What would a Maine summer be without the chance to get back to nature? Sitting out under the stars while tending a fire nourishes something primal and deep within us, while roasting marshmallows is just proof that there is such a thing as progress.
In Maine, we’re blessed with millions of acres of unspoiled wilderness, and a significant number of us spend some time each summer “upta camp,” whether it’s near Moosehead Lake, in the Western mountains, the Belgrade Lakes region, or something near the coast.
For those who don’t have camps of their own, this means reserving a spot at one of the state’s countless campgrounds. Of course, one person's idea of camping — four months on the Appalachian Trail with your life on your back — is another camper's Winnebago.
For those campers somewhere in between — who like their space and rustic camping but appreciate access by car and the extras that allows — heaven is no farther than western Maine's Stephen Phillips Memorial Preserve.
This 60-plus-campsite paradise is hidden away in several hundred acres of virtually untouched land on the shores and islands of Lake Mooselookmeguntic in the village of Oquossoc. The village itself is part of the town of Rangeley, and consists of a marina and a couple of restaurants and stores near where routes 4 and 17 intersect, about 45 miles northwest of Farmington and 35 miles north of Rumford.
To get to the preserve, you have to drive for several miles along dirt roads, past a plethora of summer cottages. When you arrive at the gate along Birches Beach Road, though, there is a discernible difference.
The open sky above disappears as the thick forest swallows you up. Aside from the call of the many loons that inhabit the lake and woodland rustling from deer and squirrels, the silence is palpable.
That’s just the way the preserve’s namesake would have wanted it.
The Stephen Phillips Memorial Preserve was the vision of Phillips, a Salem, Mass., philanthropist who loved the outdoors and wanted to protect the land surrounding the lake from future development or state control.
Any Mainer who has gone to college in the last couple of decades has likely heard of Phillips; the Stephen Phillips Memorial Scholarship Fund has given more than $40 million in aid to needy New England students since 1996. Several libraries throughout the region also bear his name.
Since Phillips’ death in 1971, the campground has been managed as a nonprofit by the Boston-based Stephen Phillips Memorial Preserve Trust. The trust’s mission is to keep the land wild and to provide affordable opportunities for people to enjoy it in its natural state.
And natural it is.
If your idea of camping involves Wi-Fi, cable TV and a chlorinated swimming pool, you may want to stop reading right here. What makes the Phillips Preserve so special isn’t what it has, but what it doesn’t have.
There are no electrical hook-ups, no showers or even running water. There is no pool and no activities director planning pirate nights for the kids or cabana parties for their parents. In fact, RVs are not allowed.
The preserve consists of 28 primitive campsites along the eastern shore of the lake, another 18 sites on mile-long Students Island (just a short paddle from the camp office), six more sites on Toothaker Island (the lake’s largest island a bit father south) and several more on the many tiny islands that dot the lake’s western shore.
On the mainland, sites are divided into groups of three, each one branching off of a short trail from one of nine small parking areas. Each group of three sites shares a single outhouse.
The sites themselves are large and incredibly private. Each has its own fire ring, picnic table and water access – often a sandy beach, though one site boasts a giant outcropping of rocks that more daring visitors enjoy using as a diving platform.
Wide tree buffers between each site make it possible to feel completely isolated, even during the busiest weeks of the summer. Other than trips to the latrine, campers at separate sites need never lay eyes on one another.
Sites ring the perimeter of Students Island, with nature trails crisscrossing the interior. Hikers can explore the former site of The Birches, a luxury hotel that once operated on the island until it burned down in 1925.
Though it has consistently been named as one of New England’s best camping spots – most recently by Yankee Magazine, just this summer – the Phillips Preserve largely remains a well-kept secret.
The preserve has no website or glossy brochures, and does not advertise. No need: Many regulars make site reservations a year or more in advance to ensure they get first dibs on their favorite spots. Handmade cardboard signs serve to notify walk-ins of which sites are reserved and when.
For the last 15 years, Janet House, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Rangeley year-round, has been the face of the campground. She takes reservations and offers new and returning campers advice on what sites might meet their specific needs. Whether you’re looking for a short trail, for something close to the outhouse or wondering which site has the nicest beach, House can point you in the right direction.
House got involved with the Memorial Trust through her parents Jim and Olive Turner, who managed the camp for more than three decades. Jim Turner passed away just this past February at the age of 83.
I first discovered the preserve the same way just about every one of the thousands of people who pass through the camp each summer has: though word of mouth.
Some friends had reserved a site there a few years back and invited me to join them. From the private beach and Mooselook’s crystal clear water (so perfect for swimming), to the spectacular sunsets over the mountains and the sound of the loons lulling me to sleep at night, I was hooked.
The fresh moose track in the middle of our trail the morning of my second day there was just the icing on the cake. I’ve never seen an actual moose there, but I keep hoping. After all, the lake’s name comes from the Abenaki word for "moose feeding place."
Moose notwithstanding, the preserve is teeming with wildlife. Deer can often be seen grazing near the side of the camp road. Amphibians, ranging from imposing bullfrogs to toads so tiny they could curl up and rest on a dime, hop nimbly across the trails and beaches.
Though no bear warnings are posted, it’s wise to keep your food in sealed, wildlife-proof containers. The red squirrels that populate just about every site are fearless and insatiable, as I once learned the hard way after leaving out a bag of trail mix while taking a dip in the lake. The cheeky buggers ripped into the bag, robbed me of the peanuts, and left the raisins scattered across the picnic table in what I can only describe as a gesture of annoyance. Apparently, squirrels don’t like raisins.
Other wild visitors have included a pair of bald eagles that nest in a massive pine tree on Trillium Cove, a sheltered inlet near the entrance to the preserve, and a flock of Canada geese that once came to visit the small, reedy pond punctuating the tip of the cove.
During daylight hours, seagulls congregate on the appropriately named Gull Island near the center of the preserve, just off the southern tip of Students Island. Though they can create a racket at times, the gulls mostly keep to themselves, unlike their coastal brethren, and don’t bother much with campers.
By far, though, the stars of the show are the loons. In addition to singing campers to sleep at night, the waterfowl seem happy to coexist with human visitors and will often come out for a photo op.
On two separate occasions – once this summer and once last year – I was out for a swim in the cove when I turned around to see a loon skimming through the water no more than 10 feet away from me. Both times – maybe it was the same bird – the bird dove and emerged repeatedly for a meal, apparently paying me no mind.
Even more stunning, for two nights in a row just a few weeks ago, an entire flotilla of juvenile loons – 13 or more of them – came out for a sunset swim near my beach. I watched them breathlessly for a while before thinking to grab my camera, but by the time I returned they were too far away for a good shot.
Once they’d gone, I sat on the rough-hewn log bench someone had fashioned on my beach and watched the sun dip below the western mountains, painting the sky red, pink and orange.
Campers who want their electric hook-ups and running water are fine, but, for me, the absence of cable and Wi-Fi is a fair trade-off for entertainment like this.