Escape to a Maine Retreat in the Middle of a Lake

Attean Lake Lodge near Jackman has been a respite for summer guests for almost 130 years.

Escape to a Maine Retreat in the Middle of a Lake

Attean Lake Lodge near Jackman has been a respite for summer guests for almost 130 years.

by Sandy Lang
Photography by Peter Frank Edwards

Issue: May 2022

It’s about a three-hour drive due north from Portland to the sandy landing where boats ferry guests to Attean Lake Lodge. This outpost location is just southwest of Jackman (population 782), and the province of Quebec is only a few miles farther north via U.S. Route 201, the historic trade route to and from Canada that’s earned Scenic Byway status. We follow the roadway’s S-curves, stopping for overlook views, until our turn onto an unpaved road that ends at the landing. Now the car will stay parked. Karl, the resident dock master, greets us at arrival and notes the water level is extra low because of the dry summer, so we’ll have to walk farther out from the parking area to catch the boat than in past years. Even better to ease into the scenery, I think, and notice the breeze has a coolness at the edges. As photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I wait on the dock and start to hear the hum of a boat engine approaching, I see nothing ahead but water, trees, and sky. Two teenagers hop off the pontoon boat to help with our bags, and during the several minutes’ ride to the island, one of them mentions it’s remarkable to meet guests who are new to the lodge. People come back every year, he says. He soon nods toward the sheltered shoreline of our destination, the 1890s-founded camp on 24-acre Birch Island in the middle of Attean Pond.

Dockhands at the arrival dock. All-inclusive stays at Attean Lake Lodge include lodging, meals, boat transport, and access to beaches, boats, and forest trails.

Trains and Tree Houses

The deckhands guide us across a sand beach and up a hill to the wood-shingled cabin we’ll have to ourselves for a few days. Named Cobble Hill, it’s elevated and has a pond-facing porch. Firewood is stacked underneath, and inside is a living area with a woodstove, a bedroom, and a full bath. There’s no electricity, but it’s outfitted with towels, blankets, comforters, oil lamps for light, and hot water in the shower. Plus, the large main lodge building that’s powered by solar electricity and generators is a short walk away on tree-shaded paths.

From the water, a view of some of the guest cottages at Attean Lake Lodge, perched on a 24-acre island on secluded Attean Pond near Jackman.

We start following those paths, past the lodge’s sunny garden of herbs and flowers and a vine of hops growing in a twirl along the porch rail. Near a different dock across the island we meet other guests, including a lawyer from southern Maine and couples from Rhode Island and Texas. Then two smiling people wave us up to the porch of their cabin, which is on an end-point bluff overlooking a westerly stretch of the lake. Basking in the warm evening sunshine for a few minutes, Randy and Amy MacDonald explain that, while they’re residents of upstate New York now, Randy previously owned a house with a view of Mount Katahdin and has connections with this region that span decades. In the 1990s Randy drove the last passenger train to stop at Attean on a railroad line that’s still on the opposite shore, and they’ve been returning to Attean Lake Lodge year after year for more than a dozen summers to canoe and hike. Their cabin is named Sunset Lodge and is connected by paths and boardwalks to a lineup of other classic cabins, from one-room layouts to larger. One, Westport, has a short catwalk upstairs and a roofline that frames the water view.

he long view of Attean Pond from a two-story cottage.

Soon it’s dinnertime, and we make our way back to the picnic area by the lodge that’s arranged with pots of flowers and gingham tablecloths. It’s the weekly barbecue night, and a fifth-generation lodge host from the Holden family, Barrett Holden, is at the grill cooking up burgers—beef or veggie, your choice—in a buffet line with plenty of sides, cold soft drinks, and beers. The hit of the dessert table is a just-baked, chewy bar of oatmeal, coconut, and chocolate chips. Working beside his parents, Brad and Andrea Holden, Barrett first started shuttling boats and delivering ice and firewood to cabins when he was ten years old. Barrett met his wife, Jocelyn “Josie” Holden, when she came to work here, and now the couple lives on-site seasonally with their two young children. Meanwhile, their ultra-fluffy Alaskan malamute named Dakota, the resident dog at the lodge, ambles around at dinnertime looking for scraps. “If you keep any food in your cabin, you better lock your door,” a guest jokes to a round of knowing laughs.

Before the night turns to full darkness, tables are cleared, and many guests head to the lodge to sit at couches and tables for more conversation or board games or to steal away with a book beside the massive stone fireplace.

Where’d You Get To?

By the next morning, over fruit bowls and omelets, we’re learn-ing more about the rhythms at Attean. Stays here are all-in-clusive, and there’s table service and menu choices, including selections for a boxed lunch (packed in a small cooler and a thermos) that’s ready at breakfast so guests can take it on an excursion to enjoy midday.

There’s a choose-your-adventure philosophy for how people spend their days—Attean Lake Lodge has evolved ever since its founding in 1893, when the focus was on hunting and fishing. By the 1980s the Holden family had transitioned it away from a sporting camp and rebuilt it as an island retreat where guests gather to explore and relax in nature and to meet old and new friends. (A devastating fire in the 1970s that burned the original lodge to the ground helped to spur the change.)

Some of our fellow guests from the 14 cabins arose early and are already returning from trail hikes before coffee. Directly after breakfast I hear the splash of paddles in the water and the buzz of outboard motors being started. Peter Frank and I stop at the desk for a one-page paper map and ideas for our own day’s excursion.

I’ve been eyeing Sally Mountain, directly across the water from our cabin porch, and Josie Holden suggests a hike to that peak for the incredible views back toward Attean Pond. She explains that we can continue on the ridge to a return route that ends farther down the pond at the wide, secluded Salmon Beach—the staff will shuttle our boat there while we’re hiking the three-mile trail. Taking a canoe is possible, but with the wind expected in the afternoon, she suggests an aluminum boat with a six-horse-power motor instead, and maybe a stop on Supper Island on the return.

We’re up for it all. Peter Frank and I dress in layers and get on our way in the boat in minutes. With fresh eyes, I look again at the remarkably undeveloped shoreline of Attean Pond, which has the benefit of state protections and conservation practices for its 40-plus islands and at least 500 feet of the shoreline. The overall effect is a feeling of sanctuary, the water encircled in green and cradled by mountains that rise to the north and west.

One of the payoff views looking back toward the island retreat from atop Sally Mountain. The secluded island lodging was founded in 1893 and has been operated by generations of the Holden family since 1905.

On the opposite shore, early in the ascending hike we come upon three ruffed grouse that slowly scatter along logs and step out of sight into the forest. Boulders with lichen and moss line the path at times, and the overlooks are fantastic. We look down at island-dotted Attean Pond in noontime sunlight, and it looks miniature. I think of the comfortable cabin I can’t see from here through the trees, and I collect a few pinecones and a few white, aster-like woodland flowers to take back for identification.

Salmon Beach is deep in warm, soft sand, and we find our boat with our lunches tucked under the seats. The wind is whipping by now, in the early afternoon, and we motor straight to tiny Supper Island. Atop a high ridge, we unwrap our sandwiches at a wooden table that’s carved with decades’ worth of “I was here” names, dates, and initials. Throughout lunch, we have the island and this part of the pond entirely to ourselves.

Later, back at the lodge, everyone’s asking each other where they’ve been since breakfast and what they’ve seen and done. The poetry here is in how people spend their days. One couple recounts their battle with wind on a 20-mile kayak trip. Talking of their arm soreness, they report “tired wings.” Another couple with a flush of windburn still on their faces say they’ve done a mix of canoeing and hiking to get to two smaller, even more remote ponds where the lodge keeps canoes and paddles stored and locked near the shore for just such excursions. “Quite a day of paddling!” the woman exclaims.

Remembering a day’s adventures, which included borrowing one of the aluminum boats for exploring and gathering a handful of alpine pearly everlasting flowers.

Tonight, I bet, many of us will sleep well. We light a fire in the cabin stove then only stir once, when our unlocked cabin door bursts open in the predawn hours. It isn’t Dakota the dog, but a wind blowing in—a little preview of fall in the air; the lodge will be closing up for the season in several weeks. The guest season here is June to mid-September.

The central lodge with a large stone fireplace and solar-generated electricity, is a gathering place for Attean Lake Lodge guests, especially in the evenings.

Together, Night Falls

I think back on that first evening when, in the final minutes of daylight, the water and sky were suddenly in showy splendor. The afternoon had been in mostly cloud-filtered daylight, then low beams of sunlight started breaking through after dinner. A color show across remote Attean Pond began, casting the trees and boats in gold-edged pinks, and then magenta and deep violet. A magnetic effect occurred. Several of the guests who’d been gathered at picnic tables for the barbecue dinner began walking toward the shore for a better view, myself included.

In the dimming light, I thought how we were all experiencing the electrifying array at once—a color-bursting summer nightfall. And those extraordinary few minutes happened to be visible from an island, in the middle of a pond, up near Jackman and the Canadian border. A gift of summertime, for sure.

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