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WHY GO: This region of Maine has always been the darling of the “Sporting” set – those who love to hunt and fish (and now snowmobile). But even those who don’t feel the need to pick up a rifle or rod will find exhilarating landscapes, especially if you’re up here in the fall. Tour the home/research facility of a controversial mid-1900’s scientist, learn about the humungous trout that put this place on the map, and stay in one of the remaining Victorian Era hotels in the area, on this Rangeley Lakes ME getaway.
Things to Do in Rangeley Lakes
TOUR: Orgonon – the Wilhelm Reich Home and Museum, Oquossoc. I’ll come flat out and say it – this is one strange attraction, showcasing a very idiosyncratic personality. Wilhelm Reich was either a womanizing Mad Scientist or Misunderstood Genius (my guess is that he was a bit of both), and his Institute/Home in the Maine woods a mélange of “Lost,” “Masters of Sex,” with some Flash Gordon thrown in. A bit of background – Reich was born in 1897 to a Jewish family in what is now the Ukraine (though claimed no religion), attended Medical School in Vienna, was a student of and then worked with Sigmund Freud, joined the Socialist Communist Party promoting sexual freedom and reproductive rights for women, opposed Hitler and the Nazi Party, moved to Norway where he began a series of experiments searching for energy relating to emotions and sexual release (what he coined “Orgone,” derived from Orgasm), moved to Forest Hills, NY in the late 1930’s to continue his work, taught at the New School for Social Research, moved to Oquossoc (a part of Rangeley) Maine to set up a research lab and observatory he called Orgonon, and continued his unorthodox experiments through the ‘40’s. In the early 50’s, Reich was “smeared” (his words) by an article in New Republic Magazine, decrying his use of “Orgone Accumulator” boxes to cure cancer (though he never claimed it did, in fact writing “I am not offering any final solutions, but submitting a report of my findings, even though they are punctuated by gaps, doubt and uncertainties”), and died at age 60 of a heart failure in jail. Was Reich a man ahead of his time? He led the Sexual Political Movement in Oslo in the 1920’s, advocating for a woman’s right to safe abortions and uninhibited sex (splitting with Freud on this issue). He explored the theory of electrical impulses in the human body, and studied weather manipulation. But he was also seen as a Svengali – carrying on affairs with research assistants while married. Multiple times. And with his “cancer treatments,” he drew the ire of the FDA. A visit to his Institute, now a museum, begins with a 30-minute movie about Reich’s life and work followed by a tour of the lab full of objects Reich invented, including one of the Orgone Accumulators, a pre-cursor to a lie detector machine, and a “Cloud Buster” used to draw energy from the air to reseed clouds elsewhere. Sexual release featured prominently in Reich’s work – the function of orgasm was to discharge negative energy in the body. Pent up, it led to disease, or so he believed. Informational signs throughout the lab provide a deeper dive into Reich’s experiments. A tour includes the art-studded office where he researched and slept. The building itself, a boxy modernist stone structure designed and built by James Bell in 1948, is on the National Register of Historic Places. You’ll find it off of the dirt Dodge Pond Road .4 miles from Route 4. The white house you first see is merely the Program Center. You must drive up a steep driveway, through gates, to get to Orgonon itself. Open July and August Wed – Sun 1-5 and September on Saturdays only 1-5. $6. VISIT: Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum, Oquossoc. Opened in 2010 on the site of the former Oquassoc Railroad Station, and administered by Executive Director Bill Pierce, a licensed fishing and hunting guide, this gem of a museum illustrates the appeal of this blessedly gorgeous region of Maine through its local guides. Start your “tour” in an authentic outpost cabin owned by Leeman Wilcox, recreated with table set for dinner, birchbark ceiling, and, over the fireplace, the actual gun that killed the last of the state’s caribou in the early 1900’s. In the cabin are a pair of antique “Bear Paw” snowshoes – a technology at least 5,000 years old introduced by Native Americans – and an elongated megaphone used to call moose, which a docent will demonstrate (makes sense that these are now called “bullhorns” as they were used to mimic the sound of Bull Moose). Rangeley Lake became a hotspot for fishermen when it was found to contain some of the largest brook trout in the world. New York industrialist, George Sheppard Page, who came to Rangeley to fish in 1877, caught eight 11 lb trout, took a picture of them, and changed the fishing world forever. He sent the photo to newspaper editors in New York. Until then, fish experts believed Brook Trout grew to only nine pounds, so this find blew that idea right out of the water (so to speak). The railroad brought flocks of tourists to steamboat docks, and whole families would stay with locals who’d serve as guides. A whole tourist industry grew up around this newfound fame. Fishing wasn’t completely a man’s domain. This region spawned some pretty incredible women, including Cornelia “Flyrod” Crosby – an avid writer, angler, and personal friend of Annie Oakley who was Maine’s very first Registered Guide– and Carrie Stevens, who many consider the “greatest fly tier that ever lived,” creating flies so prized, they are works of art that today command thousands of dollars. And one of the best wilderness authors, was Louise Dickinson Rich, who wrote, We Took To The Woods, and other accounts of her time spent in the Maine Wilds. You’ll learn about the intricacies of fly fishing – especially in the late 1800’s when a bamboo fly rod cost a whopping $5, and fly line was hand-woven with eight strands of silk (until 1895 when automated) and cost the king’s fortune of $15. After WWII – the advent of better cars and a thirst for exploration had a deleterious effect on local tourism. No longer limited to trains and boats, tourists could jump in the car and go anywhere at anytime. But a visit by Eisenhower to Rangeley in 1955 recharged interest for awhile. You can watch rare “found” footage of his fly-fishing prowess in a great “Ike” exhibit. Currently, the area is reinventing itself as a four-season adventureland. Of course you can fish here, but snowmobilers love this region in the winter. And if you usually steer clear of museums, make it a point to visit this one. It’s that entertaining. $5, Open May – mid Oct, Thurs-Sun 10-4, June Wednesdays also, July and August daily 10-4. STOP: Height of the Land Overlook. Travel south on Route 17, The Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway, a few miles to one of the most splendiferous overlooks in the world. No lie. It is stunning in every season, but most breathtaking in the fall.
QUIRKY FACT: Rangeley, ME is exactly halfway – 3,107 miles – between the North Pole and the Equator!
WHERE TO EAT IN RANGELEY MEEAT: Rangeley Tavern @ Rangeley Inn. Dimly lit, mason-jar water glasses set on white butcher paper, The Rangeley Tavern calls its offerings “refined rustic cuisine.” Locally sourced dishes certainly are fine, and creative – honestly, unexpected in this out of the way region of Maine – and some of the best eating in the state. I could have finished a second “Garden Salad” – with veggies that seemed picked moments earlier – a blend of greens capped with pickled red onion and candied carrots served in a canoe-shaped white ceramic bowl. The Tavern Chicken With Asian Mustard Glaze proved that the chef knows his way around fowl, though I’d imaging that other offerings – like the “Butcher’s Special Sandwich” ($15) that changes daily, would be equally fine.
EAT/RANGELEY: For a tiny lake-front town, Rangeley’s got some very well regarded eateries, among them Forks In the Air Mountain Bistro, which has won raves from locals and across all review sites. EAT/OQUOSSOC: There are two places to eat in this tiny four-corner town. One is the “more touristy” Gingerbread Restaurant (in an old Victorian House) and the “podunk for locals” – Four Seasons Café – a plastic tablecloth place where you can get a really good Portobello or Black Bean Burger – or other from-scratch soups and sandwiches.
STAY: Rangeley Inn. This hotel, built in 1897, is one of the only remaining Victorian Age lodgings that peppered the area when city residents came to the Maine Lakes Region for the summer. Rooms are not exactly “luxe,” but comfy, clean with décor that reflects turn of last century with upscale amenities and updated bathrooms. The on-site Rangeley Tavern (see above) serves outstanding food. In the morning, a Continental Breakfast is served in a soaring magenta “event” room. Rooms rates $125-$225 per night.