“There are a million great places to camp in Maine,” says Cullen McGough, a Maine native and the director of communications for Chewonki. “But I’ve never had a whole lake to myself before. This place is amazing.”
He’s describing Debsconeag Lake Wilderness Camps, one of Chewonki’s two North Woods outposts (the other, Big Eddy Cabins and Campgrounds, is located on the West Branch of the Penobscot River). And he’s not kidding about wilderness: this cluster of cabins, yurts, and a central lodge sits within nearly 1,000,000 acres of conserved forestland. The pristine area is spangled with lakes, ponds, and streams; studded with mountaintops; only a mile and a half from the Appalachian Trail; and 12 miles, as the raven flies (or the moose rambles), from Mount Katahdin.
None of that means much to two-year-old Benjamin Baxter McGough (his middle name pays homage to Baxter State Park), who recently traveled with his parents and a couple of aunties to the campsite on Fourth Debsconeag Lake. What impressed young Benjamin most were the wild blueberries, canoeing under star-lit skies, and staring into the flickering flames of a campfire.
Fourth Debsconeag Lake, one in a chain of eight, is a four-hour journey north from Wiscasset. The trip requires a 22-mile stretch on a buckshot dirt logging road and a short boat ride across the lake. “It’s a hero’s journey,” says McGough. “To get there, you really have to want it, which makes the destination all the sweeter.”
The Chewonki campground is the only one on the lake, “and the only one that will ever be on this lake,” as Vice President Greg Shute likes to say. McGough remembers, “You arrive at the boat landing and look around, and there are no gaps or other docks or motor boats anywhere along the shoreline. You’re so far away from everything”–including cell phone service—”surrounded by mountains. It’s completely silent except for the wind and the sounds of wildlife.” The surrounding land is “heavily forested in cedar, birch, and beech,” he says. “There’s a really pleasant cedar-box smell to the whole area.”
Hidden underneath a metal can at the boat dock is a two-way radio visitors use to announce their arrival to Site Manager Andy Williams–or, on this particular weekend, Nate Smith (Boys Camp staff ‘12, ‘13; Outdoor Classroom staff ‘14; Maine Coast Semester staff ‘14,’15; Wilderness Trips staff ‘14-’17), on duty while Andy was briefly away. Smith arrived to meet the group in “a beautiful, beautiful 18-foot-long cedar-strip freighter canoe,” says McGough. Heading back across the lake to the campground, “You look out through a saddle in the mountains,” he recalls, “and see Katahdin rising up, the king of these woods.”
On that weekend, Mardi George was also visiting. She and her late husband, Cliff, bought the property in the 1990s and restored it to a sporting camp, bringing it full circle to its 1901 origins. She and Cliff sold it to Chewonki in 2008, in part because they felt confident it would continue to be in caring hands. Now in her eighties, George still returns to Debsconeag every year, staying in “Point Camp,” her favorite cabin.
“Mardi sat at the campfire one night and told us stories,” says McGough. “She called the lake ‘her bowl of stars’ and reminisced about past adventures, like almost freezing to death one February when her snowmobile broke through the ice, or seeing a 100-year-old ‘bateau’ boat on the bottom of the lake. After she went to bed, Nate took the rest of us out in the launch to drift on the water and stargaze. I’ve never seen the Milky Way that bright.”
Chewonki now uses Debsconeag Lake Wilderness Camps as a base for many of its educational programs, including the 10-Day Camp for Girls, and rents out cabins and yurts at certain times in the spring and fall. Site Manager Andy Williams knows the area like the back of his hand and can provide maps, information, and advice to those who visit. The site offers excellent access to trails and waterways.
Strapped to his parents’ backs, Benjamin McGough enjoyed two expeditions: a day hike from Fourth Debsconeag to Third Debsconeag and back, passing through a moss-covered rock canyon with a cascade coursing down the middle; and a 45-minute trek to the top of the granite cliffs that rise up over the lake, where he hunted for blueberries passed over by the moose and bear that frequent these woods.
Sailing, canoeing, swimming, napping, reading, good conversation, a Frisbee game, and leisurely meals filled out the weekend for the group. Smith, in keeping with Debsconeag tradition, provided freshly baked goodies and coffee each morning. “A blueberry muffin, coffee, and a lake in Maine all to myself?” says McGough. “That’s my picture of heaven.”
McGough is back at his desk in the Allen Center, but thoughts of Fourth Debs still linger. So he, Liz, and Benjamin plan to go back. He wants others to make the trip, too. “But don’t tell everyone,” he says. “Just Chewonki people. It’s too beautiful to spoil.”