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Why the Registered Maine Guide Still Matters

Polis was more than just a directional beacon, though; he was an adept interpreter of the natural world around him. He taught Thoreau about the variations of biting flies that pestered them, and how to distinguish between types of spruce by touch. He could see trails in the woods that were invisible to others. At times, Thoreau wrote, Polis “would step into the canoe, take up his paddle, and, with an air of mystery, start off, looking far downstream, and keeping his own counsel, as if absorbing all the intelligence of forest and stream into himself.” Polis served as a translator between Thoreau and the often hard-to-decipher text of the Maine woods.

In the decades following, the traditional guide built upon the Polis template, adding skills honed during careers as loggers living in and working the woods. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the nation was afflicted with a sudden mania for brook trout, Maine Guides became revered for their uncanny ability to lead anglers to fish. “The typical Maine Guide is just as much a product of the soil as are the mighty forests,” wrote Herbert Jillson in Outing magazine in 1901, “and his replica is not to be found elsewhere.”

The State of Maine began officially licensing guides in 1897 (and still does so today), which ensured that visitors would get a guide both skilled and experienced. Early guides became licensed through a sort of informal apprenticeship system, picking up forest skills from a previous generation. Amply outfitted with handed-down experience, the Maine Guide became an icon in the popular imagination, the Far Northeastern variant of the Western cowboy. Instead of a ten-gallon hat and a lariat, he had a plaid jacket and rubber-soled leather boots.

Judging by numbers alone, the craft of guiding is as healthy now as ever. Don Kleiner, head of the Maine Professional Guides Association, says that membership in his group has held steady for some time: about 800 registered guides of late (out of the 4,000 or so who are licensed in the state). But that number includes not only traditional hunting and fishing guides but many of the newer breed, too–younger guides who wear Gore-Tex and lead whitewater rafting trips on the northern rivers and sea-kayaking trips along the coast. And then, too, a lot of those not in the association just think it would be neat to be a Registered Maine Guide, taking the tests and getting a patch, but they rarely guide anyone.

Woodie Wheaton grew up next to the dam where Grand Lake Stream flows out of West Grand Lake. He was a son of Arthur Wheaton, a noted guide during the brook-trout era, and may have had a hand in inventing the Grand Laker, a heavy, square-sterned wood-and-canvas canoe designed for traversing big, wild, rocky waters. These handsome, sturdy boats are still handmade in garages hereabouts and are still used by area guides. Woodie started guiding when he was 14, and continued guiding for 68 years. In the 1940s, some of his clients convinced him that he should build his own fishing lodge. So he bought some shoreline in Forest City on East Grand Lake, along the headwaters of the St. Croix River, about an hour northeast of where he’d grown up. He built a dining room and a kitchen, plus a handful of cabins he could rent out to fishermen.

Woodie raised three sons–Art, Lance, and Dale–all of whom also became Maine Guides, and all of whom are still guiding today. If such a thing as a Maine Guide aristocracy existed, the Wheatons would be its Windsors, living in a log castle on a hill, perhaps with a family coat of arms featuring crossed paddles under a recursant loon.

I recently drove up to visit the Wheaton brothers to see where guiding was now and where it might be headed. Forest City is where the United States runs out; if you accidentally drive past the three shorefront houses where the Wheatons live, you’ll soon find yourself at a booth where someone will welcome you to Canada.

You’ll find another sort of dead end here, as well. The brothers are in their late 60s and early 70s. Dale owns Wheaton’s Lodge, the place built by his father; Lance has his own sporting lodge called Village Camps just down the lake; Art, now retired from his position as a marketing executive at Remington Arms, built an impressive home next to Wheaton’s Lodge (some locals refer to it as “the Log Mahal”) and now guides occasionally during the summer. All three have children, and all the children have one thing in common: None is interested in carrying on the guide tradition. Both sporting camps are for sale.

Setting off up the lakes with the same guide or his offspring year after year was once a hallowed ritual in the Maine woods. From the porch of his lodge, Dale pointed out an elderly man walking toward the lake with a rod in hand. “I’ve fished with him every single year since 1977,” he says. “The place is full of those people, and that’s my bread and butter.

“People grow into it,” he adds. A guest might start one year fishing with night crawlers, then later move to the fly rod, and then the dry fly. It’s a steady progression. Time was, clients would come back season after season, hiring the same guide each year. Then they’d bring their children, who in turn would also hire that guide when they came of age.

But that process of inheriting a guide from one generation to the next is fading. Hunting and fishing are no longer as popular as they once were. (Maine shows more persistence than its neighbors, however: Sales of fishing licenses saw an uptick over the past decade, and hunting held steady, compared with sharp drops experienced by most other New England states.) And a younger generation of affluent anglers seems more curious about what’s over the horizon: Many collect destinations as if they were Boy Scout badges, booking angling trips to Chile, Iceland, Scotland, or Idaho. With the Internet allowing easy access to travel packages to distant waters, a far-flung trip is no longer as daunting as it once was. People come, they take pictures, they catch a fish or two, and then move on to a new spot next year. Fun, but it’s not a formula for preserving a ritual.

“Maine isn’t spectacular,” Dale Wheaton admits. “Maine is subtle. But there’s some terrific stuff. And here’s where a guide comes in. He shows people those subtle things–and you ask them, ‘Stop, you hear that?’ And they’ll say, ‘What?’ And you’ll say, ‘When was the last time you were in a place you couldn’t hear an internal combustion engine?’

“This is what we do,” he adds. “It’s not fast and it’s not sexy, but we spend our lives in Grand Lakers, and we look for quiet waters, and we cook a shore lunch. It’s not razzmatazz.”

Given the surge in land prices hereabouts in recent years, the odds are high that both lodges will be bought by outsiders who lack a connection to local traditions or the land.

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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Updated Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

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