History meets hospitality at Maine sporting camps today. 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!
When Michael Steere of Down East Books contacted me two years ago to ask if I’d like to write a book about Maine sporting camps, it didn’t take long to say yes. It was a great experience for me. I learned a lot, visited some wonderful camps, and even got involved in key issues of concern to sporting camp owners.
My book, “Maine Sporting Camps,” was published in May, with my hope that it will encourage readers to visit sporting camps on a regular basis for the very best outdoor experiences. On Wednesday night, Nov. 16, at 6:30 p.m., I’ll be talking about the book and the history of our sporting camps at the State Library, an event hosted by the Kennebec Historical Society. Beginning at 5:30 p.m. the state museum will be open so attendees can see their amazing exhibit of historical firearms.
It’s a lot easier today to get to a sporting camp than it once was. Consider this description of the route to Camp Phoenix on Nesowadnehunk Lake in the North Woods, published in the March 1899 edition of The Maine Sportsman.
“There are two ways of reaching ‘Sowadnehunk from stations on the Bangor & Aroostook (railroad); both routes themselves passing through good game country. The one by way of Patten, Shin Pond and Trout Brook Farm involves a fifty mile walk or buckboard ride over the roads, requiring about two and a half days’ time. The trip by way of Norcross is shorter and even more picturesque, and may be covered in two days. A steamer running from Norcross to various points on Twin, Pemaeumcook and Ambajejus Lakes, will take the traveler fifteen miles on his way to Camp Wellington run by Seiden McPheters. At this point one crosses a half-mile carry on a jumper, and begins the ascent of the West Branch in canoes… the last mile the canoe must be poled.”
The Maine Sporting Camp Heritage Foundation reports that, “In 1904 there were at least 300 sporting camps in operation in Maine. By 2007, this number had dwindled to fewer than 40.”
I asked the owners of Maine’s sporting camps to tell me about their challenges and boy, did I get an earful. Right at the top of the list was the loss of hunters and anglers, with the blame being cast widely to everything from coyotes to loss of habitat to poor fisheries and wildlife management. The loss of deer hunters over the last five years has been particularly painful. Deer nearly disappeared in western and northern Maine after two tough winters, and our failure to protect critical deer wintering areas was a key factor.
Camp owners listed lots of challenges, including taxes and regulations, described by one camp owner as “death by a thousand cuts.” Getting and keeping good staff (and not just at the remote camps) was a major problem. The cost and complexity of insurance was mentioned by many, as was rising food and other prices. A lack of advertising and marketing was high on many lists, one camp owner noting that “the state of Maine is focused more on the coastal areas for marketing of tourism and travel.” That’s true, but it’s caused by the fact that tourists want to visit the coast, and the state’s limited dollars must be used to let tourists know we have what they are looking for. And sadly, they are not looking to hunt and fish here.
Quite a few mentioned competition from online businesses that market private camps for rent, noting that those camp owners are not governed by the same taxes and rules. That issue was raised at the Legislature this year but no action was taken. Others pointed to nearby development or logging that changed the experiences at their camps. And one camp owner blamed his problems on Democrats!
Many camp owners complained about technology. “The biggest (challenge) is technology,” one wrote. “We are a rustic sporting camp. We live in a time where most people are too caught up in their electronic devices… Here we believe that a vacation is a time to remove yourself from all of that craziness — from the things that cause stress and headaches.”
You can set aside all the stress in your life by visiting a traditional Maine sporting camp. And I’ll guarantee one thing: You won’t want to leave!