Lakes start to blend together if you paddle enough of them, Amanda James has learned. So far this summer, the Bar Harbor native has completed 24 paddling voyages, and she’s not done yet. She’s on a mission to paddle the length of Maine’s 100 largest lakes, each one from end to end.
But there’s one lake, or technically chain of lakes, she won’t forget.
“That was kind of a wild ride,” said James, a 31-year-old native of Bar Harbor, reminiscing on the journey over a table at a Bangor café.
It was mid-June when James set out to paddle the Pemadumcook Chain of Lakes — consisting of Ambajejus, Pemadumcook, North and South Twin and Elbow lakes, all connected together to form 18,300 acres of water in Piscataquis and Penobscot counties.
The water was as smooth as glass, she said. Mount Katahdin rose in the distance, dark blue against a pale blue sky, as she paddled across Ambajejus Lake on her wooden stand-up paddle board, leaving any sign of human life miles behind.
About half way into her 10-mile crossing, the wind picked up. Waves grew taller, lifting the nose of her board and washing over her neoprene-covered feet. Her muscles burned, working to maintain balance as she pushed forward against 15-mph gusts.
James recently completed a 115-mile water trail through the Florida Keys on her wooden paddle board. An experienced paddler, she doesn’t mind a little rain or wind. But as the weather turned for the worse on the Pemadumcook lakes, she found herself stamping down fear before it grew to panic.
“I hate to admit it, but I felt kind of defeated and stupid to be there,” said James. “On a paddleboard, I felt like I was riding a buoy. When the wind is that strong, it’s really hard to maintain your course.”
Two fishermen motored over to James during her journey to ask if she needed help. She stubbornly waved them on and paddled all 10 miles to the far end and southwest corner of the chain of lakes.
As has been the case for most remote lakes, James planned on paddling back across the lake to reach the boat launch and her vehicle. Sitting exhausted on the shore, she dreaded the prospect of facing the wind and waves for another 10 miles. That’s when Fud, an 81-year-old fisherman in a motorized canoe, showed up to offer her a ride. She said no.
He offered again. Thankful, she accepted.
“In hindsight, this mother of a lake was the first that I believe I have pushed my boundaries of flying solo and still being smart,” James wrote in her blog at 100mainelakes.com. “I am however coming to recognize the power of these bodies of water and how quickly conditions can come up and threaten to swallow a solo paddler. … I am being humbled by these lakes, and I think it’s probably a good thing.”
James has paddled across 10 lakes since the Pemadumcook, bringing her total to 24 lakes out of the 100 on her list. She began the project in the spring, and she predicts it will take about three years to complete — and somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 miles of paddling.
Why so much effort? To James, it’s a personal goal worth pursuing.
“It’s kind of a crazy Maine mission,” she said.
James grew up hiking and skiing with her family in Acadia National Park. Her coastal Maine roots run six generations deep. Yet in her late teens, she left home to travel to foreign lands such as Ireland, New Zealand and Hawaii, typically finding work in the outdoor industry. And when she was 20 years old, she thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.
“I’ve traveled so much and been to all of these incredible places, but I still missed Maine,” James said. “So I was trying to find ways to connect with Maine and identify with Maine from afar.”
At an L.L. Bean outlet in Tennessee, she stumbled across “Where Cool Waters Flow,” a book by Maine master guide Randy Spencer.
“It has these incredible stories of places and people that are so much a part of my home — or really close to my home — but felt very foreign to me,” James said. “So I felt compelled to learn more.”
James figured it was time “to get to know Maine,” home to 6,000 lakes and ponds and just about 1.3 million people. And for an avid paddler, what better way to travel Maine than by paddleboard and kayak?
“If I was doing this for anything other than myself, it would be hard to maintain and move forward,” she said. “I’m a very physical person. Physical challenge really drives me, and in my mind, it’s the best way for me to know and see and explore Maine. … I know I could be exploring Mongolia or the Baja Peninsula, but right now, I feel totally compelled to explore Maine.”
And she’ll be traveling in style. James crafted her own board.
Over the past few years, she has made the time to return to Maine to attend courses at the WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, and she now runs her own small business, Little Vessels, selling her hand-built, wooden stand-up paddle boards.
For the 100 Maine Lakes project, she jazzed up her Little Vessel with a red-and-pink striped hull. And to tackle some of the largest lakes on her list, she plans on attending the WoodenBoat School to build a Greenland kayak, basically canvas (traditionally seal skin) on a wooden frame. The design should weigh just 28 pounds, light enough for James to easily handle on her own.
“I’d love to have people paddle with me, but it’s hard to find people with flexible schedules who are strong and competent paddlers and will say, ‘Hey, I’ll spend three days in Millinocket with you.’”
Aware of the risks of solo paddling, James watches the weather like a hawk, but because Maine weather is so unpredictable, she has a “few” pieces of emergency gear on her at all times.
“I have all this crap on my PFD. I feel like a sales rack,” said James. Strapped to her PFD is a GPS, cellphone and camera (all waterproof), as well as a small backpack with food and water. For backup, she packs a compass, Maine gazetteer, flares, and a SPOT Personal Tracker, a high-tech device that tracks her whereabouts with satellites and reports her every movement to a website that can be accessed by her family and friends.
“It also has a worst-case scenario button that communicated with local search and rescue,” she said.
In addition to the Pemadumcook lakes, James has successfully traversed Branch Lake, Toddy Pond, Unity Pond, Sebasticook Lake, Great Moose Lake, Big Indian Pond, Pushaw Lake, China Lake, Millinocket Lake, Lower Jo Mary Lake, Upper Jo Mary Lake, Dolby Pond and Flagstaff Lake, among others.
“Originally, I remember being surprised thinking, ‘Where are all the people?’ I’d be on these huge bodies of water and see only five or six people,” James said. “I guess the true rugged and remote nature of Maine has kind of been surprising to me.”
Even though Maine has a sparse population in some areas, James has run into plenty of caring locals during her travels.
“I’ve had people invite me to stay with them and over for dinner, and that kind of stuff goes a really long way,” she said. “I’d always learn more about the area, and I love that kind of thing. It means a lot when you’re by yourself and tired.”
She and her boyfriend Josh recently moved to Ocean Park, near Old Orchard Beach, where James will attend college and continue working her way across the 100 largest Maine lakes.
“In the end, is it going to matter to anything or anyone? Maybe not,” said James. “But I’ll know I truly had a very unique, very challenging Maine adventure.”
To follow the 100 Maine Lakes journey and learn about Little Vessels, visit 100mainelakes.com.