Maine’s outdoor fun has changed a lot in my lifetime

alifelivedoutdoorsOn Friday, I spoke to the Portland Rotary about how our outdoor activities and experiences have changed in my lifetime. Today I share that speech with you.

Portland Rotary Speech

I must thank Rusty Atwood for this invitation. He emphasized – several times – the 30 minute limit, including questions and comments. Rusty knows I could talk for hours, especially about this topic, – How Maine has changed in my lifetime.

The cover photo on my first book, A Life Lived Outdoors, was taken by our daughter Hilary, fishing up our camp just outside the western edge of Baxter Park. My wife Linda said right off she knew it was me, because my mouth is open.

Today I’ll focus on how things have changed for those of us who live our lives outdoors. But first, I want to ask, how many of you have been to Maine? Well, you know we don’t consider Portland to be in Maine. I’m talking about rural, hard-pressed, significantly discouraged, population diminished Maine – where we still love our state, but wonder if there is a future for our children and grandchildren here. Two of my three kids live out of state, where their economic opportunities are much better.

I like to say I was born a sportsman, a Methodist, and a Republican. But really, I was born a Mainer. Mom was the church organist and choir director, so of course, I sang in the youth choir and later the adult choir. Today, when folks ask why I am so comfortable speaking in public, I say that Mom had me singing in public when I was 7 years old, and if you can sing in public, speaking is easy!

We were family-centered, with Mom staying home to care for us and our home, and Dad working. Boy, that’s another thing that’s changed in Maine, hasn’t it. Most Moms have to work these days.

We grew our own vegetables and hunted our own meat. Every Sunday after church, we’d all get in the car and take an afternoon drive, usually enjoying a picnic along the way. My wife Linda still marvels at how I know every back road in central Maine.

Winthrop was an idealic town in which to grow up, although I didn’t know it at the time. Both sides of Main Street were lined with stores, named for their owners, and the owners were in the stores. At 4-years-old, I walked a mile to school, right through the downtown where everyone knew me. By the age of 12, I had three jobs: selling my 4-H Club vegetables at a stand outside Wilson’s and also delivering them door to door, mowing lawns, and working at Wilson’s. My favorite job there was roasting the cashews and peanuts, but after a while, they discovered I was eating all the profits! I am pained to drive through rural towns these days and see so many abandoned stores and homes.

How many of you hunt? How many fish? Growing up in Winthrop, Dad and I hunted all over that area, and never encountered posted property. So that’s something that has changed. Today I emphasize the need to ask permission and build a positive relationship with those who give us the opportunity to hunt on their land.

Outdoor News Blog

Since I stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, in order to write full-time, I’ve been writing, among other things, an outdoor news blog, posted on my website, www.georgesmithmaine.com, and the website of the Bangor Daily News. In 2014, the Maine Press Association cited my outdoor news as the state’s best sports blog.

I didn’t even know I was writing a sports blog! But the Maine Press Association no longer has a category for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor news. This in a state where Gene LeTourneau wrote about hunting and fishing every day for 50 years in our local newspapers. It was great to win that recognition from the MPA, but sobering to think I’m in the same category as folks writing about football and baseball.

I know that one of the reasons my Outdoor News blog is so popular is that the newspapers no longer report on these topics and issues on a regular basis. That’s another thing that has changed.

Wildfire

Wildfire, my TV talk show focused on outdoor issues, aired for 13 years, exploring the most interesting, provocative, and pressing natural resource and outdoor issues and stirring things up, just one of the many reasons I’ve missed this TV talk show since it went off the air three years ago, when my friend and co-host Harry Vanderweide, came down with a terrible case of Lyme disease. Another thing that has changed, for sure. We never worried about deer ticks when I was growing up.

Most of us care about outdoor issues. A recent survey performed by Responsive Management for Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, found that 70 percent of us enjoy seeing and having wildlife around our homes and property, but many worry about the problems these wild critters cause, from destruction of gardens to Lyme disease.

Looking back at our lists of Wildfire guests brought many fond memories. We really did stir things up! We talked about all the hot issues, from bear hunting to wind power, but I most enjoyed the shows with Maine authors, outdoor writers, birding-hunting-fishing guides, and especially, Kate Krukowski Gooding, who writes wild game cookbooks. Some of you must know Kate’s husband, Don Gooding.

So here’s some really good news: Wildfire is back! And the Rockport studio where we’re taping the show has a kitchen, so Kate can cook for us! We did an entire show with her that aired in late June, and she cooked a special Wildfire Blackfly Stew featuring moose, bear, and beaver meat. It was amazing!

Each edition of Wildlife is aired on Time Warner cable station 9 on Tuesdays at 7 pm, Thursdays at 6:30 pm, and Sundays at 9:30 am. Each edition airs for two weeks, so you have no excuse for missing it! You can also access the show online at www.vstv.me. All of the shows we’ve done so far are available on that website.

My greatest days were those spent hunting and fishing with Dad. We hunted together for 53 years, a very special privilege. It was no accident that I spent my career advocating for sportsmen and women and writing about hunting and fishing.

Fishing

To a 12-year-old boy, the woods above our Winthrop home was wilderness, a place of fantasy, escape, and high adventure. The wilderness was only a short quarter-mile walk from my house to the very top of High Street, into a tote road through a forest of sugar maples, huge oaks, and fir thickets, over the hill and into the next valley. I’d seen bobcat, deer, partridge and lots of squirrels there, but it was along the small brook that meandered through the forested valley that I spent most of my time. That cold sheltered brook held wild trout, many trout, colorful trout, huge 6 and 7-inch trout. I dreamed of them often.

My fishing gear was basic stuff. I had an old rod hardly longer than myself and a small spinning reel, something Dad had discarded. A plain bare hook was tied onto the end of strong monofilament line, line hefty enough that I never lost a hook to bottom. Ever. Which was a good thing because I only had a couple of hooks.

I knew that water, every riffle, deep pool, long bank. Returning home on late afternoons with a creel – really just an old canvas bag I’d found in the barn – full of ten 6 and 7-inch trout – well, that was the finestkind of living for a twelve-year-old boy. I’d clean the trout after I got home and Mom would fry them up in corn meal in a huge old cast iron skillet for supper, with lots of praise for her little sportsman who could feed his family. And boy, did those trout taste great.

Of course things change, even deep cold fast rushing brooks, and when I returned to town after college to work in a local bank and trudged one Saturday morning up to the end of High Street, I was surprised to find that the street had been extended deep into my wilderness. Much of the forest was gone and the last half mile of the brook I had fished so many times now flowed through a housing development. I fished the entire length of the brook that day and caught only four trout, all less than 6-inches long. You can’t go back, even to fish.

The block of Main Street stores that included Wilson’s was torn down, and is now just a parking lot in the middle of the downtown. Even my High School building is long gone, although I have a few of its bricks, one with a photo of the school attached to it.

Hunting and Habitat

When I was a kid, we raised and trained English setters, and hunted pheasants that my Dad’s sportsmen’s club raised and stocked in the fields of Winthrop, Wayne, and Monmouth. Everything about my first pheasant is still vivid in my mind – our dog Gypsy Lou, pointing a pheasant in a corn field the end of Maranacook Lake, the pheasant taking off, my shotgun coming up to my shoulder, my shot, the pheasant plunging to the ground, Dad right beside me. An unforgettable moment.

And here’s something else that’s changed. In that very spot today, there’s a house. We’ve lost a lot of wildlife habitat over the years. For many years, I saw no need for the public to buy land and keep it accessible and undeveloped, but by the early 1990s, I changed my mind, and even appeared in a TV ad for a Land for Maine’s Future bond. I even conceived the idea of the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, which has now provided over $18 million for wildlife conservation and outdoor recreation programs in Maine.

Loss of Hunters and Anglers

When we lost our deer herd, in northern Maine, after two severe winters and our failure to protect sufficient deer wintering habitat, that industry disappeared, hurting not only guides and sporting camps but rural businesses all over the region.

But deer hunting had been in decline for many years, down about 100,000 hunters over time. The decline was particularly bad with nonresident hunters. There are lots of great places to hunt deer and other game animals these days. I myself go to North Dakota each fall to hunt wild pheasants.

We’re also very concerned about the terrible impact that ticks are having on our moose population. Since the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife began studying the issue a few years ago, they’ve found that ticks kill about 60 to 65 percent of the collared calves, and 1/3 of the collared cows. Cows are also much less productive these days – having far fewer calves, and we don’t know why. Moose hunting permits have been cut in half in the last three years, and I’ve talked to businesses that provided moose watching outings that are having great difficulty in finding moose to show their customers.

Turkeys are a real success story, but less than 20,000 people hunt turkeys, and very few nonresidents come here to do that.

Brook trout

Once famous for our native and wild brook trout, Maine anglers now catch twice as many bass as brook trout. Bass, as you probably know, are a nonnative fish, stocked both legally and illegally in lots of Maine waters, where they dominate other fish.

I am very proud of the work we did at SAM to recognize our native brook trout as the state’s Heritage Fish, and protect them in 300 waters that have never been stocked. But it took many years to achieve that, and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife opposed us every step of the way. So yes, I am disappointed in the state’s management of our native fish. We especially need to protect brook trout in moving water, our small brooks and streams, and we are not doing that.

Hatchery fish provide lots of great angling opportunity, but can be very expensive. In some waters, where the catch rate is less than 30 percent (meaning we only catch 30% of the stocked fish), the fish that are caught can cost upwards of $40 to $50 each!

I still love fishing in Maine, but I’ve also been blessed with fishing trips all over North America, from northern Quebec to Labrador to Montana to Alaska, and I can tell you, traveling anglers have a lot of great places to fish. Maine is not on their map much anymore.

And many of our waters have been devastated by the illegal and unfortunate stocking of invasive fish. It pains me that Long Pond in the Belgrades, just ten minutes from my house, and once one of our top Landlocked salmon fisheries, is now dominated by pike, landlocked alewives, bass, and other nonnative species.

Don’t get me wrong. I love to fish for bass. But brook trout our Maine’s most precious native fish.

Sporting Camps

Let’s talk about how things have changed for Maine sporting camps.  How many of you have visited a Maine sporting camp?

Because I love history and the great Maine outdoors, I leaped at the invitation from Down East Books to write a book about Maine sporting camps, which was published in May. Maine sporting camps are an important part of our history. While they were once 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 and hiking, snowmobiling and snowshoeing. Some are just trying to escape the “real” world. And some of us come to eat!

But Maine once sported more than 300 sporting camps, and nearly all are only memories today. The demise of traditional sporting camps has many causes, including a reduction in game animals and loss of quality fishing, and the fact that people are busier these days and no longer have weeks of time to vacation in the woods. Today, a 3-day stay is a long one!

The camps featured in this book have made the adjustments and improvements necessary to keep up with the demands and expectations of their guests.  I cite Claybrook Mountain Lodge in Highland Plantation as an example. For many years, deer hunting was their most profitable business. On the deck of the lodge is a wooden plaque where Greg Drummond records how many deer are shot each year. For the last 10 years, there are a lot of zeros on that plaque. Today, deer hunting is their least profitable business, and cross-country skiing is their most profitable business.

And while I can only urge you to leave your computer and cell phone home, I know many of you want those services to be available wherever you go.  That’s been a challenge for some sporting camps too. You won’t be out-of-touch at these sporting camps, but you will have the chance to get-in-touch with history and spend some time in magical Maine places. Amazing, life-changing, never-to-be-forgotten experiences are still available at historic Maine sporting camps.

Big Game and Fisheries Plans

DIF&W is now preparing new management plans for all of our game animals and all fish species. I don’t have time to go into the details today, but I encourage you to follow my outdoor news blog because I am writing about this a lot. One major issue which is being raised is this: with Lyme disease spreading, and of such great concern, is the public still willing to maintain high populations of deer throughout the state. Just one of many challenging issues being discussed.

Conclusion

The Real Maine is my Maine, the Maine of my youth, the Maine that tourists fantasize about. But is it still real? Not really. I haven’t seen a kid on a bike with a fishing rod for many years. Rural Maine is struggling mightily to maintain its population, economy, and way of life, lives lived outdoors. But there is still something very special about our state.

I want to congratulate you on your outdoor challenge fundraiser. It’s generated lots of enthusiasm and excitement, and raised lots of money too. I wrote about it this year and hope to participate next year.

Our current tourism slogan, It Must Be Maine, allows you to define what is special about our state. I liked the old slogan better: Maine, Life the Way it Should be.

For sure, we can help you set aside your troubles and re-center your life. And you can experience, really experience, the good life here, and not just the good life profiled in the Nearings’ popular book, Living the Good Life. In fact, you can define the good life when you are here. Even the Nearing family has embraced change. You can now stay in their historic farm home, while on vacation.

And sure, you can enjoy a lobster dinner, and our 3500 miles of coastline. Linda and I have been writing travel columns for 5 ½ years for central Maine’s daily newspapers, and we write a lot about the coast, because that’s where people want to visit – including us – and because it is, truly, spectacular.

But please, spend some time inland, in our small towns. The western mountains and great north woods are amazing and restorative. And that’s really what Maine is all about.

My state has changed, significantly, although we embrace the old Maine and remain tethered to it. I was born a Mainer, and will die a Mainer, with a smile on my face, knowing how blessed I have been.

 

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.