Why the Future of Maine’s Iconic Sporting Camps Is in Doubt
As Maine’s iconic sporting camps struggle to fill bunks, the author visited several of them last fall to get a clearer picture of their modern-day trials and triumphs—and to chase grouse in the legendary North Woods
L ooking back, I think the grouse simply got fed up with the ruckus. Tim Winslow’s Brittany spaniel, Tober, had trailed the bird up the hill and across the slope, with me on her heels, shouldering through alder saplings and spruce limbs soggy with snow. “Get to the dog!” my Maine guide hollered, which I was trying to do when I wasn’t pulling myself out of shin-deep mud mucked up with moose tracks. I followed the orange-flecked bird dog through the woods, the sky spitting sleet, my left foot slipping on moss, my right foot tangled in blowdowns, and Winslow now yelling: “On the log! He’s running on the log!” And that’s when the bird had had enough of the shattered peace in this stretch of the 4-million-acre North Maine Woods. It pulled up short at the end of a log, glanced back as I swung the shotgun to my shoulder, and chuckled—I swear—like the Road Runner duping Wile E. Coyote as it launched through dark spruce and late-October birches to give me no shot at all.
Winslow pulled up, shaking his head. There was no one to blame. The guide did his job. The dog did her job. And I did mine. But the grouse’s job was to live another day in Maine’s wild woods, and to use every ruse to make that happen. Laughing at the antics of a ruffie on the run, Winslow and I turned back to the truck. Sitting on the tailgate, we ate venison sandwiches made from the deer his 8-year-old daughter, Laurelai, had killed two days earlier. Her first deer, Winslow told me. His eyes glittered with pride.
And that’s when it occurred to me that I was getting the whole package—everything there is to love about the historic North Maine Woods. Gigantic, sprawling forested country. Game and fish at every turn. Registered Maine Guides—arguably the best trained, most knowledgeable guides anywhere—who treat you like a long-lost friend. Roaring lodge fires in sporting camps where the owners treat you like family.
Over the last 10 years, the sprawling North Maine Woods has become one of my favorite places in the world. Time spent in a traditional sporting camp here is like living in a 1950s Field & Stream story. The fishing for wild brook trout is the best in the country. The famed deer hunting has seen better days, but gunning for grouse, woodcock, moose, and bear is as good as it gets. You can strike out on your own for a D.I.Y. experience, or hire a guide who quite likely is the son, or grandson, of a guide.
So when reports surfaced that many Maine sporting camps were struggling, and that the heritage of these places faces an uncertain future, I was flummoxed. How could that be? I’ve hunted and fished out of a half dozen camps over the years, and I’ve long believed that Maine sporting camps offered about the best deal going for a world-class sporting trip. With those concerns in mind, I headed north last fall on a different kind of quest: Run down as many grouse as I could, of course, but also track down camp owners from four very different outfits to hear about the struggles—and triumphs—in a place as legendary as the North Maine Woods.
The North Maine Woods is an actual, defined place, sprawling across the upper third of the state, from about Moosehead Lake to the U.S.–Canada border. It is overwhelmingly private land, controlled by large timber companies that have long allowed public use of their millions of acres. In the past, however, that access could be bewildering. Dozens of locked gates on logging roads once stymied public use. You could drive for miles, then face a four-way intersection with locked gates on each road. In the 1960s, the timber companies came together to help streamline access. They opened the gates and formed North Maine Woods Inc. to manage public use. Tradition has tied the daily access fee closely to the state minimum wage: an hour’s honest labor should get you a full day in the woods. At present, for just $10 per day, anyone can enjoy access to 4 million acres of semi-wild Maine. There are roaring wilderness rivers and pristine remote ponds. There are nearly 400 designated campsites. And of the 40 members of the Maine Sporting Camp Association, at least 17 remain in the North Maine Woods.
On my hunt, Winslow was guiding for Chandler Lake Camps and Lodge, run by Jason and Sherry Bouchard and their family, whom I’ve known for years. Founded in 1902, the camp is tucked into old-growth forest, with stunning views across the remote lake and the brow of Chandler Mountain. The cabins are built of hand-peeled spruce logs; inside, deer heads from the 1930s and ’40s gaze at you like glimpses from a history book. Even though I’ve had some of the best brook trout fishing in my life here just a short boat ride across the lake, I find it hard to tear myself away from such a setting.
Over dinner, after my grouse rodeo with Tober, Bouchard laid out some of the challenges facing traditional sporting camps. For starters, he explained, most North Maine Woods sporting camps exist on lands leased from enormous timber companies and are subject to the vagaries of an increasingly globalized industry. Leases can be canceled or altered. Lease fees can skyrocket. Even efforts to permanently preserve wild landscapes can be a cause for concern. While most Mainers support protecting the state’s massive forest lands, many are uncertain how traditional sporting uses, such as trapping and snowmobiling, could be treated under some ideas being proposed, such as national parks and monuments. And then there are the other issues beleaguering the hunting and fishing world: an aging clientele, a reliance on staying digitally connected to the world back home, younger generations brought up without sporting traditions. “We have 80 grouse hunters booked this fall,” Bouchard said, “but only one teenager.”
Many sporting camps are tackling these challenges head on. For some, the months of July and August are purposefully geared toward families, with day hikes and guided canoe trips on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. Chandler Lake Lodge and others allow youths to stay for free. Bouchard has brought on a social-media consultant to pump up the lodge’s presence on Facebook and Instagram. “If we can just get folks here,” he said, “they’ll come back. People have no idea what the lodges have to offer. They sit down at breakfast and ask, ‘O.K., where do I have permission to hunt or fish tomorrow?’ And I’ll answer, ‘Well, you can go 70 miles west and 40 miles north and if that’s not enough, let us know and we’ll find another good spot.'”
In any direction, one of upland bird hunting’s great challenges awaits. While the lodging and meals and loons calling from the pond mist soothe the modern soul, the hunting here is hardly gentrified. The next morning, I downed a grouse and a woodcock early, and then the bottom fell out. It started with the twisted-ankle miss. Then the shotgun-swing-bashing-into-the-tree miss. A favorite came next: the can’t-see-the-bird-but-screw-it-I’m-shooting-anyway miss. In three classic points I’d cleared enough white birch and tamarack that I could call myself a logger, but I’d cut not a single feather.
The fourth miss was a dandy. Zoe pinned the bird down with a staunch point. When the woodcock launched, it couldn’t have been 3 feet from the dog. The bird helicoptered straight up, turned like an angry killer bee, and charged toward me at full speed. As the bird peeled off skyward, it left me cross-legged and trunk-twisted, with the gunstock halfway down my bicep when I pulled the trigger. Approximately 358 No. 8 pellets vanished into the ether. Suddenly, it snowed spruce needles.
My guide for the day, Mark Kingsbury, knew it was his job to offer comfort and condolence. “I see the problem here,” he said, grinning. He patted his pockets. “I know I’ve got a bayonet somewhere. You might do better with that.”
Kingsbury is straight out of Maine central casting. He wore brush pants, a plaid green wool jack-shirt, and cotton jersey gloves. As a kid, he remembers wiping frost from the school-bus windows to see who had deer hanging in the yard. “My bus driver carried an old single-barrel shotgun,” he said. “He’d shoot road birds while dropping us off from school. That’s the Maine I grew up in.”
Kingsbury started guiding bird hunters when he was laid off from the paper mill in nearby Millinocket. “This is the core of who I am,” he said. “This place is Alaska wild, and these are truly wild birds. These woodcock just flew in from Canada last night. And when you’re here, it’s all yours.”
Keeping the Faith
Late in the afternoon on my fourth day in Maine, I rolled into Bradford Camps as a couple of hunters cleaned grouse on the tailgate of a truck. A few steps away, the legs of a cow moose protruded from another truck bed like a four-poster. A small compound of picturesque black spruce log buildings hugged the contour of remote Munsungan Lake—lodge, cabins, cook cabin, guide’s camp, icehouse, three small docks, a Cessna floatplane tethered with rope. On the lake’s west side, the north flank of Munsungan Ridge was skimmed in an early snow.
There’s little to doubt about the legacy of Bradford Camps. Owned and operated by Igor and Karen Sikorsky, it has roots that reach back to the 19th century. The Bradford lodge room is ringed with caribou antlers (it was once a caribou camp), moose heads, grizzled Maine whitetail bucks with necks like heifers, and bookshelves lined with hundreds of old volumes of Maine history, fishing, hunting, and aviation titles. (Igor’s grandfather developed the first full-production commercial helicopter in the early 1940s.) But like all of Maine’s sporting camps, Bradford Camps has to walk a tightrope between eschewing modern conveniences and postmodern tastes—think internet and a decent wine list—and becoming more of a big-woods resort. There are undeniable pressures to accommodate a changing clientele, but some changes can subtly chip away at the culture of a camp built on serious hunting and fishing. When a camp gets to be a certain size, for example, the amenities begin to run the show. Dinner has to be at six no matter what’s happening with the hatches or the hunters.
The Sikorskys have plenty of experience in both the corporate and the backwoods realms. Igor grew up in Connecticut but spent his summers at Cobb’s Pierce Pond Camps, a venerable Maine institution. Karen managed overseas production for clothing retailers such as the Limited and Abercrombie & Fitch. The couple’s first trip together was a run down the Allagash River, and they’ve now spent more than 20 years peeling logs, cutting ice, and scouting moose. They feel keenly the push-pull of offering more and more stuff—staff, activities, digital access, and gourmet dining.
But there’s a sort of strategy at play in managing a sporting camp, Sikorsky told me. How far do you move along the spectrum of increasing amenities? Bathrooms and showers in the cabins versus a communal bathhouse? Daily housekeeping? Chocolates on the pillows? Bradford Camps employs a chef, schedules spring bird-watching weekends, and serves up paddleboards in summer. But it’s still solidly focused on hunting and fishing, and the Sikorskys are proudly off the internet grid. The camp’s website welcomes you to a “wireless dot-calm vacation.”
Essentially, Sikorsky says, there’s a partnership at play in a traditional camp like Bradford: Give up five or seven days of your life, including access to the internet, cable news, and televised sports, and you will never be quite the same. “I’ve been to enough conferences and boardroom meetings that I recognize that what we offer here is a jewel and a psychological blessing,” Sikorsky said. “You’ll get home and see that your world didn’t fall apart because you didn’t have email, and you’ll thank us.”
In five days of hopping from Maine camp to camp, I saw plenty of examples of lodge owners navigating, with varied success, their place in a changing world. At the famed Libby’s Sporting Camps, which has remained in the same family for five generations, there are all the trappings of success: The fishing and hunting operations are Orvis-endorsed, two floatplanes are available for fly-outs, and the kitchen is world-class. “It’s not like we’re offering massages up here,” camp owner Jess Libby told me. “But our guests are very happy to hear we offer Wi-Fi. There’s a level of pampering we’re known for, and we’re seeing more guests that are interested in that kind of treatment.”
At Umcolcus Sporting Camps, where I celebrated Al and Audrey Currier’s 48th wedding anniversary with homemade apple pie, the mood was more subdued. The famed boxer Jack Dempsey fished out of the original Umcolcus camp, which Al’s grandfather took over in 1927. Today the place is as traditional as it gets. Guests share a communal bathhouse, Audrey cooks every meal, and if you want to make a cellphone call, you have to climb a big rock near Umcolcus Stream and cross your fingers. But the Curriers have the camp up for sale. Al is 70 years old, and he said the changes required to keep Umcolcus a viable destination will have to fall to a new generation.
Leaving Umcolcus in the dark, driving carefully down another 30 miles of dirt road in moose country, I fretted over what might happen to Umcolcus and its century of tradition. I remembered what Igor Sikorsky told me—that struggling camps often are bought up for private or corporate retreats or turned into multiple-owner properties. “When that happens,” he said, “you lose this melting pot where wonderful things happen around the dining table and the lodge fire. It’s a terrifying loss of legacy.”
The truck headlights carved into the forest like twin lasers, and then suddenly there was Chandler: warm lights spilling from the main lodge, a blue-black platter of lake, starlight overhead, all framed in the dark silhouettes of old-growth pine and spruce. Through the windows, I could see figures clad in red and green wool plaid. Laughter called, but I made my way slowly through the trees, in no rush to put such a day to bed.
By my last day in Maine I’d long left behind any innocent notions of the noble grouse flushing from some tangled apple orchard bathed in golden light. I’d evolved the way Tim Winslow described the learning curve of a new pointer in the North Maine Woods. “We’ll get bird dogs from around New England,” he said, “but it takes three or four years before they figure out these aren’t gentlemen birds up here.” Maine sporting camps might be moving headlong into the future, but these wild birds are stuck in their old ways.
One of those rough-bred birds I’ll never forget. We were working up a winter road, red with chokeberry and nearly paved with bear scat, when Tober pointed 60 yards into the woods. By then I’d learned my lesson: I took off running, with Winslow behind me. The bird broke twice, tunneling through thickets of dense fern and maple, and Tober pinned it down twice more before I nearly tumbled into an open glade in the woods, the dog locked up 20 feet away.
For a split second I nearly stopped. The old me would have given the dog some space, caught my breath, and planted my feet just so, stepping carefully in front of the point to intercept the flush on the rise. Instead, I barreled in front of Tober like a lawman busting through saloon doors. Mounting the shotgun in the middle of one step, I fired in the middle of the next, the grouse bolting through the trees like a bandit breaking down a dark alley. The first shell was a clear miss, but the second connected just as the grouse turned a dark-timber corner. Tober vaulted into the woods, and I wiped sweat from my brow. Only then did I realize that I’d lost my hat.
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No style points for me; proper form be damned. In fact, there was nothing classic about that shot except everything about the world around it: the dog steady as a statue, the endless big woods, the sublime camp I’d left in the morning, and the lakeside cabin I’d return to that night.
Winslow emerged from the trees, my hat in his hand. He handed it over, his grin as wide as mine. “Now that,” he said, “is how you hunt birds up here.”
This story appears in the Oct. 2017 issue with the headline “The True North.”