TOWNSHIP 4 INDIAN PURCHASE, Maine — Having boated it for almost a decade, Rick LeVasseur is probably one of the more experienced navigators of the Pemaduncook chain of lakes, but even he hits the occasional rock.
The owner of 5 Lakes Lodge on South Twin Lake, LeVasseur was taking a party of 10 about a mile west of the sawdust pile on Ambajejus Lake on Thursday night when his 25-foot pontoon boat ran into something.
“These are very rocky lakes,” LeVasseur said Friday. “Some of the [obstacles] are just inches below the surface. “I was going along and looking at my depth gauge and I was in 31 feet of water and the next thing I know, my depth alarm is going off and bang. I hit a rock.”
LeVasseur said he was lucky. The rock did no damage apart from startling his passengers, and himself.
“It was an eye opener,” he said.
That’s why a four-man team from the Maine Department of Conservation’s Bureau of Parks and Lands has been working all week setting about 158 of 190 navigational aids, or buoys, in the five interconnected lakes near Millinocket — South and North Twin, Elbow, Ambajejus and Pemaduncook lakes.
The idea, state navigational aid supervisor Tim Thurston said, is to mark all the hazards covered by less than four feet of water in low-water periods, such as September, to improve boating safety and opportunities in the lakes, which make up Maine’s fifth largest body of water.
“We want people to have a safe boating experience,” Thurston said Friday. “This should help increase activity on the lakes, tourism use. It should open a lot of areas of the lakes for safe boating.”
Many boaters would love the chain of lakes but are leery of trying them, LeVasseur said. The locations of hazards is pretty unpredictable, and until this week, when Thurston’s team posted 158 buoys, largely unmarked or invisible.
The chain of lakes will have a lot of markers considering its size. Moosehead Lake, the state’s largest body of water, has about 230 markers, Thurston said.
Thurston doesn’t promise to mark all hazards immediately. His efforts, he said, are a two-year work in progress alterable by boaters’ suggestions and changing weather conditions. His team surveyed the lakes last year and he fully expects to change his plan over the next few years.
The team will return to the lakes in two weeks or so to finish marking the areas already identified.
Two types of $80 buoys generally mark the hazards. Black and white vertical striped aids mark outlying shore areas. Boaters should avoid going between them and shore. “Hazard Area” buoys marked with diamond symbols indicate hazards that boaters should steer clear of, Thurston said.
Anchors weighing 300 pounds and long chains hold the markers in place, he said. Thurston’s team of Mark Huard, Ryan Small, Jake Rideout and himself use a Boston whaler with a work winch and crane to place the buoys. It’s hard, heavy work, even on good-weather days, he said.
The team is responsible for about 2,400 markers in 36 Maine lakes. The chain of lakes is the latest to be marked under a multiyear expansion plan that has marked Green, Long, Pushaw, Cathance, Gardner’s and Great Moose lakes during the last three years, Thurston said.
Boaters interested in seeing the marker layouts on Maine’s lakes should go to the Maine Inland Navigational Aids page at Maine.gov, Thurston said. The overhead map there is especially helpful in showing how much lake area is open to boaters, and boaters can load the data there into most forms of GPS navigation aids, he said.
The team typically marks three or four lakes and ponds annually, Thurston said.
LeVasseur doesn’t expect his business will see much profit from the buoys — “only two of our guests have brought boats in with them in eight years,” he said — but he hopes other area businesses will benefit.
“You could see a lot more people up here,” he said.