Why the Registered Maine Guide Still Matters
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.
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.