“Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl,” Thoreau wrote. “It is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling.” Even sealed in a car, you’ll hear that howling as you approach the town of Errol in far northern New Hampshire, the gateway to Lake Umbagog. The region is even a long drive north of the White Mountains, and the houses get sparser and the trees along the roads denser as you go.
Umbagog straddles the New Hampshire/Maine border and gets its name from the Abenaki word for “shallow water.” Errol has grown slightly in recent years, with the recreation industry its chief engine. Fishermen, canoeists, and kayakers now all vie for spots under the bridge amid the frothy headwaters of the Androscoggin River, formed where Umbagog escapes the hills and heads for the sea.
The easiest way to get onto the lake is from its southern tip, at the public landing next to a marina. But the best way is to drive north from Errol, and paddle into the lake along the Magalloway River. (You can rent canoes in town.) Frank Lloyd Wright often employed the trick of designing hallways narrow, to make the act of entering a room seem grander. Such is the effect of this route: You paddle along a winding river, which gradually widens into a marsh, then–boom!–a broad and shimmering lake, with plenty of room to hide.
Umbagog is about 10 miles long and 7,850 acres big. It was also a test case for keeping the wild wild two decades ago. Citizens concerned about encroaching second-home development moved to conserve the land and keep it undeveloped. As a result, thousands of acres were acquired by a conservation-minded populace, and much of it today is a federal wildlife refuge.
And the wild has returned here. Six decades after their species abandoned New Hampshire, the first new pair of nesting bald eagles in the Granite State set up housekeeping up on the lake’s northwest shore in 1989, and they’ve reestablished themselves nicely. Bald eagles are no longer the rarities they once were across New England, of course; in some areas you can see them scavenging along rivers and coasts in winter. But spotting one still evokes a keen sense of wildness. Paddling along the remote eastern edge of the lake, near where the Rapid River comes tumbling in, keep an eye out for a telltale dab of white amid the dark pines. Sneak quietly toward shore, pull out your binoculars, and get a close look at a mature adult. His eyes will be filled with wildness, like a portal into something distant and unknown. Listen, and you might even hear a howl.
Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge 603-482-3415; fws.gov/northeast/lakeumbagog
Umbagog Area Chamber of Commerce umbagogchambercommerce.com