George Smith casts his line while fishing with his friend Ed Pineau on Webber Pond in May 2018.

You need to get your priorities straight.

That’s what George Smith told me every time we spoke. And by priorities, George meant my time spent in the woods deer hunting.

In December, I wrote George and finally acknowledged he was right, after I missed deer hunting the past two seasons. It took a worldwide pandemic for me to see that. But given the record number of people who rushed to the hiking trails, lakes, beaches and campgrounds across the country during the pandemic, it would seem George was a step ahead of many of us.

For 72 years George knew that spending time outdoors was essential. And last week as I thought about the dear friend I now miss, I realized it’s because the outdoors filled him with a rare gratitude.

George Smith died on Feb. 12 after a four-year battle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a disease that attacks the nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movement, and for which there is no cure.

Last weekend, the former director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine was remembered by Maine’s political and conservation leaders as a passionate advocate for Maine’s outdoors, who during an 18-year career as the SAM director helped protect the state’s wildlife and wild places and access to them. And George was all of that. 

But if you were lucky enough to spend time with him hunting or fishing, it became clear how much it all meant to him: living in Maine and knowing the woods and wildlife here. George loved the woods of Maine as if it were his home.

Of course, he wrote about that love in his column in the Kennebec Journal. But to see it while watching him in an overgrown forest listening to woods sounds made it clear his love for the outdoors came from a deep wonder and a pure, simple joy. 

George Smith casts his line while fishing with his friends Ed Pineau and Deirdre Fleming on Webber Pond in Vassalboro in May 2018, a year after he was diagnosed with ALS. Deirdre Fleming photo

Before I first deer hunted with George in 2015, I knew him only as the former SAM director who I had seen dozens of times testify with an intensity on hunting and fishing bills. But during the hunt, I saw how he carried into the woods an optimistic, hopeful spirit.

He still had his well-known sense of humor, and would share hunting adventures, or stories of trips he took with his wife, Linda, from when they wrote a popular travel column together.

One time as we waited near dusk for a small deer herd that we knew came to a field to feed, he joked about what he called his and Linda’s “travel-trocities,” a term he coined for trips that had gone awry, but still made great stories. From the stone wall where he sat quietly, George laughed so hard his eyes shut and shoulders shook, while I watched in disbelief waiting to take my safety off. 

But make no mistake, George was serious about his time in the woods. Other times as we sat on a fallen tree talking, a rustling sound would cause his hand to shoot out in front of me, as if to stop me from flying through the windshield of a breaking car. Then his index finger would cover his mouth and his face would fill with a look of amazement as he listened.

George was in awe of the woods. 

In the fall of 2017, after he learned he had ALS, he could no longer hike as long or far while deer hunting as he once had. The steeper hills he scaled in the past with an agility and strength were out. But his spirit and attention to deer signs remained. 

My favorite memory from our time hunting together was from that fall, while we made our way up a slight hill to an area where we had seen deer before. As we went, I told him about a project I recently finished on outdoor access for people with disabilities that existed in Maine and how it compared to other states. It was a series of stories I spent months reporting and was slated to run that Sunday on the front page. But was held again.   

We often “talked shop” about our writing, and I felt these stories would be of special interest to him, since he now had a disease that affected his mobility. So I pressed: “Don’t you think they should run it prominently on the Sunday front?”

George just stopped on the hill, scanned the forest again for deer, then looked at me kindly and said, “Yes. They should. But you need to forget about that right now and focus on hunting.”

Even with ALS, he never stopped being George. 

After he was diagnosed in 2017, he told me he grew colder than he used to outdoors, so he could only hunt a half day. And his footing wasn’t as sound, so he couldn’t go as far. But the man never complained. 

George said he wouldn’t stop writing or doing all he could to enjoy life and to contribute. He wouldn’t stop being grateful for all he had, especially for Linda, his three children, his grandchildren and his family. He would not feel sorry for himself. 

“That’s not me,” he said.

He was true to his word. He continued writing his column for another four years – even after losing use of his fingers – right up until the last weeks of his life. 

On my desk at the Portland Press Herald, I have a map George drew for me of the farm where we hunted together for three years. I keep it as a reminder of the other lesson he taught me – that you have to know the woods you hunt like you know your home.

The drawing is a rough sketch. But in his chicken scratch I can see the thick evergreen stand where he tried to bump deer for me, the boggy marsh he made me hike through because it was a gold mine for deer, and the ancient stone wall where we had lunch, which to me was better than any outdoor cafe in Portland.

When I hunt this November, and every fall after, I will carry his map with me. I know I’ll miss him pointing out buck scrapes or deer trail. But I will remember to feel grateful for that time I have in the woods. And when I do, I know George will be with me.

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