From the ledges atop Estey Mountain, there’s a sweet westerly view over Roaring Lake and the Orange River. Carey Kish photo

Estey Mountain is just a wooded bump on the horizon about a mile northwest of my position, which just so happens to be in a kayak on the Orange River in the middle of Reynolds Marsh in Whiting. After traveling up U.S. Route 1 – about 75 miles east of Ellsworth – and now east of Machias, there’s a trail to the summit of the little mountain and, with a GPS and a good map in hand, I’m determined to find the trailhead and make the hike.

The Orange River Conservation Area, a project of the Downeast Coastal Conservancy, protects over 700 acres and nine incredible miles of undeveloped shoreline along the Orange River, Little Lake and Roaring Lake. A dam operated by the Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife controls the flowage through the marsh, bog, swamp and river complex to maintain habitat for inland waterfowl and wading birds.

A hand-carry boat launch at Reynolds Marsh Overlook on Route 1 is one of two access points to the Orange River Water Trail. The other put-in is 1-1/2 miles east at Orange River Landing, site of an old steam-powered sawmill on Landing Road, which is a short distance from the highway via Playhouse Lane.

Paddle a half-mile and turn the corner behind the low ridge and you’ll have effectively left the hum of civilization behind, at least for a while. If you find yourself floating lazily along with your paddle across the bow of your boat rather than actively making strokes, well, that’s understandable. There’s a lot to absorb, after all, in this wonderfully wild, watery place.

DCC acquired the lands of the Orange River Conservation Area from 2003 to 2016. As one of the least developed river systems anywhere along the East Coast of the U.S., the ecological significance for its conservation was clear, let alone its recreational value as a water trail. The ducks and geese, herons and egrets, beavers and muskrat, they’re pretty happy, too, I’m sure. And as a paddler in the heart of it, well, I’m thrilled as well. You will be too.

The Orange River Conservation Area protects 700 acres and 9 miles of undeveloped shoreline along the Orange River in Whiting. Carey Kish photo

About a mile out from Reynolds Marsh Overlook, there’s a fork in the water trail. Steering the boat west, it’s another quarter-mile along the narrow channel before I spy a small, weathered sign on a tree, the start of Estey Mountain Trail. We pull in, haul the kayaks on shore, enjoy some snacks and swap sandals for hiking shoes.

Delicate beds of moss and lichen line the path through the aromatic spruce woods on the way to a series of ledges atop Estey Mountain. Looking west from the peak, there’s pretty Roaring Lake and the Orange River below, and beyond, a lonely section of narrow road, one red-roofed house and a white church steeple amid the vast sea of forest green. It would be easy to sit here and stare for a long while, sure, but there’s more river to explore.

The paddling is slow and sweet as we travel northeast along the placid Orange River. A picnic table on a point is a good place to stop and stretch the legs before carrying on to the remote environs of Little Lake and another picnic spot. It’s possible to explore further north for another mile or so, but on this fine, full day, it’s time to turn the boats around. At the takeout, the tally is 7 water miles, 1-1/2 miles on foot and countless smiles of satisfaction.

From the Orange River Water Trail in Reynolds Marsh, you can see the wooded bump of Estey Mountain ahead. Carey Kish photo

The Orange River Conservation Area is part of growing mosaic of conservation lands in the vicinity. On the west side of Reynolds Marsh is the new Reynolds Marsh-Orange River Wildlife Preserve. Part of the Cobscook Shores system of 14 park lands in the region being developed by the Butler Conservation Fund, the preserve features a hike and bike trail, hand-carry boat launch and picnic site. Just west of the Butler parcel is the Rocky Lake Preserve, 2,352 acres owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust that protects 6 miles of undeveloped shorefront on pristine Rocky Lake, Orange Lake and the Orange River and sports two remote water-access campsites and a short trail.

Late summer and fall is prime time for recreating in Downeast Maine, so grab your hiking and paddling gear and head for the wildlands of Whiting for some big time outdoor adventures.

Carey Kish of Mount Desert Island is the author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast and editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Follow Carey’s adventures on Facebook @CareyKish

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