Call of the wild: N.H. lake lures man and beast

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ERROL, N.H. – A moose grabs a mouthful of vegetation from a riverbank; a loon calls across the placid water; a flapping of wings brings an adult bald eagle to its nest; an osprey launches into the water to catch an unsuspecting fish – each is part of the summer splendor of Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge. Although the reasons have changed over time, the value of Lake Umbagog remains high. A holding pen for timber in the 1800s, the latest chapter for this high-quality habitat was the area’s designation as a national wildlife refuge in 1992.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now protects more than 7,700 acres along the shores of Lake Umbagog and the banks of the Magalloway and Androscoggin rivers. Included among these prime wildlife habitats are freshwater wetlands, floating islands of spruce and maple trees, lily pads and upland areas of balsam-scented spruce-fir forests.

Remote region. People, more than 25,000 in 2000, came to observe and recreate among the wild fish and game that are icons of Umbagog.

While curvy, two-lane roads deliver visitors to the edges of this wild and inviting region, to truly experience the wonder of Umbagog and its wildlife requires travel by boat.

“If you come to the refuge and expect to see everything from your car, you’ll be disappointed,” said Refuge Manager Paul Casey.

Lake Umbagog straddles the Maine-New Hampshire border, but most of the refuge is in New Hampshire. Besides the lake’s origins to facilitate timber movement down the Androscoggin River, water leaving Lake Umbagog is now used to generate power.

Joint preservation effort. Management of the area is a partnership of the two states, the federal government, power and timber companies and private parties.

A state-owned campground operates 32 primitive sites along the lake, many of them on refuge lands and accessible only by boat.

“Umbagog is as close to pristine you can find in New England,” said Casey. “How many places can a person visit and see loons swimming on rivers and in coves? Where else can you take a canoe to a place where a family can unobtrusively watch a family of bald eagles?”

“A lot of people come to see moose – another symbol of Umbagog – but seeing them at sunset along the riverbank as they munch on their favorite vegetation brings new meaning to an already awesome experience.”

Anglers’ heaven. Although wildlife observation is a growing pastime at the refuge, fishing remains a popular way to enjoy the refuge as well.

Casey, piloting a 25-foot pontoon boat, points out a smallmouth bass as he speaks. “The bass fishing is great in the lake and in some of the deeper river pockets,” he stated. “Brook trout and landlocked salmon are other great sport fish in the rivers and the streams that flow from the hills.”

Casey points toward the Rapid River, which enters Lake Umbagog from the east. “The fly fishing up there is among some of the finest in the Northeast.”

Loons aplenty. On the river, a pair of loons swim and dive near a bass fisherman. Casey shakes his head and explains that when anglers disturb nesting loons and the birds leave their nest, it can expose the eggs to extreme heat or cold.

“Isolated coves can provide some great fishing opportunities, but they also are prime habitat for loons. An egg that gets too hot or too cold will not survive.”

Casey hopes that education will prevent the need to control access to areas where loons are nesting. “On a national wildlife refuge, wildlife comes first,” said Casey, “but that doesn’t mean people can’t or shouldn’t be a part of nature,” he added.

Never lost wildlife. Unlike so many other places in the Northeast, Lake Umbagog never lost its wildlife and wildlife habitat. Protected by the service, the states of New Hampshire and Maine, and other partners, the lake and surrounding area will continue to be first-rate habitat for loons, eagles, moose and the hundreds of other species that attract people to this remote northern forest.

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