoreline and kept at it. There were enough protective points of land to allow us to mitigate the wind much of the time. The northern marshes were flush with the purple flower stalks of pickerelweed, and some of the largest clusters of white arrowhead flowers we have ever seen.

We turned around and headed south with the wind. Just east of the boat launch, we spied the jaw-dropping Onawa trestle. At 1,230 feet long and 130 feet high, it is the longest and highest railroad trestle in Maine. We paddled down to the outlet, landed, and followed an ATV trail up under the trestle. The original wooden trestle was built in 1887. Today’s trestle was constructed in 1931, using cement buttresses.

If you have limited time, consider confining your exploration to Duck Cove, a protected bay on the eastern side of the lake. We spent a couple of hours drifting about, carefully negotiating through a maze of boulders with fantastic shapes. Our imaginations ran wild. That one is a wolf, that rock is a polar bear. Some rocks were grotesquely pock-marked, others perfectly split in two like a halved loaf of bread.  

A snapping turtle sunbathes on a large boulder in Duck Cove. Christine Wolfe photo

As we approached a large boulder, we spied a snapping turtle asleep in the sun 2 feet above the water. As we snapped away with our telephoto lens, it woke up and pulled its head back into the protection of its shell, all the while keeping its eyes focused on us. Wood ducks flushed up out of the pickerelweed as we pushed further back into the cove. A river otter appeared a few feet away, poking its head straight up like a periscope. Cumulous cloud shadows danced along the flanks of Barren Mountain. It was hard to take it all in, with so much happening at once both near and far.

There are no sand beaches on the lake, and only a few cobble slices of shoreline to land on. However, the water is shallow along the shoreline and there are enough flat boulders and little rocky nooks to pull up onto. We enjoyed a couple of delightful swims in the clear, warm water of Duck Cove. While drying off in the soothing afternoon sun, we heard a train whistle to the west and excitedly got the binoculars out to follow the progress of a train going over the trestle. Four locomotives appeared, slowly coaxing along a seemingly endless line of cars.  

Consult the DeLorme Maine Atlas and Gazetteer (map #41) for help in getting to the boat launch on the gravel Onawa Road east of the Elliotsville Road out of Monson.

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.   Contact: [email protected]

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