Keeping the Waters Safe
A Q&A with Ken Bailey, Maine lake warden.
- By: Aurelia C. Scott
Photograph by Sandra Bailey
Ken Bailey, who grew up in the Camden-Rockport area, says that he tried working indoors. After high school and a tour in Vietnam, he joined the family shoe store — Hodgman’s Footwear — “but wearing a suit and being confined within four walls was not what I wanted.” So he took a job writing the outdoors column for the Camden Herald. Eventually, he became editor. While he loved the paper, editors spend a lot of time inside. In 1984, when Ken was offered a part-time position as lake warden for the Megunticook Watershed Association, he jumped at it. Seven years ago, he began working full-time for the MWA as lake warden and executive director. Now, Ken spends his days protecting the thirty-two square-mile Megunticook Watershed, which comprises Megunticook Lake, Megunticook River, Norton and Moody ponds, and several smaller ponds and estuaries in Camden and Lincolnville. He is also a Registered Maine Guide. And he still manages to write, contributing an outdoors column for Village Soup, the Camden Herald Gazette’s online community.
What drew you to working on the water?
I have a lifelong love of the outdoors, and as far as I am concerned, Maine’s 2,500 lakes and ponds are the best. My grandparents had a cottage on Megunticook Lake when I was growing up. Ever since I was old enough to crawl in the boat with my grandfather and go around the lake, it’s just been, well, it’s hard to explain, but anyone who has been able to spend time on a Maine lake, listening to loons, watching eagles fly overhead, understands. One of my favorite memories is the day my grandfather actually let me take the boat out all by myself. I must have been about ten. It was a small boat that didn’t go very fast, but I thought I was King of the Lake.
What is a lake warden, exactly?
As lake warden for the Megunticook Watershed, I am in charge of educating people and keeping them safe on the water, and enforcing fishing and boating regulations. I work for the watershed association and in close cooperation with the Maine Warden Service. The Warden Service, which is a branch of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, has the primary jurisdiction for educating the public about Maine’s laws on fish, wildlife, and natural resources, and enforcing those laws. That said, the Warden Service can’t be everywhere, so that’s where I come in.
I am also an inland harbor master, which is a position created by the state several years ago. There are only a few of us. As inland harbor master for five area towns, I help enforce boating and environmental regulations and help the towns out when the Warden Service is unavailable.
Can you make arrests?
I received law enforcement training at the Maine Policy Academy. So yes, because I am trained and certified, I can wear a weapon and make arrests. I am either inland harbor master or on the police department of all the towns that I work with. But my primary function is not to write tickets all day long. It’s to educate members of the public and make our waterways clean and safe for today and for future generations.
What’s it like to be the lake warden?
I have often said that my office is the best office in the world. When I actually do have to go into the office and do paperwork, it’s a shock to the system. Being outdoors is wonderful. Of course, not every day is sunny and seventy degrees. We are out there year-round. In the boat from ice-out to ice-in, and on snowshoes and a snowmobile in the winter. You never know what you’re going to run into. Every time you turn a corner, even on a lake you’ve been on a hundred times, you might see loons or a moose, a deer swimming across the lake, or even somebody breaking the law! Just this weekend, we had a gentleman who ran his boat up on a ledge and destroyed his engine.
I got a call this morning that somebody’s swim-dock broke loose, so I’ll head out soon and help them retrieve it. Of course, there are the unpleasant things that occur. I have been involved in three recovery efforts in drownings. But, fortunately, those are rare. Most people don’t have tragedies like that, and most treat the lakes and rivers and ponds with the respect they deserve.
You’re also executive director of the Watershed Association?
Doing both jobs is a perfect combination. The Watershed Association works to maintain the health of the water, plants, and animals within its thirty-two square miles, and to improve the quality and safety of swimming, fishing, and boating on the water. So, with my Watershed Association hat on, I conduct water-quality tests, educate surrounding homeowners about how to treat their yards without polluting the water, and generally teach people about the lake. I also work with town code enforcement officers and property owners to make sure that the environmental laws are followed when owners are making changes or building an addition.
What else does the Watershed Association do?
In Maine, we are lucky to have the Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program (VLMP). It started in 1971, which makes it the oldest citizen lake monitoring program in the country. They train, certify, and provide technical support to volunteers who gather scientific information about the health of Maine lakes. VLMP volunteers are a big help to the Megunticook Watershed Association. While I do frequent water tests, I am just one person. It’s great to have the volunteers out there testing for water quality and screening for invasive plants.
The Watershed Association took part in last year’s loon study conducted by Maine Audubon. And we always participate in the annual July loon count. Loons are ancient birds, and they’re symbolic of our lakes and ponds. Being part of a loon survey is a little bit of what we can do to help. We also do what we can to protect loon nest sites.
So, you know where Megunticook’s loons nest?
I know where they are, but we don’t advertise the locations. Loons nest very close to the water and their nests are susceptible to fluctuations in water level. On some lakes, you’ll see floating signs a hundred yards away that say “Stay Away. Loon Nesting Area.” Sometimes such signs are effective, but they can also be little beacons. People think, “Oh, let’s go see if we can find them.”
If you do find a loon on a nest, slowly back away. Loons are not designed to be on land. Their feet are so far back on their body that they cannot walk well. So they use their wings and kind of hitch themselves up. It’s clumsy, and if they are scared off the nest, they may well knock eggs into the water.
Are loon nests damaged by boat swells?
Loons usually try to pick backwater, protected coves, so in general, I’d say no. But that brings up an important topic — boater safety.
Okay, what can you tell us about boater safety?
One of things that makes Maine waters so safe are the many classes available on boater safety. I highly recommend taking one if you are new to Maine, to a particular body of water, or new to your boat. Boats are becoming bigger and more powerful. A lot of times when people buy a boat, they get a lesson in the dealership parking lot about how the boat operates, and then off they go. I’m not slamming boat dealers. The issue is that while Maine has lots of classes on boater safety, it does not have a mandatory boater safety law, so you don’t have to have experience to own a powerful boat. Through the Watershed Association, I offer a service to people who are new to their boats or new to the lake whereby I go out with them in their boat, show them hazards on the lake, explain the laws, and answer any questions they have. A lot of people take me up on the service.
Speaking of boats, the Watershed Association also runs a boat inspection program, which checks for milfoil and other invasive aquatic plant species.
Invasive species are a big problem, aren’t they?
It is scary. Right now, Maine has more than thirty-four bodies of water that are infested with one or more of the invasive aquatic plants, particularly milfoil and hydrilla. That’s not good, but it’s better than other places. In a way, we are the last holdout. States south of us have tremendous problems. Complete lakes and ponds are being choked out. We are doing as good a job as we can to keep them from our waters.
To that end, it is against Maine law to transport any grasses or weeds on a boat or trailer regardless of whether they are native or invasive. Boaters need to be cognizant of the fact that any time they launch their boat and any time they pull their boat out of the water, they must remove and safely dispose of weeds or grasses.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection oversees the watercraft inspection programs in the state and distributes funding to organizations trying to protect lakes. The funds come from the sale of the state’s Lake and River Protection Stickers, which are required on all motorized watercraft using Maine’s inland waters. The Lakes Environmental Association, a non-profit organization that works to protect the waters of southern and western Maine, receives Maine DEP funding and distributes it to local water-protection groups, like the Megunticook Watershed Association. We use the funding to support our Courtesy Boat Inspection Program. Our summer intern and a number of volunteers inspect watercraft entering and leaving our lakes, removing any aquatic weeds and educating boat owners how to check their own watercraft.
What do you do on a typical summer day on the water?
It’s not an eight-to-five job. I try to vary the time I’m on the water. It kind of keeps people guessing. And it ensures that I’m available to different segments of the public who use the water at different times of the day. Fishermen arrive early in the morning; boaters in the mid-morning. Weekends and holidays are busiest. Lake wardens don’t get weekends off in the summertime! So, first I check the public boat launch to see how it’s filling up. I confirm that the courtesy boat inspectors are in their assigned places. Then I check boat sites.
Some days I take water samples for clarity and bacteria, especially around public swim areas. If I notice an uptick in bacteria, I try to find the cause. Often it’s a faulty septic system, so that means contacting the homeowner and working with them to get the issue resolved.
I do safety checks on boats throughout the day. If I see a boat going by that doesn’t have a current registration, I will stop the boat. Maybe they had forgotten to put on the new stickers, or maybe the boat isn’t registered. At the same time, I’ll make sure there is adequate safety equipment on board that meets state law. Maine has a law that children under a certain age must wear a life preserver at all times when in a watercraft — canoe, kayak, or motorboat. I keep a supply of little pins on board. When I see a child wearing a life jacket I give them a pin. It’s a picture of a life jacket with the line “Life Jackets Save Lives.” Kids collect pins and I always hope that getting one from me shows them that a person in my position is not always the bad guy.
If I find folks out without a life jacket or without adequate life jackets on board, I have the options of sending them in for the day, writing a court summons, or loaning them one of the spare life jackets I keep on my boat. It depends on attitude and whether they are previous offenders. People can make genuine mistakes. I believe in giving folks a second chance. But if I had previously warned them, then I’m not likely to let them off.
I check the fishermen to see what kind of luck they’re having. I like to fish, so I am interested. And yes, I do check fishing licenses while I’m at it.
I give directions a lot and help people get around the lake. Megunticook, which is the largest of the lakes I patrol, is fourteen hundred surface acres. It has many coves, back bays, and a few islands. It’s easy for canoes and kayakers in particular to get turned around. They often flag me over.
At end of the day, we look out for individuals who have been indulging a little too much in the heat of the summer day, and should not be operating a boat or a motor vehicle. Sometimes I work with local police if I see someone who looks under the influence leaving a lake.
I do night patrols on occasion. Maine has a number of rules that pertain to nighttime boating. No waterskiing a half-hour after sunset, for example. You need to have running lights on boats after sunset. For their own safety, canoes and kayaks are required to have a flashlight on board after sunset. If a boat is approaching they can shine it. We have had some accidents that could have been avoided if running lights had been in use.
My day can end at 2 or 10 p.m.
What are the essential rules on Maine lakes?
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife promulgates the rules and regulations for Maine lakes and rivers. The department produces booklets that cover all outdoor activities from summer boating to ice-fishing. The information is also available on its Web site. If you’re going to spend time on Maine waters, you should read the rules and the regulations that relate to what you’ll be doing. They have the force of law. Not knowing the law is an unacceptable excuse for breaking it.
We’ve already discussed: checking your boat for plants as it goes into and out of the water; having a boat registration and fishing license; using running lights after sunset, and flashlights for canoes and kayaks; and having a life-preserver, which is officially called a personal floatation device, for each person on a boat. Maine law also requires that children age ten or younger wear a life-preserver at all times in any kind of watercraft. If the boat is sixteen feet or over, you must also have a throwable floatation device. Motorboats must have a working fire extinguisher. Those are some of the basics. Check maine.gov/ifw for more details.
Maine has what’s called a Water Safety Zone, which requires that within two hundred feet from any shore all motorized watercraft must travel at headway speed, in other words, slow enough to produce no wake. The rule protects swimmers, canoes and kayaks, waterfowl nests, and helps prevent erosion. It means that on some rivers and small ponds, where there is no place on the water that is more than two-hundred feet from the shore, only slow-speed operation is allowed.
There are also a number of waters in Maine that have horsepower limits. Boaters should look those up before taking their boat out. There are also waters that ban personal watercraft, aka Jet Skis. Again, people need to make themselves aware of the list. A lot of times people will rent a cottage, take out their Jet Skies, and be very, very disappointed to discover they cannot use them.
Maine’s fishing regulations are often specific to particular lakes and rivers, so again, I recommend looking then up. A simple check in the law book can avoid a summons for a violation.
Which has the right of way: power, sail, paddle, or swimmers?
Paddle and sail-powered watercraft have the right of way over watercraft propelled by machinery. A motorized boat is allowed to overtake — in other words, pass — a paddle or sail boat, as long as it passes at a distance and leaves no wake.
There are no specific laws for swimmers, although that two hundred-foot water safety zone was established in part to protect them. Here’s my personal comment, though. Swimmers have every right to be wherever they want on the water. However, if you strike off across a busy lake swimming solo, you are taking a risk. If you want to swim across, have someone with you in a canoe, kayak, or even a small motorboat. Or use a swimmer buoy, which is a colored, balloon-type piece of equipment that fits on a harness. It doesn’t impede the swimmer, but it adds visibility.
At the very least, wear a brightly colored swim cap. Remember, if the wind is blowing a little, and there is any kind of chop in the water, a boat cannot see a swimmer. Boats do not have brakes. Even if they see you, it may be too late. Accidents where a swimmer has been struck by a propeller are ugly.
So, caution and common sense should prevail, whether you’re the swimmer or the boat operator.
Are there lots of rule-breakers out there?
Oh, not too many. It’s mostly about education, and wanting people to enjoy their day on the Maine waters. I do find people catching more than their share of fish. We have a lot of private property around the lakes. Off-season, in particular, I find people trespassing. Megunticook Lake has a peninsula that is open to the public for day use, but campfires and overnight camping are not allowed. Every once in a while, I will find someone having a campfire. I try to deal with each situation in the most effective way possible. I once had a report of a campfire in a cove at the back end of the lake. As I approached, I killed the engine and the lights on my boat, and surprised a group of young gentlemen, all under age, sitting around the fire. When I introduced myself, they looked panicked and looked at their huge cooler full of beer. I explained that campfires were not allowed in the area. Then I had them circle the campfire and put the fire out one beer at a time. After that I turned them over to their parents. A few years later, one of the guys came up and said that having to pour out the beer had more of an impact on him than getting a ticket or a fine would have.
What about the weather?
I am glad you asked. Weather can be extremely dangerous on a large lake like Moosehead and it can turn dangerous on a small lake like Megunticook. On Moosehead, which has stretches that are thirty miles long, wind can whip up huge waves. But even on a little body of water, a windstorm can produce instantaneous whitecaps. Keep an eye on the sky and check the weather report before you go out. If thunderstorms are forecast, you don’t want to be sitting in the middle of a lake. On a big lake, you might be able to see the storm coming, although that’s no use if you’re too far from shore. Small lakes are often set down in bowls surrounded by hills or mountains. A storm can come out of the west behind a mountain and all of a sudden it’s there. In the late afternoon in summer, you can go from clear blue sky to thunderstorm in a matter of minutes.
I work with the sheriff’s department dispatch center, which radios me when it receives severe weather warnings. That gives me the opportunity to go around the lake and tell boaters that the area is under a severe-weather watch.
I can’t force boaters to head toward shore. After all, the storm may not materialize. But, at least I can give them advance warning and remind them to watch the sky for thunderheads.
How accessible are Maine’s waters?
Maine has thousands of beautiful lakes, and one of the great things about Maine law is that it specifies that the public cannot be prevented from getting onto those lakes. The Great Ponds Act of 1641 allows people to have access over undeveloped land to gain admittance to a “great pond,” which is defined as ten surface acres or more. Now, you can’t just park your car and walk across someone’s back yard to launch your canoe. And in northern Maine, you can’t just walk across any woodlot to get to the water. But on any great pond, there will be an undeveloped area that you are permitted to cross to reach the water. In some states, the landowner owns everything in, on, and under a pond. But the state of Maine owns its lakes and ponds, and the land that lies under them. We, as citizens or visitors, can launch a canoe or kayak because the state owns the water. In fact, there are more than four hundred public boat-launch sites on Maine lakes. Public access is one of the wonderful benefits offered by Maine, and people should not abuse it.
Do you have a favorite lake?
For personal and emotional reasons, my favorite is Megunticook. Every lake and pond in Maine is different. Some are spring-fed and crystal-clear. Others are shallow, decorated with lily pads and frogs. Each body of water is unique, and everyone who lives beside it, fishes, boats, or swims it, loves it for different reasons. There are thousands of memories made every summer on Maine’s lakes and rivers. As lake warden, I hope to help make them good memories.
Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife 207-287-8000, maine.gov/ifw
Rules and regulations pertaining to Maine’s lakes and rivers:
water safety classes
boater safety classes
Maine Warden service
Maine Department of Environmental Protection 800-482-0777, maine.gov/dep
monitoring of invasive aquatic plants
Lakes Environmental Association
invasive aquatic plant monitoring in western Maine
Maine Volunteer Lake Monitors
water quality monitoring
invasive aquatic plant monitoring
Maine Congress of Lake Associations
Megunticook Watershed Association
- By: Aurelia C. Scott