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Why the Registered Maine Guide Still Matters

Why the Registered Maine Guide Still Matters
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VIDEO: Traditions of the Maine Guide

Nearly four decades ago, I tried to become a Maine Guide. I was a teenager attending a summer camp in western Maine, and for two summers running I was dropped off for a few days with other 14- and 15-year-olds at a testing camp along the shores of one of the Rangeley Lakes. “Testing camp” may be a bit grand. It was basically a damp slice of wild spruce forest filled with sharp, eye-level twigs and lorded over by bossy owls. And here our group of five or six feral teenagers were told to carve out an encampment, and then spend several days being observed and tested by Registered Maine Guides, who would decide whether we were fit for the Maine woods.

It wasn’t a survival program. It was more like a home-economics program in which we learned to live comfortably in the Maine woods, which served as both home and supply depot. Leading up to test week, we were taught how to craft a drinking cup out of birch bark folded just so, how to bake a wild-blueberry cobbler by a roaring fire, how to prepare a bed of pine boughs that would contribute to pleasant dreams. We learned how to make coffee by putting grounds, some salt, and a whole egg into a battered, sooty pot, and then suspending it over (and later setting it in front of) a roaring fire. Through some sort of inscrutable alchemy, what emerged from the pot was not only potable but rather good, even to a 14-year-old. We essentially learned to tailor the Maine woods to fit us, and, more subtly, we were tailored to fit the Maine woods.

The adults, as I recall, were a taciturn lot. During my canoe test, the guide spent 20 minutes staring silently at me while I paddled. I was unnerved not so much by his wordlessness as by the siege force of flies and mosquitoes that swarmed around him and landed on his face, and the fact that he made no effort to swat them away. I may have been there to learn about canoeing, but the lesson I took away was how to deal with what life gives you.

The Junior Maine Guide program wasn’t one of those in which everyone got a certificate and a patch at the end proclaiming them to be a winner. Many teens–perhaps most–were notified (afterwards, by mail) that they’d failed. Today, the fashion is that no one should be declared a failure for fear of permanent scarring. That I actually failed twice–it was “map and compass” that tripped me up both years–and haven’t become a sociopath is heartening, although I suppose that the seed simply might not have germinated yet.

But the program did plant another seed: a deep respect for the intricate Maine woods and the rituals by which you could make them your own. After attending schools and jobs along the mid-Atlantic seaboard, I moved to Maine and lived there year-round for nearly two decades. I still spend summers in eastern Maine, at the end of a long paved road in a small town that claims the highest percentage of Registered Maine Guides in the state.

While a teen at testing camp, I labored under the assumption that the most important thing for me to do was to accumulate knowledge: Did jack pines have two, three, or five needles per cluster? But in the years since, I’ve realized that something far more important was occurring over those summers: the ritual of passing knowledge from generation to generation, from experienced guide to aspiring guide. I’d been paddling in a river I didn’t even know existed.


In her 1999 book, Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, the British author Jay Griffiths sketched out two ways of interpreting the past. There’s “artifact history,” she wrote, and “ritual history.”

Most of us are familiar with artifact history. New England brims with house museums filled with bed warmers and boot hooks and forgotten china patterns. They’re durable curiosities, encrusted with the special sort of patina that results from the glazed looks of countless half-interested tourists. Ritual history, however, is far more perishable and elusive. It’s that continuation of an action performed by one’s grandparents and their grandparents. Ritual history tends to erode less noticeably–around the margins at first, like the banks of a river. Eventually the river shifts course, and few remember how it once flowed. The next generation thinks that the river has always flowed that way.

That process is well underway with the guiding tradition. Change happens, of course. Older guides retire and hang up their paddles. Newer, younger guides bring different, more efficient methods. And the old sporting camps are sold to outsiders who haven’t been steeped in local knowledge and conventions.

“That part bugs me,” says Dave Tobey, a longtime guide in Grand Lake Stream, the town where I spend my summers. “New lodge owners don’t follow tradition, which leaves an opening for new guides not to follow tradition. Then you have the option of going fishing in a tin boat versus a canoe, and fewer cookout lunches. It dilutes things, and it bothers me. It used to be as if these things were all etched in stone.”

Tobey moved here from southern Maine in 1973 and learned about the woods from a host of experienced guides, who themselves had learned from their fathers. He gained a number of outdoor skills from them, such as how to read bear scratches on beech trees, but more so he learned how to adapt to the complex and woodsy world around him. “No wasted moves or wasted time,” he says. “That’s what I picked up from the older guides. They didn’t put on extra mileage or extra strokes on the paddle. Or extra words, either.”

When Henry David Thoreau ventured on his third trip northward into Maine in the mid-19th century, with companion Edward Sherman Hoar, he hired Joe Polis, a 48-year-old Penobscot Indian guide, to lead him through the lakes and rivers to circle Mount Katahdin. In Thoreau’s “mossy and moosey” Maine woods, getting lost was more likely than not, so a guide was as essential as matches and compass.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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