Back within a mile of our start at Pinnacle Park in Pittsfield, we glanced down to our right and just about fell out of the canoe. Twelve tiny gray fluffballs were riding the crests of the small waves beside our canoe. Where was mom? Suddenly a female red-breasted merganser appeared up out of the depths looking for her brood, all the while quacking and calling to get our attention away from her ducklings. The raft of babies paddled to shore, scurried across a narrow peninsula of grass, plopped back into the water and furiously paddled out to the security of mom. All was well.

Then two loons appeared on our left, calling, yipping and diving yards away. What a way to end five hours of exploring up the Sebasticook River to the town of Hartland and back under a glorious hazy blue summer sky.

We even wove in a bit of childhood nostalgia. Remember your first ski lessons at your local hill, probably serviced by a makeshift rope tow? Ours was in Falmouth at Poplar Ridge, closed now for decades. The boat launch area in Pittsfield is at Pinnacle Park, an old-time ski area still operating. How many rope tows are still operational in Maine?

Within 10 minutes of our start up the Sebasticook we paddled under the Route 95 bridge into Douglas Pond. There is no development on the pond and very little along the river until you near Hartland. A bevy of swallows darted out from under the girders and accompanied us out into the sunshine. The grassy marshes along the eastern shoreline provided lots of opportunity to poke about. Red-winged blackbird calls filled the air as we drifted through the emerging grasses and reeds. The Sebasticook continues north from the pond and can be paddled to within a few hundred yards of downtown Hartland, where shallow water turned us around for the three-hour paddle back.

Just above the pond the river winds through swales of brilliant green marsh grasses. The occasional maple tree randomly perched at water’s edge looked completely out of place. Every possible shade of green was on display. The dainty white flower clusters of red osier dogwood dotted the shoreline farther up the river. Swallowtail butterflies in their beautiful yellow and black mosaics accompanied us along the way. Maple trees leaning out over the water dispensed their whirligig seeds into the river, forming intricate patterns. On one stretch of river, clusters of maples, some with a dozen tightly bunched trunks, rose like flowers in a vase.

One mile north of the pond you will paddle under the Route 2 bridge. Just south of here is a primitive boat launch on the western side of the river. The short gravel access road from Route 2 is rough, so make sure your vehicle has good clearance if you start your trip here instead of Pinnacle Park. This option allows you to focus just on the river and avoid the open water of the pond on a breezy day.

On our way back down to the pond a lone Canada goose stood in the grass and watched us pass. A blue heron lifted off ahead of us and headed down river only to be encountered minutes later. A cormorant struggled to get airborne and headed upriver.

As we paddled back into the boat launch the ski hill at Pinnacle Park was aglow in late afternoon sun, its slopes covered with blueberry bushes pulsating a rich spring green. We settled in on a picnic table under the pines near the classic old ski lodge and munched our snacks while recounting the special day on the water. Then it was time to climb up to the top – all of a 5-minute hike. Along the way we spotted a shiny object on the slope. It was moving. A painted turtle was slowly traversing the hillside in 80-degree heat far from the water. Farther up the slope we found another turtle likewise engaged. The age-old spring ritual was once again being repeated – depositing eggs in the sandy, sun-warmed soil.

Before leaving Pittsfield check out its striking Carnegie Library on South Main Street, and the beautiful campus of Maine Central Institute. MCI was formed in 1866 as a conduit to supply students to Bates College. One last historical note: In the Pine Grove Cemetery in Hartland is buried former Congressman Clyde H. Smith, whose untimely death in 1940 resulted in his position being filled by his wife, Margaret Chase Smith.

Consult the Delorme Maine Atlas and Gazetteer (map No. 21) for help in getting to the Pinnacle Park boat launch site adjacent to the Sebasticook River Dam on Waverly Avenue in Pittsfield. The park is across the street from the Pittsfield Public Works complex.

Michael Perry is the former director of the L.L.Bean Outdoor Discovery Schools, and founder of Dreams Unlimited, specializing in inspiring outdoor slide programs for civic groups, businesses and schools.

Contact: [email protected]