Branch Lake, spanning nearly 3,000 acres and dotted with a few small islands and a greater number of wailing loons, is one of Ellsworth’s greatest assets. It is home to lake trout, landlocked salmon and smallmouth bass. Beautiful, clean and surrounded by valuable real estate, it is also the city’s spigot, the sole source of the public water supply.
It’s a magnificent place and people want to be there. So the efforts of city and state officials as well as nonprofit organizations to protect this natural resource while improving public access deserve applause.
Most recently, the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Bureau of Parks and Lands installed a gravel parking area near the public beach it operates off Happytown Road. The lot is a real boon to visitors, who used to have to park — and often unload small children and all their accompanying beach equipment — alongside the crowded dirt road. Overflow parking will still end up roadside, but things are much better.
The neighboring public boat launch, which opened in 2013, ushers a steady stream of boaters onto the lake on a hot summer Saturday. The orderly procession belies the years of controversy that preceded construction.
The state had pushed for a new boat launch on Branch Lake since 1999, when the privately owned Hanson’s Landing closed. The only public access to the lake at that point was the city-owned ramp at Mill Pond, but a low causeway bridge nearby prevented anything but small boats from getting out into the lake.
Property owners fought against a state launch. The city, too, had objections, largely related to protecting the quality of the water supply. A new access road to the launch and neighboring beach as well as a city-run boat inspection station were part of the compromise that was struck. The city recently worked with the state to pave a steep slope on that road, Boat Launch Drive, to prevent erosion runoff into the lake.
Boat launch attendants, Branch Lake Association “milfoil rangers” and other volunteers have kept up vigilant — and effective — monitoring for invasive species. Boaters should do their part by washing their boats and being respectful of the lake and its residents.
Another way to enjoy Branch Lake is on a hike through the 239-acre Branch Lake Public Forest. The forest, part of the lake’s watershed, was born of a partnership between the city, the Fenn family and conservation groups. Accessed off the Bangor Road, the forest’s four marked hiking trails allow residents and visitors to enjoy Branch Lake and its surrounds.
These efforts have improved quality of life for city residents and may well help attract new ones. It’s a challenge to strike that delicate balance between protecting a natural resource, allowing the public to enjoy it and being respectful of the property owners who pay a premium to live there. Branch Lake is a guide to making it work.