Farewell to the North Woods Guide

Author and editor, J. DONALD ADAMSupon his graduation from Harvard spent two years as a teacher of English at the University of Washington before embarking on the career which was to make him widely known and universally loved. Since 1924 he has been associated with the New York Times Book Review, first as assistant editor, then as editor, and for the past fourteen years as the writer of the weekly column, “Speaking of Books” In this essay he calls to our attention the gradual disappearance of the guides in the fishing and hunting areas of Maine, a state which he has come to regard as his second home.



ONE of the best breeds of men this country has produced is on the way out. For, barring a miracle, the North Woods guide is about to join those other indigenous American characters who have long since vanished — the mountain man and the old-time cowpoke. By all the signs, given ten or fifteen years, the guide will be as rare as the snake-oil barker. He had his finest flowering first in the Adirondack woods and then in the forests of Maine; it was in these regions that the ty pe became most fully and sharply defined.

The reasons for his imminent disappearance are several. The first and most obvious is that no new generation of guides is coming up to take his place. The youngsters who might be the successors to the fast-dwindling ranks of the old-timers simply are not interested. It isn’t that they don’t, like the woods or that fishing and hunting have lost their appeal; far from it. Many of them are well equipped both by natural inclination and native ability to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, but almost unanimously they turn thumbs down on a guide’s life.

Why, then, this negative attitude? The weightiest factor is money. The North Woods guide has always worked long hours without benefit of overtime, and for comparatively low wages. His work is seasonal — spring and early fall fishing, fall hunting, and, rarely now, long-distance canoe trips in the summer. There is a guides’ association, but guides have never been organized as a labor union. They have always been individualists, natural rebels against regimentation of any kind. Besides, it would be almost impossible to make their work fit in with ordinary union rules.

The youngsters all say, “To hell with guiding. I can make more dough driving a truck or working for the lumber company at other jobs. I get shorter hours, I get paid for overtime, and I get steadier work.” This is the basic reason for their lack of interest, but it is not the only one. Another was supplied me by Don Cameron, one of the top oldtimers of the Rangeley region, who came to national attention as the guide chosen to introduce President Eisenhower to Maine fishing.

“I don’t say,” he explained, “that this goes for all the kids who might be taking up guiding today, but it does for a number I know. They don’t like, any more than I do, the new kind of people who are coming here to fish and hunt. The old-time sport is getting pretty rare. The first thing these men tell me is, ‘ I got a new deep-freeze, and I wanna get a lot of fish.’ There just isn’t the same pleasure in going out with them.”

Cameron is a vigorous man of about sixty, which is not far from the average age of the best guides left in Maine. Like most of them, he began guiding at sixteen. At that time a guide’s pay in Maine, and in the Adirondacks as well, averaged three dollars a day—a day that might run, and often did, to as much as sixteen hours. In addition to this sum, of course, the sport paid for the guide’s board or the provisions needed for a long trip. This arrangement still obtains. By gradual stages the guide’s pay has gone up to a minimum of ten dollars a day. In certain regions it runs higher. Around Moosehead Lake, for example, the minimum is fourteen dollars, and in the Rangeley region a dollar or two more. Tips are expected and average at least 10 per cent.

What does a good guide give in return for these wages? A great deal, for guiding at its best deserves to be called a profession and an art. Consider the requirements: the guide must know his region the way a man knows his own house. He must be thoroughly familiar with the habits of fish and game and the uses of rod and gun. He must be a good cook and a first-rate woodsman, ingenious enough to make the best of the materials at hand. He should be an expert canoeman. But the list doesn’t end there. His value is much increased if he is a good companion, a man with whom you can sit around the fire when the day’s sport is over, and with whom you can enjoy talking. He needs tact, and ability to bear with fools, and he must have a strong sense of responsibility.

The best of the breed are remarkable men, both in character and competence. I have never known a nervous or fretful man among them. Their balance is not only in their legs but in their minds as well. As most of us do not, they step, in Thoreau’s phrase, to their own music. They are shrewd judges of character, because there is no quicker or more infallible way of discovering the faults in a man than to share his company on a camping trip. For years the experienced guide has observed people stripped to the essentials, shorn of the props which support them in their ordinary environment. The bluffer, the boaster, the snob, the selfish egotist, the shirker, will all have betrayed themselves after a day or two in the woods. If you can spend two weeks on the trail with a man or woman without undue friction and disharmony, you can get on with that person under any circumstances. That is one of my favorite laws of human behavior.

A good guide is wise because he has learned to rock with the boat, to abide by the laws of nature. He may not hear any oracle in the pine woods, as Emerson did, but he is full of earthy wisdom. Schooled in making ihe best of what comes, he steers a steady course between overconfidence and easy discouragement. He knows that nature always evens up, always strikes a balance, except when man, alone among the animals, disturbs it.

Out of this sense of balance comes that unforced, natural humor which is usually his. No doubt there are exceptions, but I have never known a seasoned guide who didn’t have a sharp sense of the incongruous — the quality that lies at the base of nearly all humor.

That beautifully competent skill of his didn’t come out of books. It may be that some people are born with a better sense of direction than others — you don’t have to go into the woods to see that demonstrated; but whatever the guide’s native capacity to orient himself may be, he has vastly strengthened it by long and patient observation. He sees a host of things that we miss: the direction taken by tree branches; spots where the sun strikes longest; the conformation of the land; inlets and outlets that we might pass by. He knows his country not in one season or two, but in all four, and is aware of every subtle change that takes place.

Just as his broker client sniffs out trends in the market from the daily stock listings, so he reads with ease the signs that point to a late or early season, where the deer or moose will be heading, where the trout or landlocked salmon are likely to be found. Given certain circumstances, certain conditions, he knows what the reaction of wildlife will be. He is not guessing; he is drawing conclusions from a rich fund of long-assembled facts. He reminds me most, among professional men, of the skillful surgeon: resourceful, ever ready to improvise, always braced for an emergency, combining in rare degree exact knowledge with the manual dexterity to implement it.

These qualities make up a bill of particulars not easily filled. There are still plenty of good woodsmen left, and men who know all there is to know about fish and game. But the number of good canoemen is thinning fast. That ability, like mastery of the ax, is becoming one of the lost arts. Mechanical contrivances have helped to whittle it down. The outboard motor, like the chain saw, has made inroads on the old skills. It may have made more time available for actual fishing, and lightened the guide’s labors, but it is steadily and surely undermining the canoeman’s skill. In heavy weather or in any difficult water the canoe, which is the most responsive form of craft ever devised, answers best to the paddle or the pole, expertly used. In a heavy sea, the competent canoeman at once cuts off his motor and takes to the paddle. And poling upstream in white water, unassisted by a motor, is an art not easily acquired. Few men today have it, and fewer still are bothering to learn the technique. That is one reason why the famous and at one time very popular Maine canoe trips — the Allegash, the East Branch, and the St. John — are now seldom made. Not many men are left who are qualified to act as guides on these trips.


AMONG the men with whom I have talked about what is happening to the North Woods is Harry A. Sanders, present and third-generation head of D. T. Sanders & Son, whose big country store at Greenville has been for generations chief outfitter for parties making the long Maine canoe trips. There was a time when the Sanders store, which is celebrating its hundredth anniversary this year, annually equipped hundreds of parties. Last summer only six signed up for the Allegash, none for the East Branch, none for the St. John. The att ractions of the latter two have suffered from the activities of the lumber companies. Both have been made unpleasant for canoe travel because of the amount of pulpwood being poured into their waters.

Both Mr. Sanders and his son, Harry A. Sanders III, great-grandson of the founder, confirmed the conclusions I had already reached regarding the outlook for guiding. They told me there were now perhaps twenty fully qualified guides for the whole Moosehead region, and that of this number the large majority were fifty years of age and older. They could think of only two competent guides under forty. This estimate paralleled what I had been told in the Jackman country and what I was to hear again in the Rangeley region.

There I talked with, among others, Herb Welch, champion fly-castor and creator of the streamer fly, whose tackle store at Oquossoc has been a headquarters for fishermen these past fifty years. Mr. Welch takes a pessimistic view not merely of the guide situation but, in common with Don Cameron over at Wilson’s Mills and many others, of the future of Maine fishing in general. He is bitter, as are many guides, over the results of pulp-cutting — or, rather, of the manner in which it is too frequently done.

The lumber companies, particularly the smaller ones — which operate on a shoestring and have to figure their costs very closely — and to some extent the power companies, are in the eyes of these men the chief enemies of natural fishing conditions. The state stocks Maine’s lakes and streams with a lavish hand, and the Fish and Game Commission does its best, but the battle, under present conditions, is a losing one. The young fish emptied into Maine’s waters do not find the conditions they need, either for growth or for survival.

The operations of the pulp-cutters, often unnecessarily destructive, furnish one more contributing factor in the decline of North Woods guiding. Year by year the fishing grows poorer, and more and more sportsmen cross the border into Canada. “Take the salmon,” said Herb Welch. “Whether he’s Atlantic or landlocked, as he approaches maturity his instinct urges him toward the sea. He starts down our streams, and what happens? He runs smack into waters polluted by sulphite. He never reaches full maturity, and that’s why big salmon become increasingly scarce. It ought to be possible, in these days of chemical marvels, to develop some substitute for sulphite which would not be harmful to the fish. Here’s the state of Maine, which has spent millions publicizing its attractions for sportsmen, throwing away a substantial source of revenue because the politicians down in Augusta won’t stand up to the lumber companies.”

Don Cameron was equally vehement. “ They’re down now,” he said, “to cutting four-inch stuff. They’ll cut anything that will make a two-by-four. Some of them are exterminating the beaver and upsetting the natural economy of our waters. It wouldn’t be so bad if, after killing off the beaver, they would take the trouble to make the outlets in his dams which the beaver would have done, but they won’t even bother with that.”The present phase of lumbering in Maine, which was once conducted on a grand scale, while there were still great quantities of first growth, draws the contempt of the old-time guide, whose winters were customarily spent in the logging camps. “ Kindling-wood chopping” is the way Roaring Bill Hall, now in his eighties, refers to the practice. Moreover, great heaps of slash left by current operations are creating serious fire hazards.

Though lumbering practices are a factor contributing to the decline of guiding, it is unlikely that even if they were corrected the situation could be much improved, for the economic factor would remain. Though the shortage of guides is not us acute across the border in New Brunswick and Quebec, due to lower local wages, it is growing there too, and will no doubt accelerate in view of Canada’s rapid mining and industrial growth.

Besides the factors I have already mentioned, there is still another. We are a softer, more luxuryloving people than we were when the guide was in his heyday. We feel lost without a car or a plane to take us where we want to go, and the number of men who are willing to follow a guide over long and toilsome portages grows smaller every year. Moreover, since fishing has become the most popular of outdoor recreations, and the streams and lakes grow steadily more accessible, longer journeys to get off the beaten track become necessary. Indeed, so heavy have been the inroads on the once secluded waters of northern Minnesota, made possible by the services of the bush pilots, that the state took action and prohibited entry by air to certain localities. Also, the outboard motor, vastly improved since its early days, has increased the fisherman’s independence and stepped up his mobility.

But this independence has its limitations. In the true backwoods areas he cannot camp overnight without the services of a guide, which are required by state regulation. Nor can he, unless he has known the region long and intimately, hope to enjoy as good sport as a competent guide could help him to have.

If we are to check the flow across our borders of sportsmen who would be happy to find good fishing at home, if we are to crack down on the greed and to-hell-with-the-public attitude of the operators who are endangering the future of the Maine forests and helping to put the North Woods guide in the discard, prompt and decisive action is needed. Pressure might be brought to bear by an association of sportsmen, many of whom are men of influence. Perhaps it is too much to hope, but mightn’t the lumber companies be made to see reason and to take a longer view? Mightn’t they grant leaves of absence to men who would like to guide during the hunting and fishing seasons, if these men were given some guarantee of security in their company jobs?

The loss of an art, the lapse of a skill, the evaporation of knowledge long accumulated, is always a sad and disturbing thing. All three of these are passing away with the eclipse of the North Woods guide. Who is to inherit his art, his skill, and his knowledge? Who is to pass them on in turn, these precious acquisitions of the American heritage? Are they to become only old men’s tales of another day?