Captain Rocky Rockwell in the pilothouse of the steamboat Katahdin.Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson
When I was a kid, Moosehead Lake was an outsize presence in my summers. A family friend owned a former boys’ camp that sprawled across a quarter mile of shoreline, and each August we’d trek deep into Maine for a couple of lazy weeks on the water. The property was reachable only by a 20-minute boat ride from Greenville; it lacked electricity and running water. Our meals came courtesy of a big wood cookstove, and our evenings were spent reading or playing cards by kerosene light in the grand lodge.
And at the end of our stay, as we packed up the Boston Whaler for the ride back, my thoughts would inevitably turn to next summer.
Today the camp is gone, and a road now reaches deep into the woods to bring visitors to the homes that have been erected in its place. And yet this neck of the North Woods remains very much untamed, with the same sense of place that Henry David Thoreau evoked in 1858, describing Moosehead as “a suitably wild-looking sheet of water, sprinkled with low islands … covered with shaggy spruce and other wild wood.”
Moosehead packs enormous presence: 40 miles long, some 20 miles wide in certain spots, with more than 400 miles of shoreline. It’s also home to more than 80 islands. Debate swirls as to what inspired the lake’s name: Was it for its shape, or its preponderance of actual moose? Maybe both. Regardless, locals and visitors alike know that Moosehead is a special place—no surprise that U.S. News & World Report recently named it as one of the top lake destinations in the country.
At the center of Moosehead life is Greenville. While the grand hotels that once attracted wealthy summer visitors from New York and Boston to these cool forest environs are long gone, the town’s welcoming vibe remains very much intact. Restaurants like the Dockside Inn & Tavern and the Stress Free Moose cluster near the water’s edge, and come summer, the nights are tailor-made for a cone of soft serve or Maine-made Gifford’s ice cream from the Dairy Bar, savored while relaxing on a bench and watching the harbor scene.
A siren call to shoppers emanates from Kamp Kamp, a modern incarnation of the much-loved Moosehead Lake Indian Store. That retail maze of wonder had so captured the childhood imaginations of siblings Randy Coulton and Cheri Goodspeed that after it closed in 1997, they bought the building and stocked it with prints, furniture, artwork, signage, toys, and rare collectibles, and Kamp Kamp was born.
Another local institution is Northwoods Outfitters, which got its start nearly 30 years ago when Mike Boutin began renting outdoor equipment out of a small downtown retail space. Business grew, and so did Boutin’s ambitions. Today, Northwoods Outfitters offers easy entry to Moosehead’s wilder side with clothes, gear, and guided trips for adventure-minded types.
Just across the way floats perhaps the lake’s most revered icon, the Katahdin. This wooden steamboat has been plying the waters of Moosehead Lake since 1914; now converted to diesel, it’s operated by the Moosehead Marine Museum and hosts scenic tours ranging from a three-hour trip to a full-day cruise. In addition, the Kate (as it’s affectionately known) hosts R&B dance-party cruises throughout the summer.
Moosehead’s seaplane culture is likewise renowned, as adventurous pilots have long been called upon to ferry visitors to the lake’s most remote spots. Scenic flights now make up the bulk of the itineraries, with veteran outfits such as Currier’s Flying Service and its fleet of vintage seaplanes giving passengers unmatched views of not just Moosehead but also nearby Mount Katahdin.
Around the lake, old sporting camps have been transformed into intergenerational retreats that get their guests onto the water and into the woods. One of the best-known of these can be found in the tiny town of Rockwood, where John Willard Jr. welcomes, guides, and even offers airplane service to guests at The Birches, which his family has owned for more than half a century. Cabins line the shore, meals are served in the camp’s grand lodge, and evening gatherings take place under some of the clearest night skies in New England.
The Birches is within easy distance of another Moosehead landmark, Mount Kineo. Sacred to the Wabanaki, the mountain boasts a dramatic cliff face and is composed of rare green flint-like rhyolite, prized by indigenous hunters as a material for arrowheads. The moderate, nearly two-mile hike to the top of Kineo concludes with a final scamper up the fire tower for 360-degree views of the lake and Kineo’s verdant golf course below.
There are many more facets of Moosehead to explore: the car camping scene at Lily Bay State Park; the backwoods allure of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins; the elegance of the Blair Hill Inn, a Queen Anne Victorian mansion perched on a knoll above the lake. But whether your Moosehead experience is rural or refined, you can be sure of one thing: You’ll be dreaming of your next visit even before you start your journey home.