On Moosehead Lake, Finding Calm in the Chaos

For one writer, a lake in northwestern Maine has always been the ideal escape.

On Moosehead Lake, Finding Calm in the Chaos

Vast and quiet, Moosehead Lake is the perfect place to get away from it all.

Courtesy of Visit Maine

This essay is part of a series on “happy places”—destinations we return to, again and again, even if it’s just in our mind. You can read some of the other stories here and here.

For the first seven years I visited, I never saw a moose on Moosehead Lake. And I’ve only ever caught one fish here, even though the lake is supposedly teeming with trout. Still, this body of water—located in the Maine Highlands Region, in the west-central part of the state—is where my mind finds comfort when life gets hard.

Despite being the largest lake in Maine, and the largest mountain lake in the eastern United States, Moosehead is relatively unknown outside the state. No, it’s nowhere near Portland, or Kennebunkport, or Acadia National Park. The closest “city” is Bangor, more than two hours south, and the Canadian border is less than three hours away. Moosehead Lake is just a big, beautiful body of water in the middle of nowhere. You can spend hours without seeing another soul.

As a kid, my dad used to go camping with his brother in nearby Lily Bay State Park. He’d always wanted to bring his own family to the area, so one summer, he and my mom rented a cabin in the woods for a week. They packed the car with supplies for a month and made the six-hour drive northwest from our home outside Boston.

I don’t remember much about that first trip, except that it was cold and rained a lot. We kept coming back every year, though, and those subsequent trips made for some of my most magical childhood memories: There were the mornings when we’d pile into the glorified dingy my dad would rent each summer and motor across the lake for the Sunday brunch buffet at Kelly’s Landing. The mornings when the water was too rough for our 12-foot aluminum boat, so we’d drive into the town of Greenville, instead, and belly up to the breakfast counter at Auntie M’s for the signature cinnamon-raisin french toast. There were also the mornings—at least one every year—when my dad would hit a rock on our first boat ride of the day, and my mom would rush us kids inside before he exploded. (In his defense, Moosehead Lake is notoriously rocky and shallow near the shoreline.)

Built in 1914, the “Katahdin” enjoys a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

Built in 1914, the “Katahdin” enjoys a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

Courtesy of Moosehead Marine Museum

Afternoons blend together: Going into town for fudge and marbles at the Corner Shop. Taking cruises on Moosehead Lake’s historic steamboat, the Katahdin. Canoeing around a nearby island. When it rained, we’d make up dances to the Annie soundtrack instead of watching the movie. According to my parents, the TV in our house was always “broken.”

At night, after another meal at Kelly’s and ice cream at the Dairy Barn, my parents would force me, my brother, and sister to stay quiet as we took long drives down dirt roads, looking for Moosehead’s elusive moose. (The lake does have a large moose population, but it’s actually named for its shape, which resembles an antlered moose.) Those drives never proved fruitful, but I did finally see a moose when I was 12: My dad and I were riding bikes and came across a large bull, drinking water from a marshy spot on the side of the road. We stopped and stood there, in awe of his size, before biking on, with only our word as evidence.

As the years went on, life changed, but things in Moosehead stayed gloriously the same. My dad bought a boat, and my mom taught us to water-ski. We rented several different houses, but the TV was broken no matter where we stayed. Though I soon gave up canoeing for reading YM in the sun, we still chased dinner at Kelly’s with a soft-serve swirl from the Dairy Barn.

I stopped joining my family on our annual trips once I started college, opting to melt in the Washington, D.C. humidity in the name of independence. And then my mom got sick with cancer and everyone stopped going for a while.

Imagine yourself here when life gets overwhelming.

Imagine yourself here when life gets overwhelming.

Courtesy of Visit Maine

We didn’t return to Moosehead Lake until a year after she died, a sudden family of four seeking comfort in what we knew. We ate french toast at Auntie M’s and walked around Greenville. We rode the boat over to our favorite cove and took turns on the rope swing. We didn’t see any moose, but the sameness of it all soothed us.

For the next 10 years, we kept up with our regular trips, even as I got married, my brother worked through business school, and my sister moved to San Francisco. My dad bought a house on the lake with his fiancée and started spending most of his time up there, watching her fall in love with Maine, just like we all had. Then COVID-19 hit the United States and everything fell apart again.

As my life transitioned to lockdown mode, all I could think to do was leave the city for Moosehead. I called my dad, he told me to come, and I drove up with my husband the next day, hoping the lake would be a place of refuge as it had been a decade earlier.

I’ve been at Moosehead now for almost seven weeks. There’s no one around for miles, so I can take long walks, deep breaths, and regular breaks from worrying over the news. Auntie M’s may be closed, but otherwise, it’s life, almost, as usual.

I didn’t realize it as a kid, or teenager, but there can be peace in predictability. And no matter what happens in the next seven days, weeks, or years, I know I can always come to Moosehead Lake—my forever happy place—and feel calmer.

>>Next: This Beautiful Region of France Is Best Seen From the Sea

Natalie is a a New York-based writer and editor focused on travel, food, and drink. Her work has appeared in AFAR, TimeOut, Fodor’s Travel, Edible Brooklyn, Serious Eats, and Vox Creative, among others.
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