TopKayaker.Net's Guide To Kayak Destinations

Richardson Lakes Richardson Lakes of Maine's Northern Wilderness
By Tom & Athena Holtey - Helping Sit-on-top Kayakers gain confidence in extending their kayaking season.

INTRODUCTION: We never saw Loons gather in such numbers before; even after a summer working on "Golden Pond" (Squam Lake). But here in Maine's beautiful, quiet wilderness as many as 19 loons, pairs and adolesents, flocked, floated, and sang together throughout our glorious seven day Fall 2002 kayak expedition from Upper to Lower Richardson's Lake.

This is a haven for the sit-on-top kayaker. No firearms, jet skis, or ATV's allowed. This suited us just fine as last years enjoyment of Lake Umbagog was daily interuppted by morning hunting fire and evening retrieval of game with ATV's on it's back dirt roads; not to mention the coyote yelps scavengering up the remains of the day's kill by evening moonlight. Of course this made for an interesting adventure; the fall colors were also outstanding.

Although right next door, Richardson's Lake, was quite a pleasant different story. We took full advantage of the island campsites as on Umbagog, but this year conducted the tour more like a coastal trip. Three islands were charted for three legs of our quiet, remote 17 miles of lake paddling. We camped two nights at each stop, spending the second day exploring the waters. Everyother day provided us about a six mile paddle. This also gave our small group of three an oportunity to both pack and paddle each of our three different kayak models, loaded down as well as empty. SEE OUR FALL KAYAK REVIEWS. Here's Tom's detailed account with resources:

loonsRichardson Lakes

*Famous Turf & Water Trail Source
*Island Camping On Warm, Calm, Autumn Days
*Navigating S Curve Waters
*Winds At War: The Big Nor Easter...South Wester
*Escape At Dawn With A Quartering Sea

Famous Turf & Water Trail Source

Richardson LakesRichardson lakes are situated near the northern border of Maine and New Hampshire on the Maine side. The lakes, still referred to as "Upper" & "Lower," (No one ever blamed a New Englander for being too original) now stretch into one long lake having been joined in the early 1900s by the construction of a dam. The lands around the lake have the definitive wilderness feel of the north woods.

The Appalachian Trail tramps some scant miles from the water across the tops of the overlooking hills. Very few camps and summer cottages will be seen, mostly at the southern end of the lake. Where the water ends a dense forest begins, covering terra firma with a wooly growth. Some timber harvesting in the area is not evident due to restrictions on land use along the lakeshores.

While selecting the location and planning this trip I found that we have been loosely following the Northern Forest Canoe Trail for our annual fall trips. This trail starts in Old Forge, NY and ends at Fort Kent, ME. The "trail" traverses all types of environments, both rural and urban. It follows a course on waters that range from rapid rivers, both up and down current, to big lake crossings, and requires every possible paddling skill and discipline. We have been selecting the lake sections of the trail.

Our first annual trip and review at Lowes Lake, NY is not far from the starting point. Our second trip on Umbagog Lake, NH is directly followed by Richardson Lakes, via a long but well maintained portage trail. We had hiked that trail last year, and that is what had whetted our appetite for the waters beyond the put-in.

Richardson LakesRichardson is a long S curve lake, some 15 to 16 miles long. It is dotted with campsites both on islands and on the mainland. Winds generally blow from the northwest, and with all that in mind we planned to paddle from a put-in on the north tip to a take-out on the south tip of the lake, camping at a variety of sites along the way. Such a trip requires a "shuttle" or otherwise leave on car at the take-out and the other car at the put-in with some driving in between. That is when it dawned on me how remote and wild this place really is. The shuttle trip was sixty miles! After the initial shock and some careful planning we hammered out a plan to make it happen. We considered hiring an outfitter to handle the shuttle logistics, but in the end chose to drive ourselves, with two vehicles, each with roof racks. The drive time for the shuttle was only an hour and a half, one way, including a donut and bathroom brake, not so bad.

We like to do a fall trip for the colorful foliage, lack of bugs and crowds, and to really put our kayaks clothing and gear to the test. This trip can be done during the summer and spring as well. We have found the AMC Quite Water Canoe Guides to be indispensable references to the area. It is well worth starting your library of these books, one at a time, as you paddle the northeast region.

Island Camping On Warm, Calm, Autumn Days

Richardson LakesSunday, September 29
The first leg of our journey was quite easy. From the put-in to our first campsite, Big Beaver Island was only just over a mile. The hard part was making all the cargo fit into our kayaks. We did manage just barely, under scoring the need for paddlers, like hikers, to limit as much as possible the amount of gear for any given trip. A bundle of firewood was left behind on the beach for optional pick up later that evening. We like to bring a bit of wood because of our choice of predominantly island campsites. Suitable wood is often scarce, even on the mainland shores. While we cook on a gas stove, we do like to have a fire for fun and warmth in preexisting fire rings.

The campsites on Richardson Lakes are managed by South Arm Camp Ground. While the surrounding territory is largely quite wild, the campsites are a bit more civilized, all equipped with a designated fire ring of rocks, picnic table and out house. Our first camp at Big Beaver Island was very nice, although a bit rocky and rooted. Other sites on the island seem a bit softer, but ours had the best landing. The first two days on the lake and evenings in camp were very pleasant and mild, Temps in the 60s, mostly sunny, and 40s at night with sprinkles of rain. Large groups of loons cruised the calm water of the lake at dusk and their haunting calls filled the night air. We surmised that the young ones were pairing up for next springs breeding and that the whole flock was gathering to fly south before the ice comes.

Our group was somewhat small this year with a total of three. "The guys" have dominated most of our trips with few women along. This trip was two women, Athena and her friend from California, Terrie, and one man, myself. So that was a nice change of pace.

Monday, September 30
We explored the north end of the lake the second day and tried out the kayaks unloaded. The sun was out and weather was favorable for our little excursion. Other than a couple late season fishermen in their motorboats we had the lake to our self. Even the lone "camp" (more like a summer home) on an island, was quite and dark across the water.

Tuesday, October 1
The next day we broke camp and headed for Pine Island, our next campsite. For our Richardson Lake trip we planned to camp two nights each at three islands along the way. We liked camping more than one night at each camp. Moving along this way allows us to have a day of rest, fun or exploration, what ever suits our needs, and it takes the "military campaign" drudgery out of moving camp each day.

Richardson LakesWe like the island camp sites for the romance of it and to eliminate encounter with the bears and coyotes. In the northeast we do have black bears, somewhat small and not aggressive, but just as hungry, looking for and easy meal. Coyotes also live in the area as well, and not generally known as camp robbers we have become aware of their increasing boldness. Bear in mind, ;) that these animals can swim, and an island does not make it free of them. We take all the regular precautions like hanging the food bag in a tree, with out going to the extremes like one would do in grizzly country. Of the nights, and some afternoons, that we have left the food bag on the ground the mice and squirrels have robbed us and chewed holes in the dry bags. Why these arboreal animals leave a hanging bag alone I do not know.

As a matter of fact a hungry mother red squirrel broke into a large bag of trail mix on the picnic table, while we were camped on Big Beaver Island. She was very determined and searched our site diligently for any scrap she could find. Then we found out why she was so motivated. She had a nest of eight young ones! They were living in the top of a hollow birch tree located conveniently in our camp. The babies swarmed all over the tree top and adjacent branches, exploring and testing their bravery by venturing away from the nest and then turning around to return shortly, back to the security of home. There were so many of them, crawling all around that the tree seemed quite infested with them. They were very cute, and I believe the girls broke the wilderness rules and presented momma with some additional trail mix to supplement a working mother's income.

On the way from Big Beaver to Pine Island we explored Cranberry Cove. Just as it is named it is a typical northern bog environment, with cranberries, sphagnum moss, and tamarack trees. Wild life did not show it self but I would imagine plenty of moose and waterfowl frequent this place. A tiny island guards the shallow entrance to the cove, and on that tiny island is an equally tiny shack, no doubt someone's old time summer get away. Here we saw the only other paddlers on the lake for the whole trip, three women out for a day trip in their sit-in-side recreational kayaks.

Navigating S Curve Waters

Richardson LakesWe paddled down the western shore of the lake staying in the lee of a gusty southwest wind. The temperature was warm in the 70s and partly sunny. We took our lunch stop at the Half Moon Cove campsite situated on a peninsula with a commanding view of the lake. It is a really nice spot for camping. While this spot was exposed to the winds it did provide us with an excellent view to select our course for the crossing to Pine Island. Pine Island and near by Metallak did appear to stand out against the background of the shore behind and we confirmed the location with our topo map and compass. However after paddling in the lee of the west shore to our crossing point, the closer we got to the island the less and less it looked like an island, until we were quite convinced that we had some how bungled our navigation. Then after passing the island to the south a bit, it clearly stood out as the island it was, and our second campsite was found.

Richardson Lakes It turns out that the water level in the lake was so low that the two islands were joined to the mainland by a vast sandy beach and grassland that normally would be under water. Our topo map could not have shown us this variation in the water level. It had been a very dry summer in the northeast. I guess a chart would have shown us that the shallow water depth around the islands, but charts are simply not available for many inland lakes. We should have believed our navigational plan and not our eyes. If we had fog that day we would have never doubted ourselves.

The Beaches of Pine Island, particularly during the low water of 2002, are really spectacular. If the weather had been warm and sunny, or we had been there in the summer it would have been a great place to swim and sunbathe. Someone has even set up two poles for a volleyball net. Also had the wind been more cooperative and the rain not threatening I would have set up camp on the beach in the sand, instead of in the trees. As it turned out the skies did clear and the wind did slacken for a while, and we lay on the beach that evening to watch the stars. The Milky Way shone brightly, a shooting star and satellite was spotted. It remained warm that night while cloudy skies returned with sprinkles.

Richardson LakesWednesday, October 2
The next day we did some modest exploring, by boat and foot, around the "islands." Many moose tracks were discovered, but no moose were seen. A variety of hunting seasons are planned for this time of year, and I feel that this does keep the wildlife laying low. Of course the loons, in groups as large as 20, that were with us the entire trip, night and day, were to be seen. We also saw gulls, ducks and mergansers during the trip. Metallak Island has a cabin also managed by the South Arm Camp Ground. It has a nice screen porch, but was closed up tight for the winter. No doubt this would be a good place to stay during black fly season. The campsites here are better in some ways than those on Pine Island. There really was not much else of interest for us to explore, so we took it easy and largely had a day of rest. The weather still was treating us very well, temps in the 60s, southwest winds, mostly cloudy, sunnier in the afternoon, turning cooler at night with sprinkles.

Richardson LakesThursday, October 3
The next day came and it was time to move on to our last camp on Spirit Island. By now we had the art and science of breaking camp and loading the kayaks down pat. It also helped that we had eaten a significant amount of our food by then. Of course at the trips end we still had enough food to last a couple more days. How does this happen? Even with careful meal planning, on more trips than not we just have too much food. It just goes to show you can leave stuff behind and do well with out it.

Thursday was much cooler in the low 60s and cloudy. A fresh breeze from the north was blowing prompting us to layer up. Paddling went well with the winds helping us along. We passed through the area know as the Narrows, the place where Lower Richardson and Upper Richardson lakes "join." At this spot I saw what I had thought was water snake or some kind of Loch Ness monster swimming in the water. I dismissed it as a bit of driftwood. Then as I drew closer it hopped up and out of the water onto a pebbly beach and looked at me. It was a mink! Or it must have been a mink, because it did not have the heavy body of an otter and it retreated quickly into the woods when it saw me. I guess that it may have crossed the lake here from one side to the other, or it may have been out for a swim or to forage for an aquatic lunch.

Richardson LakesSpeaking of lunch we stopped at a campsite called Sand Banks for a bite and pit stop. The campsite was nice enough, kind of landscaped, with a good beach, but also had access to a good view on an eroding hilltop overlooking the lake. The day became milder, and the paddle to Spirit Island went well.

Spirit Island is a small island, not as small as nearby Hardscrabble Island, but small nonetheless. It has a beautiful, almost 360 degree view of the lake, and is surrounded by deep water. The shore was very rocky and a landing was not as easy as we had in previous camps. Not much room for a large group here, three was about right. The island is dominated by the bottom half of a huge pine tree, still living, top gone, split and cracked by what must have been a horrific lightning strike, or gale force wind. That was a sign of how exposed this island is to the weather. The afternoon and evening we arrived was calm and cold. Loons, on queue swam and dove around the island, just before dusk. It was sublime, with a southeast breeze just starting to blow. The night was largely uneventful, clear and cold.

Winds At War: The Big Nor Easter...South Wester

Richardson LakesFriday, October 4
We awoke to a strong southwest wind with white caps all across the lake, clear and cold in the 40s. This was our planned day to paddle west to Pond in the River and the portage trail back to Lake Umbagog that we had walked on last year. We waited a while to see what the weather would do, and the winds only grew stronger and increasing in gustiness. Clouds blanketed the sky and a gloomy atmosphere descended. We cancelled our plans and became resigned to be wind bound on this tiny island. If we had dry suits and Terrie was not a novice paddler we may have braved it out of some misguided macho madness, but we did not. This has happened to us before and to many paddlers. This is the reason why it is wise to plan in extra days on a trip for just this sort of event. It was too bad the wind had not come two days earlier when we were in the mood for a rest. The hardest part of the experience was the tiny island we were marooned on.

Richardson LakesWe fortified our camp with tarps for a windbreak and overhead for the threatening rain. It was hard to set up the shelter in the wind and the end result was not a pretty site. We ate and complained about the weather, hunkered down in our crude shelter. It was so windy that even a fire would not have offered much comfort; the heat would only be blown away by the wind, distributing sparks that would pose no threat, but only to a tent just down wind. Yes, the last bit of wood we had carried along was left behind, no doubt a boon to the next campers; as this island had been picked clear clean of any burnable wood.

Richardson LakesWe had considered our lack of a weather radio before our trip, almost stopping at a radio shack on the drive up to the lake. Our trusty VHF radios, with weather channel access, had finally given up, their batteries no longer able to hold a charge. Battery replacement is about $100 each. For a weeklong trip we were used to bringing two batteries each for our pair of radios. You can get a whole radio now for $100. I spent about $800 on these two. While I struggled with this dilemma, er... procrastinated, I failed to provide us with any means to receive forecasts, not even an FM radio. I planned to rely on my natural sense of weather reading; it had seemed to work for me so long ago, before I had the radios. I just did not know that a hurricane far to the south would be creating a "weather event" up here in the north woods. Things did not improve over night. Temperatures did rise to the 50s and showers fell in the early morning before the dawn.

Escape At Dawn With A Quartering Sea

Saturday, October 5
The night before we had planned to wake at dawn to check the weather and make a break for the take-out, as planned, come hell or high water. This was the last planned day of the trip, and we could not stand another day being wind bound on such a tiny island.

Richardson LakesI awoke before sun up to the same southeast wind blowing like heck. It was disheartening to say the least, but we had only three miles to go, right into the wind. We waited just a bit to see what would happen, and at 7 AM, while having our breakfast, the wind stopped. Not a leaf fluttered for 45 minutes then as if some atmospheric tug of war changed in its balance, a fresh breeze from the northwest started up, kicking white caps from the other direction. We took this as our queue to pack up and get on the water with the wind at our back.

The quartering sea from this weather pattern caused our kayaks to rock and surf. Much leaning and corrective strokes were needed for Athena and I who were paddling kayaks with out rudders. Terrie had a rudder and lead the way, straight as an arrow. In this wallowing motion and J leaning we got quite damp in the seats, fortunately we were well equipped with proper paddling attire and the water temperature was only 60 degrees, in fact for the duration of the trip. The sun came out and the air felt warm, about 60 degrees. When we arrived at the take-out we took abbreviated baths in the chilly water. Our car, left at the boat ramp six days prior was still there, unmolested, but appeared to have a mysterious paw print, a bear? We loaded up the van and headed off to the put-in, stopping at a country diner for civilized food along the way.

Richardson LakesEnjoying the lake like this - island to island - made us want to go back and do our other inland trips the same way. If we could only live so long! Even if we had the luxury of one trip a week that would only be 52 lakes a year; there are 800 lakes in New Hampshire alone! (The things you have time to calculate while paddling on a beautiful fall morning:)



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