Our plan was to drive south through Maine’s lake district, northeast into the foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, then south to Northwood, New Hampshire, where we have a reservation at the Meadow Farm Bed & Breakfast, an 18th century historic home. We wanted to wake up within easy striking distance of Walden Pond, yet avoid the busy corridors near the Atlantic shore or and along the Nashua-Merrimack River system northeast of Boston.
Poland Spring was founded in 1895 as a Victorian era resort in Poland, Maine. What drew urban residents to the place was a flowing bedrock spring alleged to have had restorative properties. The original spring is still there on the flank of the hill. It’s identified as “The Source” and housed within a beautiful cut-stone building called the “Spring House.” At that time, this may have been the Holy Grail of freshwater in the northeast.
Springhouse at Poland Spring Preservation Park, labeled "The Source."
Even today, Poland Spring water remains world famous. But something very curious is going on. On the way to The Source, we passed a large bottling plant for Poland Spring water, tucked off the highway behind the trees. If the water from the spring were indeed the water being bottled at the plant, then one would expect to see either a pipeline (which didn’t exist) or a steady stream of trucks moving between the two. We saw nothing of the sort when we staked out the scene. Instead, and as a matter of public record, the water being bottled there and in other plants is pumped from aquifers similar to those of most municipal water supply systems. In other words, Poland Spring Water doesn’t come from the spring. Instead, it’s a wonderful brand name for what is otherwise ordinary clean water coming from a variety of industrial-scale pumping stations.
If a company as large as Poland Spring were actually run out of its original location, then its corporate headquarters building would be much larger than the tiny steel frame building found near the source today. The reality is that this water company is run by Nestle, a multi-national conglomerate operatingi for the benefit of stockholders, most of whom have probably never seen the namesake spring. Effectively, Poland Springs water is very much like Coca Cola without the added ingredients, a brand name rather than a local substance.
In the case of Poland Spring, a good idea became a bad idea. Drinking water from the original trickle of a bedrock spring and bottling it for small-scale distribution was a great idea in 1895 before automobiles and plastics were in widespread use and before adequate urban sanitation. Today, petroleum products are used: to pump not-so-special water from unrelated aquifers around the state: to make the plastic for the bottles that are used; to ship those full bottles around the world to retail stores; and to have that water hauled back home in personal automobiles. On top of this is the traffic congestion caused by the delivery trucks, the air pollution caused by their exhaust, the energy used to recycle the bottles, and the space they take up in landfills.
One hour earlier, my brother in law -- who’s an attorney -- told me about a 1986 court order allowing this multinational corporation to draw millions of gallons of water each year from nearby Range Pond (pronounced Rang) to rinse its newly manufactured bottles before returning the effluent back to the Maine environment.
After Poland Spring, we headed west toward Sebago Lake, one of Maine’s most visited lakes. Its shape is oddly circular for a region with so many elongated coastal bays and inland lakes like Moosehead and Rangeley. It turns out the shape is due to the presence of an enormous round dome of fractured granite, the blocks of which were quarried out the glacier, leaving a deep, cold, and unusually pure lake.
Sebago Lake, looking west from Standish, Maine.
Looking down on the northeastern corner of the lake is the town of Raymond, This is where Nathaniel Hawthorne, famous transcendentalist author and friend of Thoreau, summered as a child. Crossing the gauntlet of the massively developed strip of North Windham, we arrived at a state boat launch on the lake shore in Standish. While framing a photograph, I noticed a piece of plastic litter that I removed from this otherwise beautiful scene. It was a spent shotgun cartridge, dotted with black makings on the inside, where the heavy shot had been held. Though lead shot is now outlawed, much of it remains as a contaminant that bioaccumulates u the food chain.
Our next stop was Cumberland County YMCA Wilderness Day Camp at Otter Ponds.
Otter Ponds Camp, Standish, Maine.
Here, kids are dropped off by parents and bussed out from the city where they can experience life in the woods and be immersed in the purest pond water I have ever seen except for rocky tarns in high mountains.
Sebago is known as a very clean lake, largely because of its great volume relative to its surface area and the limited pollution potential along its shore and in its watershed. The Otter Ponds are a cluster of small, water-filled kettle holes located on a ridge of sand called a moraine, responsible for damming Sebago to its present level. Luckily for the kids, the clean water from Sebago drains through the moraine as groundwater, which acts as a sand filter. Thus, every kid who goes to camp at Otter Ponds experiences the ultimate in pure pond water. I hope they don’t get spoiled in the process. It doesn’t get any better than that.
After reaching the southeast corner of the lake, we headed west into New Hampshire through the lovely village of Cornish. There, we found three antique stores, three ice cream shops, and three boutiques, all within one city block -- the only one in town.
Main Street (U.S. Route 25) in Cornish, Maine.
Continuing west along the Ossipee River on Route 25, we turned north at Freedom, New Hampshire and then north toward Conway.
Ossipe River near Freedom, New Hampshire
The rivers run clean around here for all the typical reasons. They have forested watershed with low human populations, are fed by aquifers charged with snowmelt, and drain soils derived from resistant metamorphic and igneous rocks that release few dissolved compounds.
Purity Springs, New Hampshire
Author Richard Louv would probably like Purity Springs, based on what I read from his “Last Child Left in the Woods.” I recommend his book and this family resort to those who are concerned that kids are spending too much time indoors. He documents that when children have limited access to nature, they become more prone to physical, neurological, and psychic harm. They also become desensitized to non-human organisms and environments. This is not a good thing.
As luck would have it, Kristine and I drove by just as two adults and two middle school boys were crossing the road, carrying fishing poles and a tackle box. We decided that this would make a great photo if we could convince them to stand beneath the sign. Luckily, they consented.
Family fishing at Purity Spring Resort, Purity, New Hampshire.
The pair of dads, each with a son, was returning from time spent catching and releasing eight pickerel and one perch. It turns out that one of the dads has vacationed at the resort for 43 years. I extend my congratulations to these dads for teaching their children well, to their granddads for teaching their fathers, and to the owners/operators of this low-key family resort who provide such wholesome outdoor family fun. Water, of course, is the key. The resort would not be there without it.
Consider the charmingly unpretentious Eaton Village Store shown below, which someone told me was the only commercial property in town.
Eaton Village Store, Eaton, New Hampshire.
It’s tucked away along the edge of Route 153, in the pleasant, but un-majestic hillsides and forests near the eastern edge of the state. This is a place with stone walls, tiny cemeteries, and overgrows orchards so typical of forested land that formerly was cleared for a rural civilization based on agriculture. On the porch of the store was a chair painted as an American flag.
Chair at Eaton Village Store, Eaton, New Hampshire.
Inside were the post office, a selection of essential items, a few curios, and a folksy café run by a matronly cook helped by a teenager . Across the street were some dilapidated tourist cabins fronting the lake that had attracted our attention enough to stop. We wanted to know the water story behind cabins abandoned in such a beautiful place.
It turns out that the village store became caught between a rock and hard place in terms of community wishes. The story I heard was that local folk wanted the café-post-office-general store to stay in business to meet their needs, but also wanted the lake to remain crystal clear, and free of excessive algal growth. The pivot point for this dilemma was the septic system of the present café. It was polluting the lake with excess nutrient because it was too small to meet the needs of those who stopped by.
The solution appeared in the form of a purchase of the property with the dilapidated cabins by a couple from Virginia related to someone in town. They granted an easement to the store for wastewater disposal, while reserving the right to build a shoreline home appropriate for the property. The town and state governments stepped up to the plate to do what they could. It was if the community had waved a magic wand, saving both the store and this part of the lake watershed at the same time.
Let the story of the Eaton Village store stand as a symbolic victory in the tussle between commercial development and environmental regulation. With local interest, creativity, government cooperation, and good will, those of us who love America’s lakes can have our cake and eat it too.
Lee Pollack is a retired zoology professor who lives on the shore of Pea Porridge Pond.
Professor Pollack in his closet-office-lab, Madison, New Hampshire.
I could write a magazine article based on the conversation the two of us had that day about what he and several of my geological colleagues are doing in their spare time. Within the last few years, they somewhat accidentlly created the Madison Lakes Paleoecology Project. One of its goals is to reconstruct the entire history of Pea Porridge Pond, a history that began with a block of glacial ice that melted to create the present pond, on which no motorized watercraft is allowed
Pea Porridge Pond, Madison, New Hampshire.
Lee’s job as a volunteer science-citizen is to identify the microfauna and other invertebrate critters (mostly zooplankton) that have been living in the pond since it was created about 13,000 years ago. Their physical remains were extracted from a deep sediment core taken through the ice from the center of the lake.
Based on the pollen records, the land surrounding the pond was first tundra, then a spruce-pine parkland foraged by Paleo-Indian groups, then pine forest with Archaic native Americans, then the mixed northern hardwood forest of the Woodland Indians and early Europeans. Based on the diatoms and invertebrate fossils, the water began ultra clear, and then has shifted back and forth ever since, with a trend toward slight -- but recent-- pollution in the last century or two. In 1765 the 2000-acre block of land, originally known as McNeal’s Location, was given to one of the Rodgers Rangers in lieu of pay for their military service in the French and Indian War. Now the tract is mostly divided up private land, held as a series of lakeshore properties around a lake. The origin of the name Pea Porridge Pond remains a mystery.
Currently, there is no lakeshore association. I suspect that one will come sooner, rather than later, perhaps because of the lake community’s shared interest in the deep history of this place. Professor Pollock put it well when he said that the most amazing thing about his pond is that “people are so involved in the puddle in their front yard.”
On the more general question of what he likes best about fresh water, it’s that the water landscape is so rich in history. On the down side, and on the short term, he’s most concerned about the high water, which “washed the loons away.” Beaver dams have been a problem in raising the water, but so has the heavy recent rains.
We headed south toward Northwood, our evening destination. We passed through the historic resort town of Moultonboro, on Lake Winnipesauke, New Hampshire’s largest body of fresh water. With no time to spare, we didn’t even bother to stop. Nearing Northwood, we became adventurous enough to take some roads marked with the thinnest ink on my atlas maps, which turned out to be dirt and gravel. Owing to the heavy rainfalls of the past month, they also turned out to be impassable.
After three failed attempts to find a shortcut, we took the long way around to Meadow Farm for what turned out to be a sandwich dinner, eaten on a screened porch while sitting on twig furniture and listening to the steady drizzle.