Black flies be damned—we were going to Rangeley! And while the nefarious insects were much in evidence (as is the norm from late May through mid-June), they didn’t ruin the outdoor fun, which started with a fly-fishing trip hosted by guide Mona Brewer. Cameraman AJ Derosa and I met Mona on the famed Kennebago River, home to a population of native brook trout. Mona, a longtime angler who also gives fly-fishing lessons, is continuing the tradition of women fishing guides in the Rangeley Region, a legacy established by Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby in the late 1800’s.
We fished three different sections of the river, using both dry flies and streamers, yet only managed a few very small brookies. Mona surmised that many of the larger fish were still feeding in the lakes, where they spend the winter and early spring before moving into the rivers. Whatever the case, we encountered no samples of the large trout and landlocked salmon that have made the Rangeley area a popular sporting destination for almost two centuries.
Leaving the river behind, we headed to Saddleback Mountain Ski Resort, which recently reopened after a five-year hiatus. Upon our arrival, Marketing Manager Molly Shaw and Mountain Ops Manager Jared Emerson gave us a tour of the newly created mountain bike trails on the lower mountain.
Saddleback also rents bikes and gear to riders of all ages, and will soon offer lift service. In addition to its hiking trails, mountain biking is one way the resort is attempting to attract visitors year-round. Adding to the draw is Saddleback’s restaurant and pub, where we toasted to our trail ride.
After leaving mountain, we checked in at The Rangeley Inn & Tavern in downtown Rangeley. This sprawling historic inn retains the look and charm of Rangeley’s heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when “rusticators” would spend entire summers in the region to escape the sweltering urban centers. The amenities have since been upgraded, of course, and the inn offers a wide range of well-appointed rooms and suites, including many overlooking Haley Pond. The inn is also convenient to the downtown shops and restaurants, and a short drive from the local lakes, woods, and mountains.
With late afternoon upon us, we headed down the street to Ecopelagicon, where we met with longtime owner Linda Dexter for a paddling trip on Haley Pond. Joining us was Seth Laliberte, who along with his wife, Michelle, were just three days away from completing the purchase of the company. Ecopelagicon offers canoe, kayak, pedalboat, and SUP rentals, as well as guided trips and lessons. Inside the store, you’ll find a variety of outdoor-related books, guides, maps, gear, clothing, and other products.
After climbing into our ‘yaks, we headed across the pond to a picnic area and trail system owned by the Maine Forestry Museum. Paddlers are welcome to stop here to stretch their legs and have a snack, and can follow the trail leading to the museum (we plan to visit on our next trip to Rangeley). Haley Pond is also home to one of the camping sites along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, which stretches 740 miles and follows water routes used by Native Americans for trade and seasonal migration.
Having worked up an appetite during our paddle, AJ and I headed to Parkside & Main, a local restaurant offering a wide variety of dishes and craft brews. We sat on the deck overlooking Rangeley Town Cove Park and the northeast corner of Rangeley Lake, and enjoyed a meal of fish tacos and coconut shrimp, washed down with a rare Ghost in the Machine hazy IPA from Louisiana.
The next morning we were up early to meet local wildlife photographer Nick Leadley on one of the backroads that wind through the woods of Rangeley. After parking, we walked along the narrow dirt track, Nick shouldering a camera equipped with a 600mm lens and giant flash unit. As we walked, Nick scanned the trees for birds. He explained that this area was part of an important flyway for migrants such as warblers, and usually offered good opportunities for sighting a variety of species.
We ended up in a small clearing surrounded by pines, hackmatack and various deciduous trees, in close proximity to a brush-covered wetland. Around us we heard the calls of several different species, including a northern parula and a magnolia warbler, both of which remain tantalizingly hidden from sight. Eventually, Nick was able to zero in on a yellow-rumped warbler and a red-breasted nuthatch, making for a successful outing nonetheless. It was fascinating to see how Nick combines hunting techniques with knowledge of bird habitat and behavior to get his amazing shots, and we learned a lot during the few hours we spent with him in the field.
Our next stop was Rangeley Lake State Park and a trip back in time, as this was where I had experienced my first tent-camping trip at the tender age of five. The park hasn’t changed that much over the ensuing half-century. We were treated to a tour by newly appointed park manager Scott Bevine, who showed us around the campground, which features tent and RV sites on Rangeley’s southern shore. The park also has a boat launch and slips, as well a swimming and picnic area, for both day-users and campers.
Throughout our stay in Rangeley, virtually everyone we met had encouraged us to visit the Outdoor Heritage Museum in Oquossoc Village, and so we did, thanks to Executive Director Michelle Landry, who graciously accommodated our last-minute request. The museum contains a remarkably large and varied collection of exhibits and artifacts relating to the Rangeley Region’s past, including a collection of Paleo-Indian stone tools, an original fur-trapper’s cabin, a birchbark canoe, early skiing equipment, and, of course, plenty of mounted fish to mock our attempts to catch one.
A large section of the museum is devoted to Rangeley’s sporting past, which began in the early to mid-1800s as word of the region’s enormous brook trout spread. Soon, sporting camps and inns were welcoming avid anglers and hunters from all over the eastern U.S. and Europe. Local legends such as Herb Welch, Carrie Stevens, Ed Grant, and Fly Rod Crosby are well represented, and the museum even contains the world’s largest collection of streamer flies tied by Stevens. Among her many creations is the legendary Grey Ghost, a smelt imitation that remains effective to this day. I regretted not trying one the day before on the Kennebago.
Our museum visit concluded, AJ and I parted ways and began the long drive back to our respective homes, with visions of giant brook trout swimming in our heads and only a few black fly bites to show for our outdoor adventures in the Rangeley area.