After two years of hunkering down to outsmart the pandemic and weeks of soggy foggy San Francisco days, David and I craved an old-fashioned summer vacation with unplanned sunny days and restful nights. It needed to take place near Boston since the real object of the trip was to visit our son Ben, who lives in Waltham. We were surprised by what attracted us: a rustic lodge on an island in a lake in northern Maine. It definitely wasn’t a Taj resort. But it was just what we needed.
Summer by the lake. It’s an American tradition. I could see Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond. Except that for me the idea of summering at the lake is as novel as a Riviera beach vacay. As a teen there was Lake Arrowhead east of Los Angeles. I learned to waterski there. But that was a lifetime ago.
Maine is dotted with ancient glacial lakes whose shores are sprinkled with resorts—from homespun cottages to upscale properties with golf courses and spas. We chose Attean Lake Lodge just outside Jackman, about 20 miles from the Canadian border. The attraction? It was remote and just rustic enough. There was no electricity in the cabins. But there were full bathrooms with hot (very hot) running water. And its reviews were stellar.
Heading straight north from Portland on US Highway 201, we took a left on Attean Road, as instructed. I had dressed for the warm summer morning it was when we left Boston, but the sky thickened as we drove. I was getting are-we-there-yet restless. Our directions told us to go to the end of the road and find Karl.
“Are you Karl?” David asked the scruffy old-timer who shuffled out of a tiny shack of an office to greet us.
“Could be,” he replied.
“Yup. We’re in Maine now,” I thought to myself as I scrambled to extricate my fleece from the suitcase.
In a quick few minutes a young man and a young woman loaded our luggage on a flat-bottomed pontoon boat to ferry us across the lake to Birch Island and the lodge. I was pining for a glorious late summer sunset. Instead, the gathering clouds drained any hint of color from the forest surrounding the lake. I glanced at the weather app and tried to ignore my disappointment.
Gas lights and kerosene lanterns
I didn’t have much time to think about it. It was five, and dinner was at six. As efficiently as our young escorts gathered our luggage at the parking lot, they deposited it on the porch of our cabin.
We hurried inside to get our lighting lesson before dark. I found myself tapping the wall, looking for a light switch. Oops. No. There were none. Reflexive habits are hard to break. What seemed romantic on the web—gas lights and kerosene lanterns—turned out to have a learning curve. There was a box of matches in every room and exact instructions for how to ignite the lights. The gas lamps were bright enough to read by, the kerosene lanterns, not so much.
I wondered how the people who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries got by with so little light. Life was slower then. You had to think about turning on a light instead of just flicking a plastic switch. Slower. Wasn’t that why we came to Attean Lodge, which was founded in 1893 as Attean Lake Sporting Camps? On the other hand, we were grateful that the main lodge, where everyone gathered for breakfast and dinner, was well lit—and had plenty of charging stations for our devices. We were remote, but connected. All would be OK.
At dinner it became clear that we were newbies to the resort way of life. Our tables were assigned. Seating was available for an hour, but it was obvious that the staff preferred it when guests arrived on the early side. There were two selections for dinner, to be chosen at breakfast. At dinner we were given a slip to pick our sandwiches for the next day’s lunch, which would be delivered in a cooler so we could picnic wherever we found ourselves at lunchtime.
Exploring Attean Pond
Since we were on an island, all options for excursions involved a boat. We could choose a kayak, canoe or an aluminum motorboat. But the pond was big. To me it was a lake. As a westerner, I think of a pond as a body of water small enough to see all at once. Attean is large with many islands to navigate around. We couldn’t see all its coves or shores at one glance. But, in Maine, it’s a pond. Go figure. Whatever it’s called, if we wanted to explore, we needed a motorboat.
Down at the dock where we arrived, we were assigned a boat. I hadn’t been in a motorboat for years, probably since those high school days at Lake Arrowhead. David dutifully took in all the instructions and practiced pulling the cord to start the motor. I climbed in with our lunch cooler, and off we went to access a relatively flat trail to yet another pond. An easy boat ride and a manageable hike. What could possibly go wrong?
We chugged off with two paper maps and a vague “It’s over there,” as the deckhand pointed across the lake. “You’ll find the opening, no problem. It’s called The Narrows.”
The only problem was the trees. The hills around the lake were full of them, with no distinguishing features. We puttered counter-clockwise around the lake without spotting an opening to the long skinny arm that was going to take us to the trail to Holeb Pond.
The sun was shining and the water sparkling. It was a beautiful day. We didn’t feel lost. But nothing matched up with the map. We passed little rock islands. But which set of rocks corresponded with which dots on the map? A pang of worry floated by.
Then I noticed an inlet. “That looks like it must be Moose River,” I said, handing the map to David. If it was Moose River, we were at the far end of the lake from our destination—about 180 degrees wrong—and we’d already been out for more than an hour. As we tried to sort it out, we came across a fellow in a canoe. He wanted to know if we had seen any geese. “No,” we told him. We’d hardly seen any animals. Moose, of course, and loons, were on top of our list. All we had seen so far were a few seagulls.
“We’re looking for the trail to Holeb Pond,” we told him. He gave us one of those stupid-tourist looks and guided us in the right direction. At that point, we decided to take a breath and enjoy the lake. I was mesmerized by rows of water grass, stretching out with the flow of the water as if they were in yoga class.
Reflections of puffy white Magritte clouds made me smile as they drifted by, replacing yesterday’s dark skies. I imagined an inflatable briar pipe floating among the clouds, letting my mind wander as aimlessly as the boat.
Ah, the boat. Instead of cruising along, it started lugging. David couldn’t seem to hold a steady line. I swallowed a flutter of anxiety. “What’s up?” I asked. I didn’t want to hit a rock, the way Henry Fonda did in On Golden Pond. No need to worry about that. We were barely moving.
“Maybe it’s the grass,” I offered. If not, what else could it be? David shut off the motor and tilted it out of the water. Sure enough, a bouquet of moose fodder had spun around the shaft, rendering it practically useless. David ripped off the tangled mess as if he had done it a million times before, then navigated us to deeper waters. Relieved, I was even more convinced that Attean was a lake, not a pond.
We startled a row of birds sitting on a log. Seagulls? Loons? Hard to say. As they flew off, our eyes lifted. We saw the break where the hills parted and the lake continued into a long glacial finger. The Narrows. That’s where we missed our turn in the morning. I tried to memorize the terrain. We might never come back, but I craved just a bit of insider knowledge. No more stupid-tourist stuff.
A half-hour further on, we saw the beach where the trail takes off. A perfect lunch spot. Another motorboat and two canoes were already “parked” facing the woods. We pulled up to find the Little family, also guests at the lodge, frantically spraying insect repellent on each other. Not a good sign. I hadn’t even thought about mosquitos. It was Labor Day weekend, and the bugs were supposed to be gone by now. A rock jutting into the lake looked like a promising picnic spot. Maybe the mosquitos wouldn’t find the rock as inviting as the beach.
Over sandwiches we learned that the Little family was from South Carolina, mom and dad plus two teens. The son was earning his Eagle Scout badge by canoeing five miles from the lodge to the end of the lake. And grandpa? He had been coming to Attean since his father brought him there in the 1960s. His story was not unusual. Most of the guests were regulars. The lodge is now run by the fifth generation of the Holden family, which bought the property in 1905 as a fishing and hunting lodge. We were dipping our toes in a classic version of New England vacation culture.
Before the family headed back, Emily (mom) described the boardwalk trail.
It was easy to follow, she said, but full of mosquitos. We sprayed again and dumped our packs and the lunch cooler in the boat. I put on long-sleeved shirt and we turned into the woods.
An incessant buzzing greeted us. “Are you sure you want to do this?” David asked. I saw outpacing the mosquitos as a fitness challenge. That’s probably because I hadn’t been bitten in ages. Three years of drought. No mosquitos. No itching. How naïve could I possibly be?
There was an old woman who swallowed …
“OMG,” I yelled to David. “Yuck!”
I spat out the words … and the mosquito … as quickly as I could. How could that happen? “I inhaled through my mouth,” I said sheepishly. Yup. I really did that unthinkable thing.
After a quick rinse, I pushed ahead, practically running along the boardwalk. We passed many colors of mushrooms, as well as ferns and unfamiliar trees.
I wondered about the difference between forests and woods. Was that distinction another West Coast/East Coast thing? I tested my balance on the logs spanning the bogs, ignoring the flecks of black hovering in the warm air. Then, suddenly, just like that, we were on a dirt logging road next to a railroad track. We were in the wilderness one minute, on a road the next.
“Where’s the map?” I wondered. I didn’t have it. Did David? “Uh, I left it in the back of the pack,” he admitted. Oops. Where is the rest of the trail? We poked around for a few minutes, looked at our watches and decided to go back the way we came. I made sure to keep my mouth closed this time. Our little boat never looked so good. David’s black shirt was covered in a layer of mosquitos as he shoved us off. Thankfully they flew away with the wind as we cruised back munching on the giant M&M cookie left from lunch. It was heavenly. Crunchy, meltingly soft and sweet all at once. It must have been made by that fictional mom who always says yes. Isn’t that what summer vacation is all about?
The next day we explored Attean Pond in the other direction until we reached the Moose River inlet. This time we turned up the little river and found a cascade tumbling into a peaceful pool.
There was supposed to be a trailhead there, but the lake was high, covering the landing. So off we went, confident on our second day that we would find a good place for lunch. We did—and we even got back to the lodge in time for a nap before dinner.
Waiter, waiter …
It was Saturday night of Labor Day weekend, prime rib and lobster night at Attean Lodge. We were in Maine. There was no contest. Bring on the arthropods.
Our appetizer was clam chowder, New England-style, of course. After a few spoonfuls I glanced at the creamy, snow-white soup in my bowl, only to discover a mosquito floating like a corpse in a noir murder mystery.
Waiter, waiter … I burst out laughing. The punchlines just kept coming. The backstroke? The butterfly? Sweet revenge, I thought.
But the mosquitos got the last laugh. Their enduring gift: two flaming anklets decorating my legs. They were not pretty. And they left rings of purple welts as souvenirs that lasted weeks after we got home. With gifts like that, how could I possibly forget our unfinished hike to Holeb Pond?
Not that I would ever forget the taste of summer we enjoyed at Attean Pond. If it were closer to home, we might even become regulars.