Flagstaff Stories Afloat
Miles of water. Quirky stories. A submerged history of east villages, and today’s eagle nests and crisscrossing trails on land and water. We’ve made it to Flagstaff Lake.
Here’s just one of the Flagstaff Lake tales: in those just-before-before-the-United-States-was-born days of the 1770s, Benedict Arnold—the pre-traitor Arnold—rested his army here on the way to an attack on Quebec City. He ordered that a flagstaff be raised with the pre-U.S. flag, and the location name “Flagstaff” stuck.
On a weekend visit, accounts of the region’s curious history keep turning up. This is the Dead River’s lake. Along its 27-mile length, we’re told it’s possible to come across old building foundations, rusting tractors, and other remnants from the farms and mill villages that were flooded when the Dead River was dammed in 1950 to help control the flow of the Kennebec River downstream. Mostly undeveloped woods, the Bigelow Preserve and other conserved lands surround the riverbed-lake, along with the town of Eustis and village of Stratton (population 618). In this region of camps and cabins under tall trees, and A-frame-style chalets with canoe paddles nailed above doorways, some storefront windows in Stratton display collections of wildlife taxidermy beside vintage radios and bags of charcoal briquettes. Meanwhile, the shallow lake’s levels are raised and lowered by dam maneuvers, and a local fisherman advises that it’s important to know where the lake’s deepest spring holes and stretches are, otherwise you could run your boat aground, or turn the crank of your auger through several inches of ice in wintertime, only to strike the frozen dirt of the lake bottom.
For the troops and Arnold in 1775, it was a treacherous and deadly cold-weather trek up the Dead River in small wooden boats. What a difference a few centuries make. Today, a few minutes’ drive north of the Dead River Area Historical Society is a sign marking the Arnold Trail overlook where Route 27 crosses Flagstaff Lake at a boat landing and access point for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Flagstaff Lake is the only place where the canoe trail also intersects with the Appalachian Trail—and with the trailways of Maine Huts and Trails. With all the land and water routes converging here, this historic Revolutionary site has become an outdoorsy destination year-round.
The ski runs of Sugarloaf famously cap the mountain peaks of the surrounding Bigelow Range (with two peaks over 4,000 feet), but there’s no snow on the night we arrive in the lakeshore village of Stratton at the Coplin Dinner House, a popular restaurant inside a remodeled farmhouse. We’re just a few minutes’ drive from Sugarloaf Mountain Resort, where we’re staying overnight in a room of woodsy-handsome furnishings. In the warmth of midsummer, I sip a citrusy red sangria with fresh lemon balm. Sunset is still an hour or two away, and views through the windows are of green grass and clover. All the dining room tables are full, and at our seats in the bar, along with the sangria and an appetizer of crispy fried oysters, I taste the very orange yolk of the fresh farm egg that tops an asparagus salad with bacon dressing. The restaurant’s founders, Heidi Donovan and chef Tony Rossi, are the same pair who produced a series of Locavore Dinners at Sugarloaf for a few years, and their menus here also feature very local produce and meats whenever possible, including staff-raised pork, heirloom tomatoes, and fresh herbs from gardens outside.
We’re within a mile of Flagstaff Lake, the dimensions of which have grown dramatically since the midcentury dam completion. At 20,300 acres, Flagstaff is Maine’s largest man-made freshwater body. On maps, the lake appears almost serpentine, the long and lean outline resembling the shape of a lizard or of a hare leaping.
The floatplane at the Eustis dock is a 1961 Cessna 180, and the pilot is Richard “Crusher” Wilkinson, an avid Telemark skier, fisherman, hunter, and general outdoorsman who’s also vice president of mountain operations at Sugarloaf. “I’ve looked for a better place to live and I haven’t found it,” he says of Maine’s western mountains.
It was more than 34 years ago when Wilkinson first moved from New York to take a job at Sugarloaf making snow. Early on in those overnight shifts, the crew gave him his memorable nickname. He admits￼￼￼ that ever since, “even my mom calls me Crusher.”
As a pilot, Wilkinson flies often for personal touring and fishing trips and he describes his from-the-cockpit view of Flagstaff Lake as ever-changing—the shape of Flagstaff resembles “a typical New England lake” in some places, he says, and a river or a flooded river delta in others.
In Eustis we stop at Salmon Ledge Antiques, which is comprised of several buildings and rooms displaying everything from toboggan sleds to original art, to silver cups and platters (the kind you’d need to polish). Each time we finish looking in one room, owner Michael Bobish leads us to the next. I find a sunny-yellow, enamel- coated pot that was made in Holland to buy. He asks about our travels, and when we tell him we’ll be spending a night at the Flagstaff Hut that’s part of the Maine Huts and Trails, he looks surprised. That’s the most remote section of Flagstaff Lake, he tells us. “It sure is quiet over there. How will you get there?”
For the second night of our weekend, we’ll be hiking about two miles to our lakefront lodging from the Long Falls Dam Road trailhead on the eastern end of Flagstaff Lake. The Shore Trail leads first to a “boneyard” beach of bleached-wood tree trunks, driftwood, and stumps at the water’s edge. It’s a remarkable first open view from the shore, and then the narrow trail sticks very close to the shoreline for the rest of way. We pass mushrooms (lobster and oyster), hopping toads, and blueberry bushes. The lake’s edge is sometimes lined with a sandy bottom and beach. I see a kingfisher darting and hear a pair of loons out there somewhere. It’s a nice walk, with the bonus of the hut coming into view in the trees just when my backpack feels weighty. (Guests pack their own sleeping bags and clothing.) The hut is actually a roomy and comfortable eco-modern lodge, also known as a “boutique hostel.” Managed by Maine Huts and Trails, the Flagstaff Hut is part of an 80-mile system of four backcountry lodges that guests can only get to by hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, and mountain biking. (The organization has plans to expand to 12 such lodges along another 100 miles of trails.)
The young staff—men and women who all happen to have grown up in Maine—greet us warmly and answer the questions we have about the bunkhouse rooms, composting toilets, hot showers, and, of course, dinner. That will be served family- style and we’ll get to enjoy it with an actual family—we’ll be seated at a long table with the Hut’s only other guests that night, a family of four from Indianapolis. Because I ask, the hut crew also happily shows us the beer and wine selections—it’s a craft beer haven. I’ve stayed at the huts on a Nordic ski trip in the wintertime and it is something I’ve always remembered—how it feels practically unreal, like a mirage, to be out on a longer hike or ski and then come to a warm lodge in the woods with plenty of hearty food, beer, and wine.
We have time before the dinner bell to backtrack on the Shore Trail for a few minutes and follow a side trail that’s marked simply “Vista.” It soon leads to a rocky point where the boulder-sheltered water is calm and the bottom is sandy. From there, the view of the Bigelows and other peaks is grand across the wide, glimmering water of Flagstaff. I step in for a quick, cooling swim and I can taste the fresh, almost-sweet water.
Back at the lodge, it’s time to dig into a meal of pasta with spicy sausage, salad, and strawberry shortcake while the vacationing family tells us about hiking through bouts of rain and then sunny skies during their 11.5-mile, hut-to-hut hike from the Poplar Hut in Carrabassett Valley. (In summer, it’s also possible to pedal a bicycle between the huts or use a seasonal road shortcut for part of the trek.) I’m fascinated by their ambitious itinerary—first-timers to Maine on a summer adventure, they explain that they’ll also be hiking Mount Katahdin and exploring Acadia National Park. That night, the mother, father, and two kids are still playing board games in one of the den-style rooms of the lodge when I make my way to the bunk and unroll my sleeping bag.
After breakfast in the morning, we talk with hut staff about paddling options and decide to borrow one of the hut’s canoes to paddle out to an island near the Long Falls Dam. On the way, we see bald eagles in flight, but no other people. The only sign of habitation is the hum of a plane engine that I hear from somewhere above the treetops once we’ve hopped out to walk on the wooded island. It must be Crusher, I think.
Flagstaff Lake near the hut and the dam is what Eustis-based pontoon boat captain Jeff Hinman calls the “Big Lake” section because of the broad expanses of water. A chef and a Master Maine Guide, he explains that during the 18 years he and his wife ran a restaurant, he was always noticing the lake’s beautiful scenery outside—but then he had to return to the kitchen. Eventually, they sold the restaurant and opened a boat tour company, Flagstaff Lake Scenic Boat Tours.
These days, one of Hinman’s regular gigs is taking Sugarloaf guests on scenic lake tours. Many guests ask to see remnants of the flooded villages of Flagstaff and Dead River—including the J.P. Morgan Farm, Flagstaff Village, and the Round Barn Farm. As much as he can, Hinman says, he follows the deeper, original channel of the Dead River to cruise along for half-day and whole-day tours in his 22-foot-long boat that can carry a dozen passengers. And he’s always carefully watching lake levels—the lake is typically deepest in spring and then drawn down through the summer and early fall, potentially by two-dozen feet or more. (The upside of the lowering phenomenon is that when navigation becomes more limited, portions of the flooded towns become easier to see in the exposed lakebed.)
Hinman also offers the 50-mile round- trip ride to the Flagstaff Hut, ferrying guests there for lunch or an overnight stay. The guide talks of the fish, birds, and other wildlife he observes daily on the lake, and his company’s Facebook page often includes pictures he’s taken of eagles—on treetops, perched on huge boulders, and sometimes with fish in their talons. To Hinman, this manmade lake is truly a natural wonder.
Such local passion for the lake reminds me of a story we heard around the dinner table at the Flagstaff Hut. One of the crew from Maine Huts and Trails had caught up with the entourage who accompanied the ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek while he was dashing through the Bigelow Range this past summer. Jurek was on his way to a world-record speed for completing the nearly 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. While it was exciting to see the fast hiker, the crew noticed that the athlete had little time to see the splendor around him while he charged through on his quest. It’s possible, they said, that he never even saw Flagstaff Lake.
We’re all quiet just then around the Flagstaff Hut dinner table. The experience has an inherent lesson for travel and for life, I think. If you go too fast, you just might miss something wonderful.