Digging our paddles into the shallow water, my wife Fyllis and I steered our canoe around a sharp turn in the river. Suddenly we were face-to-face -- or, more accurately, face-to-knees -- with a massive creature. Another day, another moose.
The huge animal stared at us, shoots of river greens cascading from its mouth, then continued its meal. After several minutes, it took a final, disdainful glance in our direction and ambled into the nearby woods, which were ablaze with fall color.
Welcome to the Rangeley Lakes region of Maine. Most people associate the state with its craggy coastline and touristy coastal towns, and there's much to be said for them. But for me, the "real" Maine lies in the less-visited western mountains, in places like the picture-book village of Rangeley. The town of about 1,200 residents accurately captures the quaint nostalgia of a Norman Rockwell painting.
This is an area with as many pickups as passenger cars, where first prize in a recent ladies' auxiliary fund-raising effort was a shotgun and where my reward for winning another charitable lottery was 50 pounds of deer feed. These characteristics -- some might say quirks -- are among the region's charms.
Single-story frame buildings along Main Street house the Red Onion pizza restaurant, the Pine Tree Frosty (serving the best lobster rolls in town, moose tracks and lobster tracks ice cream, and much more), and a smattering of other restaurants and shops. No stoplights interrupt the sparse flow of traffic, much of it vehicles with a kayak or canoe strapped to the top. Visitors soon realize that this area of Maine is as much a lifestyle as a destination.
People have long been lured by the unspoiled beauty of this region. Abenaki Indians set up hunting and fishing camps near the area's 111 lakes and ponds. Names of lakes -- such as Cupsuptic, Umbagog and tongue-twisting Mooselookmeguntic -- attest to the American Indian influence.
In 1796, an Englishman named James Rangeley purchased more than 30,000 acres of woodlands, paying 20 cents an acre. When a town was incorporated on the site in 1855, it had 258 inhabitants. It was about then that Rangeley began to earn a reputation as a fishing mecca for its abundance of giant-size brook trout. Well-to-do anglers from Boston, New York and farther away arrived by train, and steamboats carried them to several grand hotels along the Rangeley Lake shoreline.
The Depression brought an end to that gilded age, but not to Rangeley's appeal as a year-round destination. That became evident when Sports Afield magazine not long ago included Rangeley in a roundup of "50 Best Sports Towns" in the country. It praised outstanding fishing for trout as well as landlocked salmon, which had been introduced during the 1870s, canoeing and kayaking, animal-watching and hiking.
Hikers take to the forests on trails that range from child-friendly to heart-pumping. A favorite day hike follows part of the Appalachian Trail that runs between Georgia and northern Maine, passing near the town.
When hiking, I always keep a lookout for moose, and sometimes I'm rewarded with sightings of those unlikely creatures. Bulls can weigh more than half a ton and sport a rack of antlers spanning up to 6 feet.