“It seems impossible a lake this empty could be so close to Route One,” my brother-in-law Rob said as we idled away from the state launch ramp on the western shore of Damariscotta Lake. “Where is everyone?” he wondered.
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Located a stone’s throw from a portion of the Maine coast where recreational boats seem to be everywhere, all the time, Damariscotta Lake is indeed a freshwater alternative that few seem to have noticed. In the 25 years I’ve been enjoying it, the explanation for this oversight might be the “back roads” route to the ramp.
Still, getting off busy U.S. Rte. 1 at the Damariscotta/Newcastle exit shouldn’t be all that confusing. Although the “Twin Towns” do offer temptations all by themselves (most of which we’ll tell you about in a future destination story), they don’t make finding the ramp difficult. In fact, for the lake-bound mariner, the sign for Rte. 215 and the lake is pretty obvious at the end of the exit ramp.
And for trailerboaters like me and Rob, the winding roads of 215, then State Rte. 213, were just a bucolic salve for the eyes. Mostly farms and a few vacation homes marked the way to the well-marked, paved ramp on the lake’s southwest “bay.” I’d say if you can’t navigate to the ramp, you probably shouldn’t be taking the helm of a boat anyway.
The lake itself is 4,600 acres of pristine water with a normal visibility 10 feet or better. The major hazards are marked by seasonal buoys, and depths range to more than 100’ in some places. Popular with fishermen, the lake contains landlocked salmon, brown trout, smallmouth bass and white perch. It’s perhaps best known for the run of alewives, an anadramous herring, which show up each spring at the base of the dam that created the lake from a former estuary.
Although details are murky, at least part of what is now Damariscotta Lake (the South Bay) was connected to the Damariscotta River estuary, which leads to open water between East Boothbay and South Bristol. The early colonists built a dam at Damariscotta Mills, which you pass on the way to the ramp. The rest is history.
But history was not the concern of Rob and his 2 young daughters. Once we launched our 16’ Corson runabout, we went for an exploratory tour. The 13-mile-long lake is broken up into 3 basins, or bays: 1 in the southwest, 1 to the southeast and 1 (the biggest) to the north. All are connected by a constriction known as The Narrows, which is also where the most boating activity can be found.
On our most recent trip we headed for the north basin, where fishing boats hang around the deep hole (114’) to the east, but there is also lots of open water for water-skiing and related activities. The girls spent much of the afternoon hanging onto an old truck innertube, which we dragged behind the Corson while they were whooping and hollering far from any lakeside homes.
Indeed, the lake is well loved and protected by riparian inhabitants who, in 1966, formed the Damariscotta Lake Watershed Association (www.dlwa.org). As a result, loons, bald eagles, great blue herons and lots of other wildlife are easy to spot as you tour a lake that can only be termed “crowded” on the hottest midsummer weekend of the year. Most weekdays, it seems pretty much forgotten.
Boaters and paddlers in the North Basin can also sneak into Davis Stream, a beautiful waterway flanked by water lilies and tall marsh grass. The stream winds below the Rte. 32 bridge and past the Jefferson General Store, where you can dock up for lunch or an ice cream. This is also a good place to launch a kayak or canoe, but check with the store staff about parking availability. Kayakers may also be able to launch along the small sandy beach at the base of the bridge (southern side), and park along the street.
Also in the North Basin, just east of Davis Stream, is 17-acre Damariscotta Lake State Park. The park features picnic grounds with grills, a sandy beach and a large playground. There is no launch ramp in the park, however.
Note that there are no marinas or fuel docks on the lake, so make sure you are self-sufficient (older maps of the area show a marina in the extreme northwest corner of the lake, but this is now a private launch area and home to the Watershed Association).
So, whether you find Damariscotta Lake by design or just plain old good fortune, the first day on its waters will convince you your luck is just beginning to turn to the good. I know my brother-in-law and his kids were convinced of that.