By Victor Block
Steering our canoe around a turn in the river, my wife Fyllis and I suddenly were face-to-face — or, more accurately, face-to-knees — with a massive creature. Lifting its head, shoots of river greens cascading from its mouth, the huge moose stared at us as we stared back, then continued its meal. After several minutes, it took a final glance in our direction and ambled into the nearby woods, which were ablaze with fall color.
Welcome to the Rangeley Lakes region of Maine. Most people associate that state with its craggy coastline, and coastal towns. And there’s much to be said for them.
But for me, the “real” Maine lies in the less-visited western mountains, in places like the picture book village of Rangeley. That town of about 1,200 residents captures the quaint nostalgia of a Norman Rockwell painting.
This is an area with as many pickup trucks as passenger cars; where first-prize in a recent ladies’ auxiliary fund-raising was a shotgun, and my reward for winning another charitable lottery was 50 pounds of deer feed. These characteristics — some might say quirks — are among the region’s charms.
Single-story frame buildings line Main Street, housing a smattering of restaurants and shops. No stoplights interrupt the sparse flow of traffic. Visitors soon realize that this area of Maine is as much a lifestyle as a destination.
People long have been lured by the unspoiled beauty of Maine’s Rangeley Lakes region. Abenaki Indians set up hunting and fishing camps near the area’s 111 lakes and ponds. Names of lakes — like Cupsuptic, Umbagog and tongue-twisting Mooselookmeguntic — attest to the Native American influence.
In 1796, an Englishman named James Rangeley purchased over 30,000 acres of woodlands, paying 20 cents an acre. When a town was incorporated on the site in 1855, it had 258 inhabitants.
It was about then that Rangeley began to earn a reputation as a fishing mecca for its abundance of giant-size brook trout. Well-to-do anglers from Boston, New York and further away arrived by train, and steamboats carried them to several grand hotels along the Rangeley Lake shoreline.
The Depression brought an end to that Gilded Age, but not to Rangeley’s appeal as a year-round destination. That became evident when Sports Afield magazine not long ago included Rangeley in a round up of “50 Best Sports Towns” in the country. It praised outstanding fishing for trout as well as landlocked salmon, which had been introduced during the 1870s, canoeing and kayaking, animal watching and hiking.
Hikers take to the forests on trails that range from child-friendly to heart-pumping. When hiking, I always keep a lookout for moose, and sometimes am rewarded with sightings of those unlikely creatures. Big Bulls can weigh over a half ton, and sport a rack (antlers) spanning up to six feet. When seeking a mate (“rutting”), an amorous bull can emit a bellow easily mistaken for the horn of a passing 18 wheel truck.
Visitors addicted to “moose mania” also seek out their prey during evening drives. As day turns to dusk, moose venture out of the woods, causing the closest thing to a traffic jam in the region as cars congregate when an animal is spotted.
The setting sun also prompts thoughts of nighttime activities although as one local wag puts it, “Night life doesn’t happen in Rangeley.” That’s almost, but not quite, true.
Many people prefer to prepare dinner in their “camp,” as vacation cabins are known, often cooking fresh-caught fish or lobsters trucked in that day from the Maine coast. Those who prefer a night on the town dress up, which means donning a clean pair of jeans and perhaps a checked “buffalo shirt” to help ward off the winter cold, or the pleasant chill on even most summer evenings.
Entertainment also is low key, focused on a handful of modest restaurants and watering holes along Main Street. Most prestigious is the Pub at the Rangeley Inn, with dark wood paneling and an inviting fireplace. There, touches like the Maine-speak of locals, and a whimsical stuffed Jackalope mounted on a wall (you have to see it to understand), serve as reminders that this is a very special place. That’s what keeps me returning there year after year.
Rangeley is a four-season resort with something-for-everyone. Fall attracts hunters, and those drawn by one of Mother Nature’s most spectacular annual Technicolor displays of fiery foliage.
Winter means skiing at Saddleback, which offers an uncrowded big-mountain experience. Snowmobiling also is outstanding, with more than 140 miles of trails that interconnect with systems leading throughout Maine and into Canada.
Spring is when fishing reaches its peak, as trophy trout and landlocked salmon begin a feeding frenzy following their long winter rest. Two golf courses and tennis courts await summer visitors. That’s also when canoes, kayaks and powerboats dot lake waters.
For more information call the Rangeley Chamber of Commerce at 800-685-2537 or log onto www.rangeleymaine.com.