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Why the Registered Maine Guide Still Matters

“There’s risk in every direction,” Dale says. “There’s risk of development, risk of changes in the fisheries, risk up in this country from enhanced border enforcement, which crimps our style and keeps us from going into Canada, risk from technology, risk from a generation of kids who are growing up with a joystick instead of a fishing rod, and risk from wind power–changing the landscape. You can survive some of that stuff …” he says, his voice trailing off, leaving me to fill in the rest.

“There’s potential for this to live on,” he adds then. “The whole industry doesn’t have to shrivel up and die. But it’s going to take people who are aggressive and committed and have a reverence for the traditions.”

“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” says Art Wheaton, as we sit on his lakefront porch in Forest City. “In 1945, when my family came here, there were hardly any camps over there,” he says, pointing across East Grand Lake, where the pitch-black night is now speckled with lights. “There are about 140 or 150 camps there now. Good, bad, or indifferent, when you superimpose the population on a resource, you eat it up. If you don’t believe that, just drive down to Sebago Lake. When did that start to disappear? In the ’40s? ’50s? From Augusta, Maine, south to Miami, Florida, there just ain’t no more.”

Although certain parts of Washington County have been carved up and sold off by timber companies, much of the area has yet to meet that fate. It’s far from population centers–about four hours’ drive from Portland–and about a decade ago, various conservation-minded groups started buying up land to preserve it. The New Brunswick provincial government acquired dozens of miles of shoreline on the Canadian side of Spednic Lake and beyond, and placed much of it in an ecological reserve.

On the American side, the shoreline along Spednic was conserved by the Woodie Wheaton Land Trust, a nonprofit created in 1994 by the Wheaton brothers to honor their father’s memory. (The trust is part of the Downeast Lakes Forestry Partnership, which has preserved vast shorefront tracts throughout eastern Maine.) The Wheaton Land Trust is now raising funds to preserve other unbroken tracts along the upper reaches of East Grand Lake.

Indeed, quietly and with little fanfare, around a million acres have been removed from the region’s real-estate inventory, as both public and private groups have assembled a patchwork of conservation lands stretching from the New Brunswick mountains to the Maine coast near Machias. “People from away say, ‘You got something here,'” Art says. “‘You got something I can’t find anywhere else.'” This is the habitat of the Maine Guide, and without it the Main Guide won’t survive. But it remains to be seen whether the land will be sufficient for survival.

Lance Wheaton and I are driving down a single-track road lined with birch trees; within a few minutes we reach an open area along a silvery stretch of water a few hundred yards wide. Just across the way is New Brunswick, which looks a whole lot like Maine: rocky shore, spruce, white pines, a few birch. Wheaton swings his Chevy Silverado into the trees, then expertly backs the trailer down a rocky spit to deposit his Grand Laker into the water while scarcely looking in the rear-view mirror. “We might get a salmon,” is among the things he says as he glances at the clouds.

The light is lambent under scudding clouds, and the wind is gentle, wafting down the ridge from the southwest. Crows are sounding off across the way. I climb aboard from a handy rock, and Lance paddles out a few dozen yards before dropping the outboard and speeding us out into the channel. I spot a few battered shoreline homes the color of moss, but soon it’s just pine and spruce and rocky shores. “Where there are camps, the conversation changes,” Lance says. “People say, ‘Look how long that dock is,’ or ‘Hey, that dock’s got lights on it,’ or ‘Look at that American flag someone painted on that rock.’ Here, though, they ask, ‘You ever seen a moose walking along the shore?'”

Lance’s Grand Laker is a 21-footer that he built for himself 14 years ago. Inside it’s aged to a pale tawny hue. Lance has made more than a dozen of these boats. This one was weighted to balance his not-inconsiderable bulk–he has the physique of a retired football player–although he grouses that now he’ll have to reconfigure the next one to accommodate the new, heavier four-stroke outboards.

Over the next couple of hours we catch a mess of perch, then around noon pull up to Monument Island, where we scramble over gray rocks and through marsh grass flecked with tiny white and yellow flowers. There’s a small clearing in the middle, with a picnic table and a fire pit. Massive yellow birches, too big to put your arms around, dot the island. Lance pulls out some dry firewood he carries in a plywood box, then shaves three sticks with his knife, stacks them like a pinwheel, and lights one match. The fire blazes. A few minutes later, he dredges the filleted perch in cornmeal, salt, and pepper, and fries it in oil. It comes out crisp, not the least fishy-tasting, as light as potato chips. “I like to cook fish that come out of water you can drink,” he says.

Younger fishing guides who lack connections to the land and the past are more likely to be products of the modern age, Lance says, and they repeat what they’re familiar with: They pack along sandwiches made with supermarket cold cuts, which they hand to clients, who eat one-handedly with rods still in the water. It’s efficient and allows more fishing time for those from the city following the “work hard, play hard” mantra. The modern guides are supplying today’s market with what it wants, although it’s hard not to wonder about what’s being lost in the process.

One of the things I recall learning in my failed effort to become a Junior Maine Guide was how to make that pot of guide coffee, and I’m pleased to see Lance quietly set about making it. Just before the pot heats to a rolling boil, he cracks open an egg into the coffee grounds, then dumps the chestnut-colored slurry into the coffee pot, which he sets on the ground in front of the fire. “It sets up a percolating action,” he explains.

And so it does: The water boils up the hot side and down the cool side. The egg rounds out the bitterness, he says, and helps bind the grounds so that they sink quickly to the bottom when the pot’s pulled from the fire. No filter needed; less to pack or worry about. No one really knows who invented Maine Guide coffee, but this is how it’s been done out on the lakes since anyone can remember.

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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