Difficulty: Easy to strenuous, depending on how much of the pond you explore and weather conditions. Exploring the entire waterbody could easily take all day. The paddle would measure about 10 miles. But shorter paddling trips on the pond are easy to plan. A number of beaches and islands make for good destinations and turn-around spots.
Information: With sandy beaches, clear water and a mountain backdrop, Donnell Pond in Hancock County is an outdoor destination that’s treasured by paddlers, anglers, beach-goers, swimmers and campers.
The pond covers 1,138 acres, with its perimeter measuring more than 15 miles, according to an overview published by the nonprofit group Lake Stewards of Maine. The pond’s mean depth is 33 feet, and its maximum depth is 119 feet.
A small portion of the pond, including the public boat launch, is located in the town of Franklin, with the majority of the pond in the neighboring township: T9 SD. Much of the pond’s shoreline is undeveloped because more than 60 percent of it is conserved as a part of Donnell Pond Public Lands, a state-owned public lands unit.
Along the shore of the pond are a few sand and gravel beaches, with the largest being Redman’s Beach on the pond’s east side and Schoodic Beach on the pond’s south end. Both beaches are within the state-owned land unit and feature individual and group campsites and picnic tables. These beaches can only be reached by water or hiking trails.
In addition, the state maintains three individual campsites along the shore, as well as a small day use area, that can only be accessed by boat. All of these are marked on the detailed Donnell Pond Public Lands map, which is available online and is posted on a kiosk at the boat launch.
Several small islands and large granite boulders can also be found in the pond, including a cluster of islands not far from the boat launch. These make for interesting landmarks to paddle around. Mountains seen from the water include Schoodic, Black, Caribou and Otter Bog.
While exploring, keep an eye out for resident wildlife. Loons, eagles and ospreys are all commonly spotted fishing in the pond and nesting nearby. Evidence of beaver activity can be found along the shore. A wide variety of fish have been documented in the waterbody, including landlocked salmon, lake trout, white perch and smallmouth bass. And the pond is home to a few different species of freshwater mussels.
On Donnell Pond, motor boats are permitted but small personal water crafts with greater than 15 horsepower such as jet skis and miniature speed boats are prohibited. For more information, check out “ The Boaters Guide to Maine Boating Laws and Responsibilities.”
Donnell Pond Public Lands encompasses more than 14,000 acres of remote forestland, pristine lakes and ponds and some of the region’s most impressive mountains. It is a prized location for recreation, especially hiking, camping and water sports.
Access is free, and camping is first come, first serve, with a stay limit of 14 days within any 45-day period. Dogs are permitted but must be kept on leash at campsites. Hunting is permitted, though special rules apply. The property is open to visitors year round, though some roads are not plowed in the winter. For more information, visit maine.gov/donnellpond or call 207-941-4412.
Personal note: With bug nets in hand, children waded along the shore of the Donnell Pond on July 23, as I slowly paddled my kayak away from the boat launch. Houses lined both sides of the narrow arm of the pond, and many of their residents were out enjoying the sun. A light breeze stirred small waves, and every now and again a motor boat would putter by, sending small rolling hills of water in our direction.
Leaving the inlet and houses behind, we weaved through a cluster of small islands. What looked like tiny lily pads dotted the surface of the water in some places. A kingfisher cried out from a nearby perch. And I decided that, judging by our progress, we could easily make it to Schoodic Beach for lunch.
So we turned south and traveled into an area completely surrounded by conserved land. Ahead of us, two distinct mountains rose up on either side of the long, sandy Schoodic Beach. As the breeze pushed us toward our destination, I explained to my companions that Black Mountain was to the left and Schoodic Mountain to the right. I’d hiked both mountains a couple of times. Hiking trails on them actually visit the beach, so I’d already been there. But it was the first time I’d approached the beach from the water. It was an interesting perspective.
It took us about 3 miles of easy paddling to reach the beach, where we pulled our kayaks onto the sand and laid down towels to sit on while we ate our sandwiches. During the paddle, we passed by a loon. And as we loafed about on the warm sand, a bald eagle soared overhead. A few groups of people were on the beach, including a family that had arrived in a motor boat, some campers who were tenting there and hikers passing. But the beach was large enough for everyone to have their own space.
After lunch, we waded in the shallows and watched schools of small fish flow around our legs. Eventually I decided to sit down in the water so it rose up to my armpits. With temperatures in the mid-80s, it was a hot day for Maine. My clothing was all dry by the time we returned to the boat launch.
The paddle back was a little more challenging because the breeze had picked up and was pushing against us. We took a small detour to check out the two “Under the Mountain” campsites, where I spotted an interesting long-jawed orb weaver spider clinging to a blade of grass that was protruding from the water.
As we re-entered the arm of the pond leading to the boat launch, we passed another loon — or maybe it was the same one? In recent years, loons have not been surveyed on the pond, but in the 1990s and early 2000s, multiple pairs of loons were regularly found living there by the Audubon Maine Loon Project, with an all-time high of 17 adult loons counted there in 2002.
By the end of the trip, Derek and I had resolved to return sometime soon to tent at one of the more remote sites and go snorkeling. As far as freshwater paddling locations go, it’s made it onto our list of favorites.
How to get there: From Ellsworth, head east on Route 1. About 4 miles out of downtown Ellsworth, you’ll come to Tideway Market in Hancock. Just after the market, turn left onto Route 182-Franklin Road. Drive 6 miles, then veer left onto Route 182-Blackwoods Road. Drive 1.4 miles, then turn right onto Donnell Pond Road. Drive 0.2 mile, then turn right to stay on Donnell Pond Road. Drive 1.4 miles and you’ll come to the boat launch and parking lot. Take note that there is a small parking area near the boat launch as well as a much larger parking area that branches off to your right (if you’re facing the pond).
Aislinn Sarnacki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @1minhikegirl, and Instagram: @actoutdoors. Her guidebooks “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine,” “Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path” and “Dog-Friendly Hikes in Maine” are available at local bookstores and wherever books are sold.