Difficulty: Easy to strenuous depending on how much of the lake you choose to paddle. Covering over 7,800 acres, this lake is a big playground.
How to get there: There are three public boat launches on Graham Lake, according to The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer by Delorme (page 24). The southernmost landing is off Patriot Road in Ellsworth, where the lake flows into Union River. The second launch is nearby, off Route 179 in Fletcher’s Landing Township. Coming from Ellsworth, this will be after the bridge over Day Brook. And the third launch is on the north end of the lake, off Morrison Farm Road in Mariaville, where the Union River flows into the lake.
Information: A large man-made body of water located on the lower portion of the Union River, Graham Lake in Hancock County was created in the 1920s to hold water for hydroelectric power generation and continues to serve that purpose today. Characterized by its silty brown water and exposed islands with heath-like vegetation, the lake covers 7,865 acres and spans the towns of Mariaville, Waltham, Fletchers Landing Township and Ellsworth.
Before the lake was flooded, it was mainly wetland surrounding Union River. Today, pockets of wetland are still found at the edges of Graham Lake and on some of the lake’s islands. This habitat attracts a wide variety of wading birds and waterfowl.
One of the unusual and controversial characteristics of Graham Lake is how much its water level changes throughout the year due to dam operations downstream. Since it was created, federal licenses have permitted hydropower companies to lower the dams enough to lower the water level in the lake up to 11 feet, said Dwayne Shaw, executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation. In contrast, the water level of natural lakes in Maine usually fluctuate 3 to 4 feet throughout the year.
This dramatic change in water level on Graham Lake affects wildlife habitat and recreation on the lake. It also dramatically changes lakefront properties. For example, when the water is low, docks on the lake (even long docks) are high up on dry land, completely useless. Certain types of recreation is also limited when the water is low. And lower water levels can also result in fish, shellfish and vegetation dying, Shaw said.
Currently, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is considering a relicensing request for the dams, and some are advocating for a change in the licensing that would lessen the amount the water can be lowered in the lake.
“The Downeast Salmon Federation is advocating that the company not be able to draw [the dam and water level] down so much because it’s an ecological disaster,” Shaw said.
In recent years, this dramatic change in water level has been even more apparent as droughts have caused the hydropower company to lower the water more than in the past to generate power. If on the lake, you can tell when the water is low by noting how far the forest is from the water and the long stretches of exposed sand, gravel and mud. There’s also dark bands on boulders throughout the lake that show the high water mark.
Like many man-made lakes, Graham Lake is quite shallow throughout, making it an ideal place for warm water fish species. Stumps and aquatic vegetation along the shoreline provide cover for fish like pickerel and smallmouth bass, according to a survey done by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and in the lake’s deeper areas, you can find white perch. Other fish found in the lake include brook trout, brown trout, salmon and smelt.
There are three public boat launches on the lake, two at the south end and one at the north. There are a few islands on the lake, including Hardwood Hill Island at the north end of the lake. This island features a 160-acre preserve owned by the Frenchman Bay Conservancy on its southern end, where waterfowl and deer are often spotted. The preserve also features wild blueberries, cranberries and a variety of woodland and bog wildflowers. The preserve does not feature any blazed trails.
On the south end of the lake, there’s a large wetland area and a few small, unnamed islands to explore.
Personal note: We launched from Fletchers Landing, where Day Brook flows into Graham Lake. Paddling through a narrow channel between hills of sand, we emerged at the south end of the lake and headed north, toward a peninsula.
It was Sunday, and while it had been a busy weekend, I was determined to fit in an evening paddle in our new Old Town Canoe — a Discovery 169, to be specific. We had been lucky enough to find it for cheap on the Bangor Trade and Swap Facebook page. The beautiful red boat, equipped with two comfy seats, had only been posted for four minutes when my husband, Derek, snatched it up.
On the lake, a brisk breeze whisked up waves and pushed us east as we paddled, which made steering a bit frustrating. Derek and I quickly switched positions so he could sit in the back of the boat and steer — it was simply too difficult for me to use my camera and try to combat the wind.
Of Maine’s many bodies of water suitable for canoeing, I had selected Graham Lake because it was close to our home and it featured islands and pockets of wetland. With those habitats, and the amount of fish in the lake, I assumed we’d see plenty of wildlife.
During our paddle, we came across several wading birds, including a greater yellowlegs (which as its name implies, has very long, skinny yellow legs), two great blue herons (or maybe it was the same one, twice) and some sort of sandpiper (the smallest wading bird of the three). We also watched a flock of geese pass overhead in a rough V-formation, honking noisily. And we had a fun time watching belted kingfishers as they darted from the evergreens lining the shore and dove at fish in the water. I find this grey and white bird to be quite handsome, with its long sharp bill and grey crest atop its head. Slightly smaller than a crow, this bird often makes a loud chattering call at the slightest disturbance — which means people hear it a lot.
From the peninsula, we turned west to paddle along the edge of a wetland, where tufts of cotton sedge swayed in the breeze, the tiny white balls at the end of each stalk illuminated by the sinking sun. From there, we turned south to circle a couple small, unnamed islands, then headed back to the landing along the opposite shore. Along the way, we passed docks that were completely out of the water, as well as boulders that displayed dark bands where the waterline used to be. We discussed how it must be frustrating as a homeowner in the area to deal with such a drop in the water, and I resolved to learn more about it while writing this column — and I did. Now I’m interested to see if anything changes in the years to come.