Our paddles dipped quietly into a lake as smooth as a sheet of glass. The water's surface reflected the faint moonlight bleeding through the clouds. In every direction, black water dissolved into black shore, then into black sky. We stopped paddling and drifted, listening. At first, there was just the sigh of the northern breeze. Then a single loon cried out from the dark shore to our left. Another responded from far off our bow, then a third one close by joined in. Within seconds, a chaotic chorus of loon calls was piercing the darkness, the warbling sounds echoing off the wooded hills around the lake.
We were canoeing on Lake Umbagog, a 14-mile-long, multi-armed body
of water deep in the Northern Forest on the New Hampshire-Maine border. Some 35 pairs of loons migrate here each summer, nesting and raising their young in the lake's liquid wilderness.
Trails here are not footpaths through the woods, but open avenues across water. Instead of backpacking, you travel by canoe and camp at designated sites on the lake's wooded shore.
Besides the regular serenading of loons, we also saw ospreys, great blue herons, northern harriers, kingfishers, cormorants, and moose. We watched a beaver swim repeatedly past our campsite, discovered black bear scat along the shore, and paddled within view of a bald eagle nest. Not bad for such a loony weekend.
Put in at Umbagog Lake Campground at the lake's south end. From Errol in northwest New Hamphire, drive about 10 miles east on NH 26 to the state campground.
June through August for hearing loons and seeing bald eagle adults and newborn young.
Lake Umbagog Campground map (available free with campsite reservations; see below).
Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, (603) 482-3415.
New Hampshire Parks Department, (603) 271-3556. For campsite reservations, (603) 271-3628; www.nhparks.state.nh.us.