Why the Rangeley area could remain an oasis for cold water fish as their habitat warms
More than a century ago, the abundance of oversized brook trout in the mountain lakes and streams of western Maine put the Rangeley lakes region on the map.
Now those same waters are warming up because of human-caused climate change. Still, new modeling suggests this area could remain one of the last, best places for brook trout and other cold water fish, and that could have lasting implications for the rest of us.
This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."
Ever since a New York businessman caught more than half a dozen eight-pound brook trout, proudly photographed them and shared the photos with the world in 1877, Rangeley has been an international destination for fishing and outdoor recreation.
In the early 1900s, tourists eager to experience the Maine woods fueled a lively resort and sporting camp movement, arriving to the western mountains in droves by train.
By the 1930s, vacation habits had changed and the economics for large-scale resorts were unsustainable. The train's been gone for 70 years. But a handful of the traditional camps remain.
And so, of course, do the fabled, iridescent fish.
"That's a nice Kennebago brook trout right there. Nice colors. Got a few battle scars on him, but he's a healthy little brook trout there," says a guide from Grant's Kennebago Camps, in a video demonstrating why coming to camp and catching native brook trout still has broad appeal.
Accessed by logging road, the historic camps are located on remote Kennebago Lake, the largest fly-fishing-only lake east of the Mississippi River. Every year, generations of customers return for the solitude, the famous home-cooked meals and the chance to swim, hike, hunt or cast a line.
"The weather, of course, is what everybody's got their focus on right now," says John Blunt, who with his wife Carolyn has operated the camps for more than three decades. Back in the mid-1980s, Blunt says he can remember fishing in hail and snow in September.
"We don't see that in September anymore," he says. "And the water is cooling down a little bit later and the brook trout won't spawn in warm water. So the cycle is later in the year for spawning activity."
Native, wild brook trout are considered a key indicator species for the health of an ecosystem, the functional equivalent of "the canary in the coal mine."
And that's why federal, state, tribal and non-governmental organizations are collaborating on a project called the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture.
"We all have the primary goal of maintaining thriving fishable wild brook trout populations wherever we can maintain them," says Merry Gallagher, a native fish conservation biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Gallagher says the fish thrive in places with robust forest cover and where water stays below about 68 degrees.
She's part of an extensive monitoring network recording temperature changes in gauges placed in hundreds of lakes and streams. That data and modeling by the U.S. Geological Survey show the Rangeley area in western Maine's Franklin County could become the most resilient to climate warming in northern New England.
"They're not just modeling what the effects of temperature are going to be," Gallagher says. "They're modeling the effects of what temperature might become in accordance with a lot of other variables on the landscape like forest cover, level of development."
Over the past two decades, and especially since the start of the pandemic, development of year-round and secondary homes has picked up in Rangeley.
Jeff Reardon of Trout Unlimited says if that pace continues on top of climate change, it will be that much harder to save trout, salmon and other fish that need protected corridors to move across the landscape.
"It's not just about picking the places that you want to do land conservation on, it's also about once those lands are conserved, how are they managed? And so we would really like to have no-cut riparian buffers along the sides of the streams," he says.
Reardon says even if it's only a 100-150-foot buffer on either side of the stream, the trees can provide enough shade to make a difference.
The forest products industry is as much a part of the identity here as fishing and outdoor recreation, which is why every summer trucks loaded with logs make their way through Rangeley's downtown for the annual logging parade.
But there are places that have been heavily cut over. John Blunt says he's witnessed the damage in the upper Kennebago area watershed where silt and sand from a once-forested hillside have slid into the lake.
"There was a camp that was built down on the end of the lake at the inlet and we used to fish in front of it. The end of the lake has filled up so much that there's barely any water to float a boat at that man's dock," he says.
At one point, Blunt estimates the distance from the dock to the edge of the water was 75 feet. He says he couldn't be happier that the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust and other partners are working to conserve 10,000 acres around the Kennebago headwaters.
"The land trust purchase will eliminate that from ever happening again," he says.
The project, which maintains public access, includes working forest that will be sustainably managed for the future. Executive Director David Miller says the goal is to make the area climate resilient and not just for brook trout.
"The way things are going now with mass extinction of species globally, starting with the insect population and building up that food chain from there, loss of habitat is a major threat. And it's naïve for us to just imagine that's not true somehow. But there's no question we need to be paying attention and changing how we live and interact as part of this community," he says.
Wherever there are brook trout, Miller says, there's a beautiful landscape, one that includes lots of shade trees and cold moving water.
Both will be an oasis in a warming world.