Blazing our own path on the Sebago Lake Canoe Trail
Written by Donnie Mullen. Photography by Chris Pinchbeck.
My wife, Erin, and I recently sat down to plan our first canoe trip with our fourteen-month-old daughter, Ceri. I was conjuring a northern Maine adventure when Erin suggested the Sebago Lake region.
“How about a variation of my grandfather’s favorite route,” she said, and then winked. “We could call it the Sebago Lake Canoe Trail.” Her grandparents loved to travel up Sebago by powerboat, pass through the Songo Lock, and cruise around Long Lake.
I laughed, uncomfortable with the mingling of canoes and powerboats, but I had to admit, I liked the ring of the Sebago Lake Canoe Trail. After all, that is what serious paddlers do: they find routes and paddle them.
Before Ceri’s arrival, one summer might find us crossing Maine by canoe and another paddling the wilds of Quebec and Labrador. Since parenthood, our adventures had turned into local forays devoted to introducing our daughter to the outdoors. Why not dip back into the spirit of our hard core days by developing a one-of-a kind canoe route?
I further refined our itinerary with a call to a local guide, Craig Gerry, of Wild Wings Guide Service in Raymond. He suggested Crescent Lake and Panther Pond, which collectively empty into Sebago’s Jordan Bay, would lend a nice balance to the larger Sebago and Long lakes. He added that Raymond’s Neck, which separates Jordan Bay from Big Bay, was a popular destination for paddlers on Sebago. Our route was neatly falling into place.
Several years back, I would have insisted that we complete our route in a single human-powered trip, portaging and all. Now I accepted that half-day excursions (with vehicular-assisted portaging) were the family-friendly approach. I was a little slower to accept Erin’s prodding that we rent a motorboat for a segment of our journey.
“Ceri has only been in a canoe twice,” she reminded me. How could I forget our first two paddles, which lasted ten and fifteen minutes respectively and ended in tears?
We agreed to a compromise. We would paddle first and give Ceri a chance to adapt anew. If our mileage fell behind, we would throw a powerboat rental into the mix.
We had four days to cover forty-one miles.
Our first paddle began north of Sebago’s Jordan Bay at the Crescent Lake boat launch. Crescent is a lovely slender lake several miles long punctuated by mountains. The launch sits at the southernmost end of the lake within easy reach of the meandering Tenny River, a quiet, cove-filled connector to the northern end of Panther Pond. Twenty minutes into our paddle, we were sitting in our boat beneath an overhanging maple. Erin was nursing Ceri while I gazed at the sandy river bottom populated with algae and snails. The tiniest bass scooted between shadows. The wild flare of the Tenny helped to temper my frustration. We had spent more time packing the boat than paddling so far. My fatherly instinct told me that exposing Ceri to natural Maine was more important than distance covered, but having invested time in developing a route, I found myself slipping back into my old ways. After nursing, Ceri dipped her hand in the water while we gobbled lunch. “Brrr,” she said as we paddled on. Before long, we slid beneath a footbridge on the edge of Panther Pond where we found a series of camps and sand beaches. As we floated on the calm water, Ceri snuggled with a beach towel in the bow and fell asleep. Erin and I looked at each other wide-eyed; without a word, our paddles hit the water.
The following day, we found ourselves at the public boat launch in Raymond, which overlooks Jordan Bay. Second in size only to Moosehead Lake, Sebago Lake is indeed a massive water body known for its clear water, unmatched depth, and sand beaches. Marine clay along the shores of Sebago’s Jordan Bay and Lower Bay tells geologists that the ocean reached the vicinity of Sebago during the last ice age. Sebago achieved its current configuration between 13,000 and 14,000 years ago when a marine delta formed by the continental ice sheet created a natural barrier behind which the lake expanded. (Big Bay basin likely held a smaller lake previously.) In the 1820s, the shoreline was modified when the outlet was dammed, raising Sebago’s level between nine to twelve feet.
Today, the Sebago Lake region serves many roles. It is both a place to play and live as well as a source of hydropower and drinking water. Balancing these demands while maintaining water quality and wildlife habitat can be tricky. The Portland Water District draws from Sebago for drinking water for some two hundred thousand people. While the lake’s water quality is currently quite good (it’s one of the clearest lakes in Maine), Sebago is considered one of the most vulnerable drinking water sources in the Northeast due to development pressure, according to a 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.
We paddled along the eastern shore of Raymond Neck, hopping from cove to cove. Ceri’s interest in her rubber ducky and beach bucket quickly waned, which kept Erin focused on entertaining her and left me to battle the growing headwind. Loons calmly bobbed atop the swells, as I muscled along. Somehow we reached Frye’s Leap, northwest of the ferry to Frye Island, yet my shoulders were so sore I could hardly raise my head to look up at the towering granite cliff. As we floated below, Ceri became quite fascinated by a small cave at water level. At one point, she lunged toward the opening and teetered on the gunwales. “Go!” she shrieked. Quick as lightening, Erin pulled her back. Ceri went limp and wailed. It was an hour past her naptime and she had been stuck in the boat all morning. As we headed to shore for a break, I peered at the expanse of Big Bay that loomed to the west. Around the middle of Big Bay, Sebago plummets to a depth of 305 feet. I stayed within spitting distance of the shore for the remainder of the paddle.
On the third day, still tired from our Raymond Neck push, we launched from the day use ramp at Sebago Lake State Park determined to have a low-key morning exploring the nearby lagoon and the sandy spit that juts into the mouth of the Songo River. Located on the north shore of Big Bay, the state park, which encompasses 1,400 acres and wraps like a horseshoe around the mouth of the Songo River, is a destination unto itself. Once introduced to its beaches, do not be surprised if paddling turns secondary. The western side of the park, which includes Witches Cove and Naples beaches are reserved for campers; the east side, and the lengthy Songo Beach, are dedicated to day use. Radiating out into Sebago about half a mile from the spit is a delta created by glacial outwash — the centuries old sand and silt deposited here is estimated to be a hundred-feet deep! We put ashore on the spit amid half a dozen motorboats. While other beachgoers basked in the fleeting warmth, Ceri splashed in the shallow water. We only paddled a few miles all morning, but we laughed as a family more then we had during the other two days combined.
After Ceri’s nap, we found ourselves at a marina renting a pontoon boat. Signing the liability forms, I felt like Luke Skywalker succumbing to the dark side. As we stepped aboard the Aqua Patio, I recounted the number of times I had made fun of such vessels from the seat of my canoe. Erin hopped behind the wheel and we were soon coiling through a forest of maple and pine along the Songo River. I chased Ceri as she darted endlessly between bow and stern. We saw pontoon boats picnicking on sand bars, swimmers jumping from rope swings, and anglers plying the waters. Sebago is unique in being one of four lakes in Maine where landlocked salmon populations originally occurred. Each fall, the salmon return to the run and are collected by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for the nearby Casco hatchery. Sebago’s hatchery fish are used to stock fisheries throughout central and southern Maine and have been used as far afield as New Zealand and Argentina. The Crooked River, the Songo’s main tributary, is the principal spawning ground for Sebago’s wild run fish.
When traveling the Songo, channel markers are ever present. In 2010, the Maine Department of Conservation Navigational Aids teamed up with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to reduce the spread of milfoil along the Songo. Variable-leaf milfoil is an invasive aquatic plant that can form thick mats, impeding native plant growth, and degrading fish habitat. Each of the fifty-six buoys along the Songo mark clusters of milfoil. As fragmentation is milfoil’s primary means of dispersal, boaters can help reduce the spread of this aggressive plant by staying within the channel. Milfoil has not taken hold above the Songo Lock.
By the time we reached the Songo Lock, I had settled into the captain’s chair. Located at a shaded narrows along the Songo River, and just above the confluence with the Crooked River, the Songo Lock feels like a throwback to centuries past. Beginning in 1830, the Cumberland-Oxford Canal made travel possible from Portland Harbor to Harrison, courtesy of fifty miles of interconnected waterway. Today, the Songo Lock, the only functioning remnant of the canal, continues to allow boaters easy transit between Sebago and Long Lake. Heavy barn door-like wooden gates enclose the hundred-foot cement-walled lock chamber while lengthy push beams extend from atop each gate door to overhang worn footpaths. Generally, only a single side of the gate is opened that allows just enough room for the average pontoon boat to squeak through. It took me three tries to line the pontoon boat up for our entry, and even then I relied heavily on several hands fending off. In July and August, the lock averages ten to fifteen cycles an hour. Canoeists often portage the lock to save the three dollar per passage fee, although experiencing the lock from the perspective of your boat is worth the nominal cost.
Upstream of the lock, a high-banked Songo gives way to Brandy Pond. Brandy’s shoreline balloons out to the causeway at Naples, which separates the pond from Long Lake. Despite some citizen protest, the historic swing bridge in Naples is being replaced by a fixed span variety with a clearance of 12.5 feet. As a result, the Songo Queen II, a replica of a Mississippi River Paddle Wheeler docked in Naples, completed its final passage down to the Songo Lock in September of 2011.
On our final morning, I stood on the wharf in Naples admiring Long Lake. Twelve miles in length, and rarely over a mile in width replete with several campgrounds along its shore, Long Lake felt a bit more manageable for paddling when compared to the girth of Sebago.
Nonetheless, we left the canoe strapped to the truck and endeavored to journey on the Songo Queen II up the lake where we learned about the glacier wrought shoreline, gawked at a cabin once owned by Stephen King, and took in ledge points, towering pines, and distant views of Mount Washington.
That evening during our celebratory dinner at the Olde Mill Tavern in Harrison, I was gazing at the wood and canvas canoe hanging from the rafters when Erin tapped my shoulder. “Ceri’s completed her first canoe trail,” she said smiling as our daughter whacked the table with the house crayons.
“It’s true that she smashed her record for a single paddle,” I responded, vainly trying to keep the focus strictly on our paddling accomplishments. Then I recalled the cackle Ceri let out when Erin gunned the pontoon boat across Brandy Pond. Canoeist that I was, I had to admit maybe Grandpa was on to something.
If You Go
When paddling always wear a PFD, travel with a boating partner, and stick close to shore. Dangerous swells and high winds can develop on Sebago Lake with little notice. Be cautious!
Use Sebago Lake State Park as a base camp for trips into Sebago, up the Songo River, and into Brandy Pond and Long Lake. Campsites are set in an open pine forest and tightly knit. For more privacy, try the walk-in sites on the bluff near the amphitheater. The park also sports playgrounds, volleyball nets, and a series of hiking trails.
Red channel markers are kept to your right when traveling upstream on the Songo River. Across from the Songo Lock is a picnic area and boat launch. Use the launch to explore the Songo and the Crooked River, which is popular in the fall for landlocked salmon fishing.
Long Lake has several convenient access points. We based our day trips out of Naples. Other possibilities include: Bridgton, Harrison, or one of the campgrounds.