History meets hospitality at Maine’s sporting camps. While they once were rustic and remote, today’s camps offer more comfort and convenience. But it is still the wild Maine outside the cabin door that attracts many of us.

The original attraction was bountiful fish and game, and that is still true at some sporting camps, but many of today’s visitors come to enjoy outdoor activities like birding, hiking, snowmobiling and snowshoeing. Some visitors are just trying to escape the “real” world. And some of us come to eat!

It’s a lot easier to get to a sporting camp today than it once was. Consider this description of the route to Camp Phoenix on Nesowadnehunk Lake in the North Woods, published in the March 1899 edition of The Maine Sportsman: “There are two ways of reaching ‘Sowadnehunk from stations on the Bangor & Aroostook (railroad); both routes themselves passing through good game country. The one by way of Patten, Shin Pond and Trout Brook Farm involves a fifty mile walk or buckboard ride over the roads, requiring about two and a half days’ time. The trip by way of Norcross is shorter and even more picturesque, and may be covered in two days. A steamer running from Norcross to various points on Twin, Pemaeumcook and Ambajejus Lakes, will take the traveler fifteen miles on his way to Camp Wellington run by Seiden McPheters. At this point one crosses a half-mile carry on a jumper, and begins the ascent of the West Branch in canoes. … The last mile the canoe must be poled.” Getting there was part of the adventure, I guess.

The Maine Sporting Camp Heritage Foundation reports that “in 1904 there were at least 300 sporting camps in operation in Maine. By 2007, this number had dwindled to fewer than 40.”

I am writing a book about Maine sporting camps for Down East Books and have had to add nontraditional camps to the book to make up for all those traditional and historic camps that are long gone. Traditional sporting camps include a lodge where food is served to all the guests, with separate cabins for sleeping.

I asked the owners of Maine’s sporting camps to tell me about their challenges, and boy did I get an earful. At the top of the list was the loss of hunters and anglers, with the blame being cast widely – everything from coyotes to loss of habitat to poor fisheries and wildlife management.

The loss of deer hunters over the last five years has been particularly painful. Deer nearly disappeared in western and northern Maine after two tough winters, and our failure to protect critical deer wintering areas was a key factor. Consider this:

On the porch of Claybrook Mountain Lodge in Highland Plantation are two carved “buck boards” listing the bucks and does that guests and guides have shot since the lodge opened in 1984. The buck boards tell the story better than I ever could.

Here are the harvest numbers for recent years: 2009: 0; 2010: 0; 2011: 1; 2012: 1; 2013: 0. For many years, the November deer season was the busiest for Greg and Pat Drummond, who own the lodge. But things have changed.

“The deer herd in our area has declined to such an extent that our (deer) season is the least profitable of the year,” Greg Drummond said.

A large deer wintering area just across the road from the Drummonds’ lodge was nearly clear-cut and no longer provides deer with the winter cover they need. So what is their busiest time of the year now, you ask? It’s winter, when the camps are loaded with cross-country skiers and the Drummonds serve weekend lunches to traveling snowmobilers.

Some folks, including the Drummonds, have smartly moved on to identify and cater to other outdoor recreationists. A few years ago, the Drummonds turned Memorial Day weekend into a birding adventure, attracting so many guests that they added a second birding weekend last year. Greg Drummond, along with his friend Ron Joseph, a retired federal wildlife biologist, lead the birding weekend adventures. My wife, Linda, and I had a terrific time there this year, identifying 98 species of birds in two days.

OTHER CHALLENGES

Camp owners listed lots of challenges, including taxes and regulations, described by one camp owner as “death by a thousand cuts.” Getting and keeping good staff is a major problem, and not just at the remote camps. The cost and complexity of insurance was mentioned by many, as were rising food and other prices. A lack of advertising and marketing was high on many lists.

One camp owner noted that “the state of Maine is focused more on the coastal areas for marketing of tourism and travel.” That’s true, but it’s caused by the fact that tourists want to visit the coast, and the state’s limited dollars must be used to let tourists know we have what they are looking for. And sadly, they are not looking to hunt and fish here.

Quite a few camp owners mentioned competition from online businesses that market private camps for rent, noting that those owners are not governed by the same taxes and rules. That issue was raised in the Legislature this year, but no action was taken. Others pointed to nearby development or logging that changed the experiences at their camps.

Many camp owners also complained about technology.

“The biggest (challenge) is technology,” one wrote. “We are a rustic sporting camp. We live in a time where most people are too caught up in their electronic devices. … Here we believe that a vacation is a time to remove yourself from all of that craziness – from the things that cause stress and headaches.”

You can set aside all the stress in your life by visiting a traditional Maine sporting camp. And I’ll guarantee one thing: You won’t want to leave!