- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2004

ROCKWOOD, Maine — Many visitors to Maine never leave the state’s famous coastline, where dining on fresh-caught lobster and lazy days exploring tidal pools and rocky cliffs seem too good to pass up.

Yet vacationers who drive inland to Maine’s lakes and woods will not be disappointed, even if it’s only for a day or overnight. There is no better place to see this other Maine than on Moosehead Lake, which offers moose-watching, boating, mountain hiking and an island golf course with breathtaking views.

At 40 miles long and 20 miles wide, Moosehead is the largest lake in Maine as well as the largest body of water east of the Mississippi within the confines of one state. Out in a small boat, you feel as if you’re midocean; on a rough day, waves can rise 5 feet.

You easily could be in a remote part of Moosehead and never see another boat; large stretches of the evergreen-lined shore are undeveloped. It’s a great tonic if your daily grind includes traffic or lawn-mower noise, but be cautious when canoeing or kayaking. Check the forecast, wear your life jacket, and bring a whistle that works when wet.

Glimpsing a moose is the highlight of any Moosehead trip. These magnificent yet comical creatures — think Bullwinkle — have made a comeback around New England, with an estimated 29,000 in Maine. Though locals claim they are easy to spot and signs warning of moose-car collisions suggest that they’re everywhere, they actually are quite elusive. I vacation in Maine every year, but I never saw one in the wild until I took a “moose cruise.”

Several local outfitters run moose-watching trips. We had good luck with cruises run by the Birches, a rustic resort that also offers mountain biking, kayaking, white-water rafting, lodge rooms and lakeside cabins. If you take the 4 p.m. cruise, buy a combination ticket that includes a three-course meal in the Birches’ lodge. Reserve a window table to watch the sunset.

The moose cruise goes to boggy, shallow inlets of the lake where moose wade and feed. On our first moose cruise, we encountered cow moose with their babies; on our second trip, we saw young bucks. Typically, the moose stop and stare at their human visitors before resuming their feeding; they don’t bolt.

Everyone on board was awe-struck at the sight of these creatures. Our driver cut the motor; all conversation ceased; and the only sounds were waves slapping against the boat, the swish of water as the animal lifted its head out of the lake and the clicking and beeping of cameras.

Try to arrive the night before or early enough in the morning to have time to hike before the cruise. Lily Bay State Park has a sandy beach, campsites and trails, but for a rigorous six-mile round-trip trek with a great view, climb Big Moose Mountain (formerly known as Big Squaw Mountain).

Big Moose rises 3,196 feet; up and down takes three to five hours, depending on your pace. The Moosehead Chamber of Commerce describes the hike as “challenging,” but I have done it carrying an infant, with a 6-year-old scrambling beside me. Wear sturdy footwear, bring water and lunch, and pack treats such as M&Ms as incentives for steep stretches.

The scenery is classic New England: thick woods, dappled sunshine and mind-blowing panoramas of faraway mountain ranges — including Maine’s highest peak, famed Mount Katahdin, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Below, Moosehead stretches vast and blue, like a “wild sheet of water,” to quote Henry David Thoreau’s account of his 1857 trip here.

The other popular hike is up Mount Kineo, a dramatic 700-foot-high cliff that rises from an island almost a mile from shore. A shuttle boat travels to Kineo from the Rockwood town dock, but check schedules and plan carefully if you need to be back in time for the moose cruise.

If you’re crossing to Kineo in your own small boat, note that getting there can be more dangerous than it looks. Winds on Moosehead can arise suddenly. In 1997, three people died here when their canoe capsized.

Three trails lead to Kineo’s summit; the hike takes two to five hours round-trip, depending on the pace and route. Indian Trail, at 2.2 miles, is the steepest way up and runs along the cliff near sheer drops. Don’t try this one with children.

The Bridle Trail and North Trail are easier but longer. My kindergarten-age son managed them easily, but his grandma — who can walk for miles on flat ground — could not handle the climb; roots, branches and rocks provide the only handholds in spots.

All trails are reached from the Kineo dock via the Carriage Trail, a flat, wooded footpath that hugs the shore past enchanting coves and postcard-perfect views of the water, with the cliff rising above.

If you have neither time nor inclination to climb Kineo, strolling the Carriage Trail is a worthy outing on its own.

The island also houses a golf course that draws players such as Erica Waasdorp and her boyfriend, who live on Cape Cod. “The golf on Mount Kineo was spectacular because of the views,” Miss Waasdorp says. “No other golf course we’ve been on could beat that.”

For a relaxing way to see Moosehead, try a cruise on the Katahdin. Not to be confused with the mountain of the same name, the Katahdin, built in 1914, was part of a fleet of boats that served lakeside resorts and hunting camps on Moosehead until the 1930s, when cars and roads replaced water travel. The Katahdin hauled logs on Moosehead until 1975, participating in the nation’s last log drive.

Now powered by diesel, the boat offers leisurely rides with glorious scenery. A green ridge of triangular evergreen treetops marks the horizon between mirrored blue canvases of sky and water, and mountains rise in the distance. Pack binoculars for spotting osprey, bald eagles and loons. The crew hands out blankets because the breeze on the water is so chilly, even in summer, but bring a sweater, too.

One final must-see at Moosehead is the night sky, a dazzling array of sequins spilled on black velvet. Just as in Thoreau’s day, there are no city lights here to dim the sparkle.

To get to Moosehead Lake: from Interstate 95 north, take Exit 39 (Newport, Maine). Follow Routes 11 and 7 about 14 miles to Dexter, then Route 23 about 11 miles to Guilford, followed by Route 6/15 north about 26 miles to Greenville. Rockwood is another 22 miles along Route 6/15.

The Birches: Located in Rockwood; 800/825-WILD or www.birches.com. Moose cruise: 7 a.m. two-hour cruise, adults $28, children ages 4 to 12, $15; 4 p.m. three-hour cruise, adults $40, children $25. Combination ticket for cruise and dinner: adults, $60, children $35. Summer cabins begin at $1,000 a week; lodge rooms begin at $72 nightly.

Northwoods Outfitters: Expeditions and supplies include moose safaris and canoe and kayak rentals; 207/695-3288 or www.maineoutfitter.com.

Hikes: Details on hiking Big Moose, Kineo and other trails at www.mooseheadlake.org/hiking.shtml, or contact the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, 207/941-4014.

Kineo: The Kineo Shuttle runs from Rockwood to the island every hour in July and August; $10 a person. Golf course: 207/534-9012 or www.mooseheadlakegolf.com; $15 to play nine holes; carts and club rentals extra; $600 weekly cabin rental available on the island.

Katahdin Cruise: www.katahdincruises.com or 207/695-2716. Three-hour cruise departs Greenville at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; adults, $25 and children 6 to 15, $15. Six-hour cruise departs at 10 a.m. Wednesday; adults, $31 and children, $18.

For more information: Moosehead Lake Chamber of Commerce, 888/876-2778 or www.mooseheadlake.org; Maine Office of Tourism, 888/624-6345 or www.visitmaine.com.

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