By Tim King
WHEN IT COMES to the great outdoors, to paraphrase writer Aldous Huxley, there is the known, there is the unknown…and in between, there are Maine Guides.
Since the days of Squanto and the Pilgrims, Sacajawea and Lewis and Clark, those wishing to find safe passage in and out of the wild places of this country have relied on the experience and expertise of local men and women who knew the land best.
Back then, it was a simple matter of survival; wander into any unfamiliar land alone, unprepared or ill-equipped and you could very easily wind up dead. The only variable often being exactly how, where and when it would happen.
Many centuries later, the likelihood of being attacked by wild animals, warring Native American tribesmen or starving to death – at least in the vast majority of the United States – has steadily decreased with each new decade.
Yet, choosing to employ an experienced guide to help you navigate any unfamiliar or unpredictable outdoor landscape is still the most efficient, effective and ultimately enjoyable way to go. Following a guide into nature will not only make arriving at a destination seem easier and less stressful, you are also more likely to experience and learn about many other things along the way too.
AN EYE OPENING EXPERIENCE
In the 1850s, writer, philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote about the subtle, yet important difference between looking at something and seeing it.
“Nature does not cast pearls before swine. There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate—not a grain more.”
Attempting to experience all of the natural beauty of Maine unaided can be intimidating and frustrating if you don’t know where to go, what to look for, what to bring and what to do when you get there.
If you want to make the most of your precious time away, consider hiring a local outdoor guide to lead the way – then be prepared to expect wonders.
THE EARLY DAYS – HUNTING & FISHING GUIDES
In the early part of the 20th century, people – the majority of them men – called on the services of local guides not so much to help them survive in the wild, but rather to succeed in tagging a trophy buck or catch a native fish worthy of mounting on the wall.
Around this time, the first licensed Maine Guide, a woman named Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby, would lead groups of fishermen in and around the lakes of Rangeley, Maine. According to her biography on the Maine Guides website, Crosby was so skilled at fly fishing that she purportedly once landed 200 trout in a single day.
Needless to say, hundreds of men (and a few women I’m sure) flocked to Maine in search of adventure. Those with means, who could afford to spend a few weeks or more in a Maine hunting camp, rarely went home empty handed.
CONCIERGE TO THE GREAT OUTDOORS
In the same way that a travel agent or a hotel concierge can often save you time, frustration and money by advising you on where to go and what to do, an experienced Guide can empower their clients to try something new, different or outside their comfort zone.
Ron Fournier, a registered Maine Guide at Orion Outfitters & Guide Service, located near Bethel, enjoys sharing what he knows about the history of the land along many of the lakes and rivers he guides his clients along.
Fournier believes that “it’s a basic human instinct that I think we all want to have some connection with the natural world. A knowledgeable, local Guide is able to lead their clients to places in the woods or on the water where they will
have a better chance at making that connection.”
“There are times when I might point out something to a client as we’re headed out to our planned destination. Maybe it’s some old pieces of porcelain from 100 years ago or some ancient piece of farming equipment. If you didn’t know where (or when) to look, most people would probably just paddle right by without ever noticing it,” says Fournier.
“That’s the extra added value that clients get when they partner with a Guide. They’re going to get to see and experience things that most people would never even notice if they were in the exact same place on their own.”
In other words, many novice outdoor adventurers literally have no idea what they are missing. I know the feeling.
ON SEEING, AND BEING SEEN
More than a few years ago now, while hiking through Baxter State Park for the first time with my dad and father-in-law Phil, I learned an important lesson about awareness and paying attention to your surroundings.
It was during the early morning hours as we were starting our hike to the summit of Mount Katahdin. My dad—a “city kid” born and raised in Dorchester, Mass.—asked Phil if he thought we’d see any moose during our trip.
Without skipping a beat, my father-in-law knowingly replied, “One thing is for sure, we might not see them, but they’ll definitely see us.” I’ve kept this fundamental truth in mind ever since – especially when exploring the outdoors. Be patient, be quiet and be prepared to be amazed.
Sure enough, later that day, high above Chimney Pond, Philip did spot something rustling through the thick cover of stunted, gnarled trees.
When we caught up to him and looked into the thicket where he was pointing, my father and I could definitely see that there was something big, brown and moving less than 20 yards away from where we stood. However, the animal blended into its surroundings so well that it was literally impossible for us to make heads or tails of it.
A MOOSE AND A CHAMELEON WALK INTO THE WOODS…
At some point, after Phil clarified to us “flatlanders” that what we were actually looking at was a moose, “probably driven up here to get away from the flies,” my father reached for his 1990s camcorder and tried to capture the huge beast on film.
Unfortunately, the resulting video footage consisted mostly of a lot of zooming in and out, the camera attempting over and over again to find its focal point, and my father saying, “I can see it right over there, but as soon as I try to find it through the camera viewfinder, it disappears.”
Such is the case with much of what we are looking for when we go off exploring in the natural world.
Depending on how our own personal “viewfinders” are set, we might walk, paddle, hike or swim right past something spectacular, and never even realize it was there.
And that’s the real value of hiring a Registered Maine Guide – the opportunity to look through someone else’s viewfinder.
A MAINE GUIDE DEFINED
Registered Maine Guides are certified by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (IF&W), and undergo a rigorous testing process. They are required to be certified by the American Red Cross in first aid, demonstrate proficiency with Maine navigation—including the use of map and compass—and pass a comprehensive written and oral exam. They might guide in the fields, forests or on water or ice in Maine and specialize in hunting, fishing, recreational, sea kayaking and tidewater fishing. After 10 years (with a minimum of 5 years of professional guiding experience) a licensed Maine Guide can apply for certification as a Master Guide. According to the IF&W website, there are approximately 4,000 licensed guides currently in Maine.
MAINE GUIDES ARE MOSTLY SMALL, INDEPENDENT BUSINESSES
The vast majority of Registered Maine Guides operate small, independent businesses during specific times of the year, primarily as a means to supplement their regular incomes.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about Guides is that a lot of people think that we are all somehow funded or employees of the State of Maine,” says Don Kleiner, a Master Maine Guide and owner of Maine Outdoors, located in Union. “We’re not. Most Guide businesses are just one-man or one-woman operations. It’s tough to make a living as a full-time Guide. Most people do it to earn a little extra money – and because they love being out there.”
Don has been a Maine Guide for more than 30 years and has led countless trips on both land and sea. Providing guided fishing and canoe trips along the Midcoast region of Maine, Kleiner’s clients are families and beginners who are looking to try something new while on vacation.
“Hiring a licensed, experienced and insured Guide takes a lot of the worry and guess work out of the equation and allows the whole family to just relax and enjoy the experience. They know that everything else will be taken care of by the guide. That’s what a vacation should be all about.”
THE 21ST CENTURY GUIDE – CAPABLE, VERSATILE AND PERSONABLE
When most people think about the type of services that a Guide might provide, the first thing that comes to mind is their ability to lead hunters and fisherman to “secret” spots where the fish are always biting and the game is always abundant.
While many Maine Guides provide these types of services, many Guides are also well qualified and quite content to lead outdoor expeditions where the only shooting is done with a camera and the only rods are found in a bag of pretzels.
From the Maine Highlands to the Midcoast, Downeast & Acadia, the greater Portland area and Casco Bay, both visitors “from away” and Mainers looking for adventure close to home are turning to Maine Guides to make the most of their weekend or vacation time.
However, far from the gruff, arrogant, lone-wolf type of guide that has been portrayed in movies (e.g., Jack Palance’s Marlboro Man-esque character, Curly, in the movie City Slickers) Maine Guides are focused exclusively on meeting the needs of their clients – often exceeded their expectations in the process.
MUSH FOR MILES! GLUTEN-FREE TOO.
“People’s diets are much more diverse today than they ever used to be,” says Polly Mahoney, an experienced Maine Guide operating the Mahoosuc Guide Service with her partner, Kevin Slater. “But if someone is vegan or tells us that they want gluten-free meals, we try to cater to all of our clients’ needs as best we can.”
Operating year-round from the Mahoosuc Mountain Lodge in Newry, Mahoney and Slater offer unique experiences, included guided dogsledding, Nordic skiing and canoeing trips – along with several women-only trips – throughout much of northern Maine and parts of Canada.
As full time operation, Mahoosuc Guides provide all of the equipment and food during the trip. For the dogsledding trips, powered by teams of Yukon Huskies that Polly and Kevin have been raising, breeding themselves for more than 37 years, Polly advises that guests only need to bring “warm clothing and a sense of adventure.”
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER. GENX (FINALLY) GETS OUTSIDE.
Maine Guides are becoming increasingly in demand for all types of outdoor activities, from the most adventurous to the mundane. While it’s true that Guides are well qualified to handle many “worstcase scenarios” in the wilderness, more often, it’s demonstrating basic outdoor skills, identifying common flora and fauna in the area and explaining what people should and should not do along the trail that occupies much of their time.
“There’s a whole generation of kids who grew up during the digital age who feel like they may have missed out on something more meaningful because they spent so much time indoors, playing video games and later, working on a computer all day,” according to Tenley Skolfield, a Maine Guide who also operates The Fish River Lodge in Eagle Lake, Maine.
“Parents will often tell us they didn’t spend enough time outside when they were younger and now they don’t feel comfortable enough to function out there on their own. They want their kids to experience something that maybe they weren’t able to when they were young… but they have no idea how to do it.”
According to Skolfield, a good Guide can provide that experience in a way that doesn’t undermine the authority or intelligence of the parent(s) either.
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO TRY SOMETHING NEW
Another group of people who have turned to the services of wilderness Guides are retirees. Bill Richards, a long time Guide in the Rangeley Lakes region of Maine, offers specialized Guide services that provide outdoor adventure experiences for senior citizens.
Richards started Dr. Bill’s Senior Adventures, offering guided canoe trips, wildflower and native species nature hikes, native brook trout fishing, mountain bike and cross country skiing trips because of his life-long connection with the outdoors and teaching.
“For me—and for many of us—being a Maine Guide is an avocation as much as a vocation,” he says. “There are a lot of folks who may have never had the chance—or a reason—to paddle a canoe before and now they want to. My job is to make that experience as safe and enjoyable as I can for them.”
ARE YOU SEEING ALL THERE IS TO SEE?
Maine Guides serve as stewards for the land and water resources they explore with their clients. They also play an important role as educators, teaching their clients not only how to catch a fish, but also talking to them about how that particular species of fish may fit into the whole ecosystem.
It’s this broader perspective that a knowledgeable Guide can provide that makes all the difference. While anyone can take a walk in the woods or paddle down a river, doing so with someone who can physically and emotionally prepare, equip and connect you with your surroundings is an experience that many never forget.
If you truly want to experience everything that an outdoor excursion in Maine has to offer, consider bringing a Maine Guide along with you – and take some time to look at the world through their viewfinder. You’ll never look at things the same way again.
How to Track Down Your Dream Guide
A Guided trip through the forests, mountains, meadows, lakes, rivers and streams of Maine can be an incredibly fulfilling experience for you and your entire family. Take some time to find and get to know your Guide in advance to ensure that everyone arrives and leaves feeling like it was precious time well spent. Aside from some basic knowledge about the outdoors that all Guides must have to obtain a license, Guides will often differentiate themselves from others by specializing in working with a certain type of client and/or geographic regions of Maine. The websites of the Maine Professional Guides Association and Maine Wilderness Guides Organization are great places to start.
Questions to ask when looking for your ideal Maine Guide:
-How long you have been offering this particular type of Guide service?
-What is the fee and what does it include? (e.g., meals, transportation, equipment or license fees) Are tips or gratuities included, added on or accepted? Is a deposit required?
-What size group does the Guide generally work with?
-What is the cancellation and refund policy? (i.e., What will happen if the weather conditions prevent my trip from happening as expected? Is there an alternative trip or refund plan?)
-What equipment and clothing will be provided by Guide/outfitter and what is the client responsible for bringing with them?
-What does the Guide consider to be a “successful trip” and does it match your expectations?
-Lastly, be sure to get references and contact them, paying particular attention to what the reference shares about the personality of the Guide. Does he/she sound like someone you would like to spend time with?
Expect that when you call, the Guide should also be asking you some questions as well. Are there any health conditions, allergies or special diet restrictions to be aware of? Will there be children on the trip? How old? How many? How experienced are the members of the group with this particular activity? How physically fit are the members of the group?
With a little pre-planning, you can rest assured that your Guided experience in Maine will be one you will remember for a lifetime.