I’ve spent the past week skating around as much of Megunticook Lake as I could possibly fit in, visiting the places where some of my favorite little mountain streams trickle in to replenish the lake, and I am feeling deeply grateful for the natural wonders that surround us.

I am not a particularly good skater. I am a relatively fearful, cautious person by nature, but the chance to explore the lake in this way, gliding in relative solitude around islands, cliffs, marshes, and springs, could not have come at a better time.

There is a limit to how far and fast I can kayak or how wet and thorn-covered I can afford to get on any given summer afternoon, but even as a mediocre skater, I can cover many miles of shoreline in a few hours without even getting my feet wet.

Equipped with ice picks, a life jacket, whistle, hand warmers, and helmet, I have logged about 15-20 miles of skating in the Megunticook Watershed over the past two weeks.

Since my sister died unexpectedly in 2018, and now my mom just a few weeks ago, I have found the only thing that remotely quiets my grief is time spent in nature, especially if there seems to be a story worth sharing.

Wiley Brook in Lincolnville from the top of a beaver dam looking toward Megunticook. Photo by Alison McKellar

We are only here on this earth for a short time and are bound to encounter a great deal of sadness during our stay, but there are elements of our natural environment that transcend any particular culture or generation.

One of the things that helped me see past my despair after my sister died was taking up the hobby of underwater photography. During the Spring, Summer, and Fall, and even a little during Winter, I have found nothing more inspiring and cleansing than to peer down into local water bodies and see things that I never imagined were happening below the surface.

Courtesy of Alison McKellar

There is something magical about seeing things you did not know you were looking for, with the mind of a beginner just starting out and trying to identify what you see.

That is what happened for me when I started looking in Camden Harbor to see what kinds of fish were attracted to the flow of freshwater from Megunticook River as it mixed with the coastal waters of Penobscot Bay.

It did not take long before I saw brook trout thrusting themselves against the rocks, desperate to get themselves out of the harbor and back into the river. Some were most definitely the stocked trout that state hatcheries had released upstream days, weeks, or maybe even years before but others seemed to come from the sea. Neither of them were there by chance and all of them are driven by something in their DNA to swim against the current deep into the inland waterways.

I have watched baby eels climb vertically up a concrete wall to make their way to the lake, but they are the only ones that can get around most of the dams.

Fernald’s Neck at sunset. Photo by Alison McKellar

Each time I have been able to identify a new kind of fish, I try to understand a little about what it needs to complete its life cycle.

Brook trout are the most truly native species to our area and were once here in great abundance with no need at all for a stocking program. They need cold, fast-moving, fresh water to spawn and survive, so the little streams that feed into Megunticook Lake are ideal, especially the ones that come bubbling up from mountain springs and pass under thick canopies of forest.

During the different seasons, as temperatures and water levels change, brook trout move back and forth between the deep water of the lake and shallow fast-moving streams. If they get trapped in warm, stagnant water for long, they will die.

Alewives are different and their annual migration happens much less discretely and with greater fanfare than the brook trout, which is why it has become an exciting tourist attraction in many neighboring watersheds.

They only need to spend a small portion of their lifetime in fresh water and rather than fast-moving, cold, rocky streams, they are looking for the slow-moving water and sand found in lakes and ponds.

It is here they spawn before heading back to sea. Along the way, they bring marine nutrients to predators who feed on them throughout the watershed and the eggs they lay. The young fish that hatch from them become food for all the other fish, including Bass and Brook Trout in the lake.

Alewives need to live most of their life in the ocean and are not present in the Megunticook Watershed due to the presence of multiple dams, none of which are equipped with suitable fish passage. Brook Trout, on the other hand, can be found in many pockets.

The Megunticook Watershed in its natural form would have been far more of a two-way street than it is today.

Although most of us received a basic education of what a watershed is, few of us think about it in our daily lives unless something prompts us to do so, often to solve a localized flooding or water quality problem.

If you look at the Megunticook River watershed map, the network of small streams resembles the roots of a tree and they are all indispensable parts of the lake as we know it.

Water that recharges the lake drains from as far away as Levenseller Mountain in Searsmont, Moody and Cameron Mountains on the opposite side of Lincolnville, and Bald, Hatchet, and Megunticook Mountains in Hope and Camden.

Norton, Levenseller, and Moody Ponds, plus a multitude of bogs and other wetlands, all play a part in how fast or slow the water will make its way to Camden and what the temperature and water quality will be once it gets there. The more natural the landscape where the water originates, the cleaner it is where it drains into the lake.

In general, for Megunticook, water quality diminishes the lower down the watershed you get. In Linconville, Marriner’s Brook runs clean from Moody Pond, which is surrounded almost entirely by forested, protected land.

Water leaving Fernald’s Neck passes through a combination of forested wetlands and bedrock, before becoming part of the lake, and Wiley Brook and several others descend from similarly pristine sources.

Each of the little brooks has different characteristics, but many of them attract and shelter small native trout populations.

Unfortunately, some of these small streams are also bisected by roads and poorly designed culverts that block fish passage, but funding is available to upgrade culverts to be less likely to wash out while also more friendly for fish passage. An incredible amount of survey work has already been done to identify culverts that are fish passage barriers. A Google search for “Maine stream habitat viewer” will take you to an online database.

As development increases around the watershed, the water quality in Megunticook Lake and Camden Harbor depends on preserving enough natural space that water can still trickle mostly over dense forest rather than paved parking lots before it cascades or meanders into the water bodies we all share.

Water will drain toward the sea no matter what we do, but if we can appreciate and preserve natural beauty, mimicking nature’s wisdom as much as possible, we will have lakes and ponds that are clean enough to swim in and streams that are open to the native fish we cherish.

By the time the Megunticook River reaches Camden Harbor, it is treated more like a drainage canal than the mountain stream that once cascaded over bedrock.

The water quality drops significantly as it gets close to the downtown and is slowed down and heated up by dams. A series of pipes crisscrossing under fertilized lawns and sanded roads and parking lots with no trees are no substitute for the forested shoreline of Fernald’s neck and the nearby islands.

Brook trout that get stuck in these small, cut-off sections, have a very low chance of survival, since the water is so much warmer and less oxygenated, and they have no way of getting back to where they can thrive.

A watershed is both a maze and a puzzle with infinite paths to explore and stories to tell. The unappealing “swamp” and the seasonal or seemingly insignificant brook are some of the most important components of the lake and if everyone clears out their view to the water or buries little streams in pipes under their driveways, it all has an impact.

The frozen lake offers a magical opportunity to explore the hidden and sometimes inaccessible parts of the watershed to really understand what makes it special.

I can think of few things more magical than the couple days I have spent out on Fernald’s Neck looking at a lake and a forested backdrop where you can take pictures in almost every direction without seeing a building. I am so grateful to the many generations before us who recognized the incredible value of preserving vast swaths of land in its natural state. The need continues as does the importance of all of paying closer attention to the impact we have on the parts of our natural environment that we hope will outlive us all.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Select Board member. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.

Unnamed mountain stream that runs under Route 235 from Hope toward Megunticook Lake. Photo by Daniel Dunkle