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Set up camp at Lake Umbagog, a naturally diverse, watery world

There is no refuge from the world’s encroachment on the earth. But then the eagles fly.

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Staff / August 2, 2009

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ERROL, N.H. - Ian Drew, deputy manager of the Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, delivered the somber news: “They either took down the nest or it blew down in a storm, or the tree may simply be too weak now.’’

This was no ordinary tree Drew was referring to. This was the towering skeleton of a white pine near Leonard Pond. It sticks up from an otherwise lush little bog island, overseeing the junction of the Androscoggin and Magalloway rivers and 7-mile-long and 1-mile-wide Lake Umbagog.

Even without the tree, the confluence of two mighty rivers into a wide-open lake - with mountains peering over endless pine shores on the horizon, and swamps and bogs to the immediate left and right - is one of the most beautiful sights in all of New England. But the tree played an important role in the recovery of wildlife in the state.

It had sprouted before the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Sitting at a perfect spot with a 360-degree view to scope out breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the tree played host to untold numbers of bald eagles until 1949, when the pesticide DDT drove them to the brink of extinction. This was the last tree in New Hampshire where eagles nested in the DDT era. There were an estimated half-million bald eagles in North America in 1782, when the bird was declared the national symbol by the Continental Congress. In the early 1960s, the contiguous 48 were down to 417 pairs. In New England, the remaining 40 pairs hung on in Maine.

The tree went 40 years without eagles. A little over midway through that stretch, the country banned DDT in 1972 and the waters slowly purified. In 1989, the birds returned and the tree was the first in New Hampshire to see nesting eagles again. Over the last two decades, despite the tree bleaching white in death, it has been the crib to over 20 eaglets.

New Hampshire last year had a record 15 nests with 24 fledged chicks. The last three years have seen more eaglets (57) than in the previous 17 years combined (50) going back to 1989. Umbagog had four nests last year.

Drew said that the other three nests hatched two chicks apiece. But there was no hiding the meaning of the loss of the nest by Leonard Pond, which up to last year had produced nearly a fifth of all the eaglets statewide in the modern era. Drew has a biologist’s instinct that the eagles may never use this tree again.

“My gut tells me this is it. . . . I get the sense that the eagles sense the tree is just too bare now to hold up their nest,’’ he said.

The tree was the beginning of my almost decade-old romance with Umbagog. It is simply my favorite spot on earth. I did not even know about the tree and its history when I took my first kayak lesson here. My priority was staying afloat. In the first seconds of my first lesson, I was too clumsy getting into the boat at the Androscoggin boat launch and flipped over into the water, losing my sunglasses, and frantically holding onto the log that was the only thing keeping me from being swept by the current into the nearby hydroelectric dam.

But I warmed up quickly as our instructor restored my confidence and told us we were heading 3 1/2 miles upstream to Umbagog. The river, which snaked around the pines and the bog foliage, became a feast for the senses: frogs croaking, loons calling, turtles basking, great blue herons stalking and snapping their beaks into the water.

That was a mere introduction to reaching the mouth of the Androscoggin, the Magalloway, Lake Umbagog, and the tree. It was July and there was a good-sized chick in the nest. We had lunch in our boats as adult eagles came and went. Periodically, we heard the small screech of the juvenile, then the piercing cry of an adult.

I had seen bald eagles before, in many states, including Alaska. But I had never paddled deep into their habitat, enveloped by all the other sights and sounds. The screech, then the silence, the screech, then the croak of the frog. The taking to the wing of the adult and then seeing it come back to the tree to see if junior was OK - this was more than OK for me. It instantly became my refuge of understanding what a planet we have been bequeathed.

Such habitat is critical to understanding the ups and downs of wildlife. While bald eagles are thriving again in New England, the signature common loon has struggled in recent years. Among nature’s oldest birds, they had been recovering along with conservation efforts, but they face myriad natural and human threats. The loons are still ingesting lead from discarded fishing tackle, and their mercury levels are still high. Nesting barely above the water line in marshes and bogs, parents will stay rigid on the nest for four weeks, lest a raccoon or other varmint steal the eggs.

Careless motor-boaters can fatally swamp the nests and too-curious kayakers and canoeists can scare the parent off the nest to leave the egg to die. Once hatched, the chick is highly vulnerable, most notoriously to eagles. There are even reports of bully loons taking out a chick. The refuge has about 30 known loon nesting territories. Refuge biologist Laurie Wunder said the record for fledged chicks was 12 in 1993. But no chick survived in 2007. Only one made last year. This summer, as of publication, three chicks were alive, the most since 2006.

“The things you see here, there’s so much,’’ said Paul Casey, the refuge manager for Umbagog for 13 years. “I’ve seen the big stuff like one time an osprey was coming back over the lake with a fish. An eagle swooped down from the tree and snatched it from the osprey in midair.

“But I’ll tell you what I really love. I love the lifting of the fog on late summer mornings. At first you can’t see anything. Then the fog slowly rises and there is this moment where you can just get your bearings through the mist and then you can make out the mountains. The serenity and quietness of that is something. It’s what people miss if they don’t take the time to experience it.’’

It is an experience best done by kayak or canoe in midweek. Better still is camping out on one of the many remote sites managed by the state that line the shore and its coves (part of the lake is in Maine, but its state and federal management is primarily done from New Hampshire). You can only get to the sites by boat.

Being four hours from Boston and almost completely undeveloped, with the exception of the campgrounds and a barely perceptible smattering of cottages, Umbagog averages a mere 178 visitors a day. That compares with 12,600 people a day at Cape Cod National Seashore. Motorboats are allowed, and for the most part, they belong to either fishermen gently trolling or flat pontoons with bird and moose watchers. Boaters looking only for speed generally disperse way out onto the lake.

Any speedsters or party boaters miss the real Umbagog, the dawns and dusks when beavers cruise right by your boat, or massive merganser or goldeneye duck families pop out of the underbrush. Several times, mostly at dawn or dusk, but sometimes in daylight, I’ve rowed around bends to be greeted by a moose.

As grand as bald eagles are, and as massive as the moose, the absolute heaven for me is when I am lucky enough to sit motionless in the kayak for the natural miracle of seeing loon chicks with their parents. It is mesmerizing to see the adults feed the chicks with fish or crayfish and breathtaking to see the moment when a tired chick climbs aboard mom or dad for a ride on its back.

Even more amazing is when your stillness is rewarded by their trust. Nothing is more magnificent than when the normally shy loon turns, with its chick on its back, and comes up to you. The tree that was alive before 1776 may have seen its last nest. But its skeleton stands as proof that if we give the birds a chance, they will declare independence.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an image of a mountain reflection on Sunday’s Explore New England page on Lake Umbagog was incorrectly identified. The scene was shot overlooking Chocorua Lake.

If You Go

The best way to experience Umbagog is to stay at least a night at one of the remote campsites you can get to only by boat. Campgrounds are managed by New Hampshire’s Umbagog Lake State Park. Make reservations through Reserve America at www.newhampshirestateparks.reserveamerica.com.

Don’t have a canoe or kayak? You can rent one in the state park or in Errol, the town closest to the refuge, at Northern Waters, 603-482-3817 and www.beoutside.com.

If you want to stay on a remote site without a boat, a state park water shuttle is available.
Need gear? A fun experience when you forget your flashlight is L.L. Cote outfitters in Errol.
Don’t want to camp? The Umbagog Area Chamber of Commerce lists motels, camps, and bed-and-breakfasts. www.umbagogchambercommerce.com/ business.php#Lodging.
For more information on the refuge, stop in at their offices, about 5 miles north of Errol. www.fws.gov/northeast/lake umbagog or 603-482-3415.

Above all, keep eyes and ears open. One night, refuge biologist Laurie Wunder was in her boat doing a night survey of frog calls. On the way back, she heard splashes. She turned on her flashlight to see her team was “completely ringed in by a circle of greenish-colored, ghostly eyes’’ seemingly floating over the surface of the water. It was moose feeding at night.