June 22, 2013

John Christie: In the Maine woods, camps to enjoy

In Maine, there's a rich tradition, and lots of remaining examples, of wilderness sporting camps that deserve your consideration for a summer getaway. "Unique to the state and over 140 years old," says Alice Arlen in her delightfully informative book, "In the Maine Woods," and "although some people think of these camps as 'hunting and fishing lodges,' they are that but also much more."

What Maine sporting camps have in common is that virtually all of them are situated on water ... either a lake or a river, as their early guests came principally to fish and/or hunt, They're also mostly in wilderness areas, and the vast majority of them still feature buildings constructed of peeled and chinked logs, and they share in common cabins with front porches overlooking the water.

The traditional sporting camp, beginning with the first one built in the mid-19th century, provided three meals a day (the American Plan), served in a central lodge around which the sleeping cabins were clustered. Some camps have maintained the same approach to feeding their guests, although many now include housekeeping options that allow the guests to prepare some or all of their own meals.

Although most of Maine's camps now have such modern conveniences as plumbing and electricity, it's still possible to find the occasional privy to help reawaken long-dormant memories on the part of some of us who go back long enough to remember cold outhouse seats in the spring and fall.

In neighboring New Hampshire and Vermont, as well as in the Adirondacks in New York state, one can find rustic estates and private camps, but Maine's sporting camps are unique in that they, in Arlen's words, "are open to paying customers, and are a cultural and entrepreneurial resource distinctive to the state."

Post-Civil War America gave rise to a set of circumstances that together fostered the birth and growth of the sporting camp industry in Maine. Electricity, the internal combustion engine, railroad expansion and, perhaps most of all, the emergence of an affluent upper-middle class inspired by the writings of Henry David Thoreau and others to escape the growing clamor and pollution provoked by rampant industrialization and get "back to nature," fueled the creation of sporting camps in Maine, virtually all of which are in the huge expanse north of Augusta and a line that roughly follows Route 9 from Bangor to Calais.

Whereas Arlen's book, the second edition of which was published in 1998, featured 78 camps, the Maine Sporting Camp Association, whose informative web site contains about all the information you'd want to know, lists 51 current members of the organization. Their directory divides the membership into seven geographical areas: North Woods, The County, Moosehead, Western Mountains, Central Highlands, Down East and Belgrade Lakes.

Today's sporting camps, in addition to offering traditional fishing and ice fishing, and hunting, tempt the vacationer by suggesting you visit to bike, mountain bike, hike, paddle, motor boat, snowmobile, photograph, watch for birds and moose, and cross country ski, along with pursuing other outdoor activities.

My own cherished memories, which help explain my affection for the sporting camp, derive from youthful summers at Red River, not far from the Allagash in northern Aroostook County (T15 R9 to be prercise). The set of camps, built for his private use in the mid-1880s by a Massachusetts industrialist named Chapman, was sold not long after he built them because, as the story goes, his wealthy wife whose money he used to build the camps, found out she didn't like the woods or his extravagant use of her fortune. The camps were then sold to the Whitman family, which owned them until the 1930s.

Enter my avid sportsman grandfather, Arthur Christie, and Fish Lake sporting camp operator, Dana McNally, who bought the camps and kept them for their private use until grandfather sold them shortly after World War II to Herschel Currie, the Portage Lake man who had guided for him and was the caretaker for a set of camps he owned on Portage.

Herschel, and his wife, Ida, began operating the Red River Camps commercially, and my older brother, Mick, spent all four of his college summers guiding for the Curries and I envy him to this day.

Now owned by the Brophy family since they purchased the camps in 1980 from then-owners Pete and Chris Norris, it's a thriving operation surrounded by the vast tract of Public Reserved Lands known as the Deboullie Preserve. They even survived the loss by fire of the old main lodge a few years ago, and have replaced it with a replica log building right on the shore of idyllic Island Pond.

I'd suggest this might be the summer you should begin building your own sporting camp memories.

John Christrie is an author and year-round Maine explorer.  He and his son Josh write in Outdoors about places to enjoy the beauty that only Maine has to offer. He can be contacted at:

jchristie@fairpoint.net

 

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