By Victor Block
Digging our paddles into the shallow water, my son, Tom, and I steered our canoe around a sharp turn in the river. Suddenly we were face to face — or more accurately, face to knees — with a massive creature standing directly in our path. Another day, another moose.
Lifting its head to stare at us and with shoots of river greens cascading from its mouth, the huge animal seemed undisturbed. After several minutes our companion finished its meal, took a final — I thought disdainful — glance in our direction and ambled into the woods.
Welcome to the Rangeley Lakes region of Maine, nestled in the state's less-visited but very inviting western lakes and mountains region. The picture-book village of Rangeley is the "real" Maine, a town of about 1,100 residents that captures the quaint nostalgia of a Norman Rockwell painting. Single-story frame buildings along Main Street house the Lakeside Theater, aptly named Moose Alley bowling, and a smattering of shops and restaurants. No stoplight interrupts the sparse flow of traffic, much of it logging trucks or cars with a kayak or canoe strapped to the top.
This area of Maine is as much a lifestyle as a destination. Most folks pick up their mail at the tiny post office, where locals gather to exchange news and gossip in an outpouring of "heahs," "a-yups" and other Maine-speak.
Visitors have long been lured by the bounty and unspoiled beauty of western Maine. Abenaki Indians set up hunting and fishing camps along shorelines of the area's lakes and ponds. Names of some bodies of water — Cupsuptic, Umbagog and tongue-twisting Mooselookmeguntic — attest to the influence of Native Americans.
In 1796 an Englishman named James Rangeley purchased more than 30,000 acres in the area. When a town with his name was incorporated in 1855, it had 258 inhabitants.
Not long after that Rangeley began to gain a reputation as a fishing mecca for its abundance of brook trout and landlocked salmon. Fishermen from Boston, New York and farther away made the trek to the still-primitive destination, and hotels sprang up to accommodate them. Narrow-gauge rail lines brought sportsmen to the region, and steamboats transferred them to a half-dozen sprawling lodges that lined the shoreline of Rangeley Lake.
The Depression brought an end to the gilded age in Rangeley but not to its appeal as a year-round getaway destination with something-for-everyone variety. Golfers can choose between the Mingo Springs course in town, with dramatic lake and mountains views, and nearby Sugarloaf, which Golf Magazine has ranked among the 20 best public courses in the country.
Tennis courts are adjacent to the tiny Chamber of Commerce building near the town beach. Canoes, kayaks, sailboats and powerboats dot lakes and rivers. Hikers and mountain-bikers find challenge on roadways and trails that crisscross the area.
Fall attracts deer, bear, small game and bird hunters and provides Mother Nature with an opportunity to put on her spectacular annual Technicolor display of fiery foliage. In winter snowmobilers find more than 140 miles of groomed trails that interconnect with systems leading throughout Maine and into Canada. There's skiing at Saddleback Mountain on the outskirts of town as well as Sugarloaf Mountain, Maine's second-tallest peak.
When it comes to museums, Rangeley is no New York. But it makes up in atmosphere and charm what it might lack in number and size. The Rangeley Lakes Historical Society provides an introduction to the region with a variety of intriguing exhibits. They include guest registers, silverware and old photographs from the fine old hotels that once lined Rangeley Lake and artifacts from paddlewheel boats that transported guests to their accommodations. Also on display are more than 100 creations by Carrie Stevens, a milliner who used her hat-making skills to fashion what became world-famous fishing flies.
The Rangeley Lakes Region Logging Museum contains tree-cutting machinery with mysterious names — donkey engines, snubbing machines and skidders — that comprise an entire new vocabulary. Original oil paintings portray the logging process of the 1920s, and taped oral histories presented by loggers and their families describe life as it was then.
The area's colorful history is also kept alive at the Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum. Displays range from 10,000-year-old Paleo Native American artifacts and antique sporting equipment to original world-famous Rangeley Boats and numerous works of art.
The logical place to overnight, the Rangeley Inn, also turns interesting pages of the past. It opened in 1909, and numerous touches relate parts of the town's — and region's — history and story. The head of a moose and rearing body of a bear in the lobby represent some of the abundant wildlife that inhabits the surrounding woodlands. Antique furnishings scattered here and there contrast with the renovated, well-appointed guest rooms. The walls are covered with vintage photographs. Some depict the area's long-held reputation for outstanding freshwater fishing and the time when narrow-gauge railroad cars and steamboats made the journey to the rambling hotels that once lined the shoreline of Rangeley Lake.
The eclectic list of things to see and do in Rangeley is reason enough to consider visiting the area. The atmosphere of a way of life from the past attracts many people to come, and once they do, they always come back.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information call the Rangeley Chamber of Commerce at
207- 864-5571 or visit www.rangeleymaine.com.
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
The fall foliage alone is reason enough to visit Rangeley, Maine. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Halcombe/Dreamstime.com.