Sense of Place: Promoting Environmentalism in the Belgrade Lakes

By Julia Grimmett
Julia, who returned to Manitou in 2020 for her 4th summer, is a recent graduate of Colby College. She is currently pursing a graduate degree in Science Writing from Johns Hopkins.

A wispy layer of fog seeps over East Pond as the warm surface water mingles with the cool morning air. A family of loons calls to each other with spine-chilling hoots that echo softly across the glassy water. An arsenal of birches, hemlocks, spruces, and maples stand guard along the shore, towering high in the pastel morning light. 

A few hours later, the quiet serenity shatters into a bustling array of life. Everyone flocks to the water on fishing boats, paddleboards, and kayaks. Children scream with delight as they bounce through inflatable aquatic obstacle courses. In the evening, a brilliant tapestry of color drapes across the sky. Glasses clink as families host cocktail hours on docked pontoon boats. 

East Pond, an 1,823-acre lake in Oakland, Maine is one of seven interconnected bodies of water that make up the Belgrade Lakes. Located in Central Maine, these picturesque lakes attract thousands of visitors from across the country and the world each year. Unfortunately, their popularity has consequences. Centuries of human development have taken their toll on the lakes and their fragile ecosystems. If the water quality continues to plummet, the lakes will eventually reach the point of no recovery. Prevention is key, and local scientist James Rodger Fleming believes that appealing to people’s attachment to the Belgrade Lakes is an effective way of calling people to action in protecting them. 

People have enjoyed the Belgrade Lakes since they were home to the Abenaki Indians who hunted and gathered in the neighboring forests and wetlands. The first European settlers arrived on the scene in 1774 and quickly took over the region. They utilized the lakes’s spring-fed water to create prosperous mill and agriculture industries. The dense forests provided plenty of lumber to support the rapidly growing population. By the mid-1800s tourism was blossoming in the region, an industry that continues to buffer the local economy to this day. 

While trees toppled down to make room for roads and lakeside summer homes, pollutants began to eat away at the Belgrade Lakes’s fragile ecosystems. According to the Belgrade Lakes Association, the primary source of pollution is the local watershed, or the surrounding areas from which water drains into the lakes. As water trickles down through lawns and cluttered drainpipes, harmful chemicals hitchhike along with it and end up seeping into the lakes. 

When measuring pollution and water quality in lakes, phosphorus, water clarity, and dissolved oxygen are the Big Three. Together, these criteria help paint an accurate picture of a lake’s overall health. Of the three, phosphorus takes first place because this key nutrient plays a pivotal role in freshwater systems. Lakes need phosphorus to support vital plant and algae growth, and small amounts of phosphorus occur naturally. However, when a certain threshold is crossed, algal blooms occur. 

In an algal bloom, algae and cyanobacteria that are normally present in small quantities grow rapidly, making the water greener and browner and reducing the water clarity. The bloom prevents sunlight from reaching the deeper levels of water where most of the lake’s plants and animals live, slowly suffocating them. If oxygen levels in the water become so low that species start to die out, a condition called aquatic hypoxia, it’s almost impossible to reverse the process and bring them back. 

Saving the Belgrade Lakes from this outcome requires a group effort, especially from people with properties in the watershed area. Fortunately, Fleming and his team of Colby College students have found a solution by drawing inspiration from an unlikely source: prolific writer Wallace Stegner. 

In his writing, Stegner coined the term “Sense of Place,” which he defined as “the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a family or a tribe; the knowledge of place that transcends single generations and looks to the future.But, as Fleming says, “Sense of Place is not just for poets and writers.” 

The intergenerational emotional connection to a place that Stegner described is palpable in the Belgrade Lakes. People pilgrimage to Maine each year to reconnect with friends, family, and the lakes. A survey conducted by Colby College found that 86% of locals have been coming to the Belgrade Lakes region for 10 or more years. By creating opportunities for these people to talk about their own relationships with the Belgrade Lakes as “stakeholders,” Fleming and his team found that simple conversations were effective in connecting the dots between Sense of Place and environmentalism. 

One local community with a particularly strong Sense of Place is Camp Manitou, an all-boys summer camp located on East Pond. Dave Schiff, one of the current camp owners, has been coming to Manitou since 1985. Growing up, he accumulated countless memories on East Pond. 

“As a teenager, I spent a lot of time on waterski boats on East Pond.  There was always a feeling of adventure, challenge, and comradery when we boarded a boat for a session of waterskiing or tubing.”

Schiff is a firm believer that Camp Manitou and the other East Pond residents have a responsibility to protect the place that they feel so connected to. Camp Manitou gives back to East Pond by participating in a community-based program called LakeSmart. The Program utilizes an award system to encourage people to minimize their impact on the lakes. Blue and white award signs are awarded to properties that pass the inspection in four areas: Driveway and Parking; Structures and Septic Systems; Lawn, Recreation, and Footpaths; and Shorefront and Beach Areas. By utilizing an award system in place of a penalty, LakeSmart encourages residents to take pride in “treading lightly” on the lakes.

LakeSmart has been relatively effective, but the Belgrade Lakes are by no means in the safe zone. These lakes and other vulnerable ecosystems require consistent protection from the people whose footprints put them at risk in the first place in order to survive. As Fleming said, “environmental issues belong to us all, not just to the scientists.”

List of Sources

  1. Burgess, Isabel K. “Belgrade Lakes, Maine: The History of a Summer Community and Its Effect on the Environment (1774 – 2009).” Belgrade Lakes Association, 16 Dec. 2009,
  2. Chen, Xiaojie, et al. “2014 Statistical Abstract for the Belgrade Lakes Watershed.” Colby Economics, Colby College, 2014, 
  3. East Pond Association, 
  4. Email interview with David Schiff, owner of Camp Manitou. 10/13/20.
  5. Email interview with James Rodger Fleming, professor, Colby College. 10/4/20.
  6. Fleming, James Rodger, and Erin A. Love. “History, Sense of Place, and Watershed Protection in the Belgrade Lakes Region.” Maine Policy Review, vol. 21, no. 1, 2012, pp. 90–94.,
  7. “Water Quality Terms.” Belgrade Lakes Association, 2020,