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Nothing says Downeast Maine like Tunk Lake. This beautiful 2000-acre natural lake is wild, pristine and entirely accessible to all comers. Considered the third deepest lake in the state, Tunk Lake is exceedingly clear and scenically beautiful. Only a couple dozen private cottages share the 16 miles of wooded shoreline. Located about seven miles from the nearest village, Tunk Lake lies in the heart of near-coast country along the lovely Blackwoods Scenic Byway. State route 182 meanders through low mountains alongside several ponds and lakes, and is the starting point for many a hike or afternoon climb up Tunk Mountain or Black Mountain.
Known as one of the top three lake trout (togue) lakes in Maine, its value as a natural resource was recognized early. Famed Naval explorer Admiral Richard Byrd long had an expansive cottage here called Wickyup. His descendants now own Wickyup II, built to replace the original cottage which burned. It's that kind of lake, one where people jealously guard their piece of paradise and protect it from damage and over-development. Nearly the entire lakeshore is now either in Public Lands status or conservation easement. Properties are nearly impossible to purchase here-and likely will be long into the future.
There are no commercial ventures at Tunk Lake-only a few property owners who occasionally rent out their cottages by the week to lucky vacationing visitors. Even with a public boat ramp located off SR 182, the lake is seldom crowded. Canoes and kayaks glide silently through the waves, taking care to avoid submerged rocks near the shore. The lake is often choppy, with winds arriving suddenly and blowing strongly. Tunk Lake lies at the base of 1,140-foot Tunk Mountain, in the shadow of Black Mountain; both are popular uphill climbing locations, with spectacular views from the summits. A few remote primitive campsites lie along Partridge Peninsula on the south end of the lake and can be reached by water.
The boat ramp is suitable for small motor boats, many of which arrive outfitted for fishermen. Jet skis are not permitted, keeping the lake quiet and serene for nesting loons and waterfowl. The shoreline is mostly rocky, with surprise sandy beaches appearing irregularly along the shore. There is no public swim beach as there is at nearby Donnell Pond, but a few hardy souls are always prepared to slip into the cold yet inviting water. Because the water is so transparent, the bottom is often much deeper than it appears, leaving many surprisingly wet at a first wading attempt. Water clarity makes snorkeling at Tunk Lake particularly rewarding.
The outlet stream near the boat ramp leads to Spring River Lake a short distance away. The stream is a natural nursery for the few landlocked salmon that manage to spawn in the lake and for the many lake trout fry. The salmon are stocked each year by Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the agency that also maintains the boat ramp. The lake trout are naturally reproducing in the cold waters and are joined by brook trout, rainbow smelt, American eel, alewife, red-breasted sunfish and pumpkinseed sunfish. To protect the lake trout population, fishing limits of a minimum length of 23 inches is imposed to allow for spawning once they reach maturity. Ice fishing is also quite popular and is permitted after January 1st each year. Locals recommend snowshoes for getting around on the ice.
Trails in the area have long invited adventurous hikers. A number of small unofficial trails lead toward the top of Tunk Mountain. Hikers are advised to carry a compass as the many trails and heavy growths of birch, pine and spruce make it easy to get lost. More trail signage is under construction. Other trails lead to the interior of the large expanse of public lands hidden behind the mountains. Rocky granite ledges and outcroppings support growths of low-growing native plants. In autumn, hikers reaching mountaintop vistas look down at the many lakes with their shorelines turning a flaming red as the blueberry bogs change color. And the best part is that this pristine wilderness is still close to civilization.
The town of Ellsworth is about 15 miles down Blackwoods Byway. This old town holds the home of the namesake of Blackwoods Byway and also Black Mountain. Colonel John Black was the agent for the absentee owner of a great deal of property in the area, managing it for timber harvesting. He also married another large landowner's daughter, thus becoming a large property owner himself. The Blackwoods Byway meanders through the wooded tracts he managed. Col. Black built a mansion in Ellsworth along with a carriage house and formal gardens which is now managed as a museum. The house, outbuildings, gardens and attached park are open for visitors, including those who walk the many trails in the park. Ellsworth has the usual supply of commercial lodgings, along with many quaint inns, bed & breakfasts and plenty of restaurants. Not far east of Ellsworth, the little town of Franklin (named after Ben) holds one of the two remaining Galamanders in Maine, an ox-drawn contraption expressly intended for lifting and carrying large blocks of granite. The contraption ranks its own roadside park where it resides under a pavilion in testament to the area's past as a granite quarrying area pre-1900.
About seven miles east of Tunk Lake is Cherryfield. The town's fields hold blueberries, not cherries. Cherryfield has thousands of acres of acidic bog land under cultivation for blueberries, providing the largest employment in the area. Known as the blueberry capital of the world, Cherryfield is a don't-miss stop for anyone interested in historic buildings. Over 40 homes in the town center are listed on the National Historic Register, with many over 200 years old. A self-guided walking tour is a picturesque way to spend a pleasant afternoon and take photos. The town has grown up on both sides of the Narraguagus River, which early townsmen dammed for water power. Not far away, the 1,450-acre Narraguagus Wildlife Management Area protects much of the area between the two main branches of the river and includes critical spawning habitat for Atlantic salmon.
Nothing tells us where Tunk Lake got its name. Originally it was called Tunk Pond and '-tunk' is a suffix to several Native American words which refer to bodies of water. However, there may have been an early settler who went by the name of Tunk and if so, his most visible trace appears to be left in beautiful Tunk Lake. Even without knowing its origins, Tunk Lake is a delight no Downeast visitor will want to miss.
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