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Paddling the Heath in Casco

October 22, 2008 - CASCO -- For a dazzling fall foliage paddle and a touch of wilderness solitude nestled within the popular Sebago Lake watershed, consider a visit to the Heath in Casco this autumn.

Located at the southern end of Thompson Lake, the Heath is a small, secluded body of water that offers pleasant meandering along its hourglass-shaped shoreline. If you poke along the complete shoreline, nosing in and out of two narrow coves, you will paddle approximately three miles over a two-hour period.

Park on the south side of the Heath Road, 100 yards east of the Thompson Lake Marina. You often will see anglers fishing for landlocked salmon from the causeway separating the Heath from Thompson Lake. There is just enough room to pull off the road for a few vehicles. You can put into the water on either side of a small cabin marked by private property signs.

The shoreline is a mixture of evergreens, predominately white pine, hemlock and fir interspersed with red maple, birch, beech and oak. Into mid-October the reds dominate the foliage display, and as November approaches, the yellows and golden browns take over. On a calm morning the foliage reflection in the still water offers a palette of rich colors and intricate designs. We enjoyed the artistic lines and circles created by fallen and standing white birch at water's edge.

As you pass through the narrow neck of the lake, look over to your left. Along the shoreline sits a striking 12-foot-high glacial erratic boulder. At the bottom of the boulder, white and black stripes indicate former water levels. Tiny maples and wisps of grass tenaciously protrude out of cracks on the sides of the boulder. Patches of dry brown lichen adorn portions of it as well.

Note the many stumps protruding up out of the shallows along the edges, indicating that the water level was much lower years ago. The pond at one time was much more of an upland bog or heath than it is today. We spied many cormorant standing vigilant and still on the smaller tree stumps.

Vast mats of dry pickerelweed wave in the wind and provide a rustling noise when canoe and paddle encounter them. The southern end of the Heath features tall brown reeds and cattail stalks, and the rich golden brown of marsh grasses. This is an excellent spot to get your binoculars out and scan the grasses for migrating songbirds.

Paddling along the forested portions of the shoreline you will hear the raucous calls of red squirrels and blue jays mixing with the pleasing calls of chickadees and nuthatches. We enjoyed listening to two pileated woodpeckers communicating loudly with each other from opposite sides of the pond.

As you head back up along the western shoreline you will come to a forested point reaching out into the water. Paddle around it and follow the narrow, shaded waterway south to its secluded end. This will take you five minutes. We sat in the canoe for 10 minutes just listening and observing. We spied eight mallards hidden behind nearby marsh grasses. As we fumbled for our binoculars they rose as one and noisily circled up and out of the narrows. The male heads pulsated a brilliant velvety green in the morning sun.

Then a pair of wood ducks rose to our left. Their hard bodies and beautiful colored heads strained for the treetops and disappeared from view. Out over the Heath, the sounds of Canada geese drifted our way. It was as if nature's alarm clock had suddenly gone off, and all creatures were starting to stir.

Much of the forested portion of the shoreline is lined with winterberry bushes. Their prolific galaxies of red berries are brilliant this time of year and lend a festive holiday feeling to the landscape. Winterberry is a deciduous member of the holly family and was often used by native peoples to reduce fever. Many songbirds, as well as wild turkeys and deer, use the berries as a secondary food source.

There are a few small docks along the shoreline, the occasional canoe or kayak pulled up into the brush, and only the occasional flash of a camp hidden in the woods. For the most part the Heath is a very wild and wonderful paddling experience. Other than the sound of a float plane taking off from Thompson Lake, or the occasional vehicle passing over the causeway to the north, it is the sounds of nature and the brilliant colors of what is turning out to be one of the best foliage years in quite a while that dominate your outing.

If you have an extra half-hour at the conclusion of your exploration of the Heath, portage your canoe over the road and explore a few minutes up into the southern reaches of Thompson Lake. It is not the easiest place to launch, but with a little agility it can be done. We were amazed at how clear the water was. At first it took a bit of getting used to. Rocks and boulders many feet under the water looked to be right below the surface, causing many winces on our part as we glided over them -- without incident.

Two juvenile loons greeted us out by a tiny islet. They were busy grooming themselves. Suddenly one loon began scratching behind its neck with its webbed foot, just as the family dog might.

Paddle out to the first prominent point on the eastern side of the lake. Here you will enjoy a striking view up toward the far end of the lake and beyond to Singepole and Streaked Mountain 15 miles to the north. As we circled back along the shoreline, a brilliant blue kingfisher zoomed by, carrying strands of marsh grass in its beak. Maybe a little home repair was needed before the trip South for the winter.

For help in getting to the Heath at Thompson Lake, consult Delorme's Maine Atlas and Gazetteer (Map No. 5). The Heath is located just north of Route 11, which connects the town of Naples to the town of Poland. Incidentally, the Maine state record for smallmouth bass still remains the 8-pound giant landed at Thompson Lake in 1970.

Michael Perry is the former director of the L.L.Bean Outdoor Discovery Schools, and founder of Dreams Unlimited, specializing in inspiring outdoor slide programs for civic groups, businesses, and schools. He can be contacted at dreams@ime.net

MICHAEL PERRY, Portland Press Herald, October 16, 2008


Lakes: Thompson Lake
Regions: Sebago


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