It’s time to come up with that special gift for that special person who loves the outdoors.

While many gift guides are promotional and commercialized, this one recommends experiences, trips, mementos and memories. It’s more a collection of gifting stories. And while these gifts may not have been given or received in the traditional holiday season, they may provide some inspiration as the time of gift-giving approaches.

We reached out to avid outdoor enthusiasts across Maine and asked them for the most meaningful outdoor gift they’ve ever received. We got back stories about wildlife photography, mountain biking and birding as well as botany and long-distance hiking. These stories from across the state are tales of tools, treks, maps and memories – but also time spent together and experiences that shaped a lifetime.

Tira Denny at Biddeford’s Clifford Park with the mountain bike that was a gift from her fiancé two years ago. The gift helped her win the 62-mile Carrabassett Valley Challenge in 2019 – and soon after, a sponsorship deal from Specalized bikes. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

TIRA DENNY, mountain bike enthusiast and professional racer: Denny ran track in high school and hiked often while growing up near the Appalachian Trail in New York. Five years ago, when Denny started mountain biking with her fiancé, the endurance sport came easy. Soon after, she sought out mentors, and then a coach.

Two years ago when Denny and her fiancé, Mike Loranger, were talking about getting married, he offered to get her a racing bike rather than an engagement ring. Denny was all for it. What she didn’t expect was the $10,000 Specialized racing bike he bought her.

In 2019, on the bike Loranger bought her, Denny won the Carrabassett Challenge 100-kilometer women’s race, a grueling 62-mile test full of mountain climbs and single track. The win led to a sponsorship deal with Specialized.

“We were looking at a lower model. I was so surprised he bought me the bike he did for my birthday,” said Denny, who lives in Biddeford.

ABBY KING, land steward, long-distance hiker and guide: In her free time, King guides backcountry skiers and backpackers in the White Mountains, as well as sea kayaking excursions along the Maine coast. So it’s no surprise the most meaningful outdoor gift she ever received was a trail map.

At the end of her thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017, a friend sent her an illustrated map of the trail. King loved it so much she bought a similar map of the Appalachian Trail, a hike she completed in 2011. The New Hampshire mapping company Brainstorm makes illustrated maps and puzzles of famous trails, parks and New England states. The renditions are whimsical and fun, with popular landmarks and historical places. 

Now the conservation manager for the Upper Saco Valley Land Trust, King does a lot of her hiking on land she helps conserve. But she loves having the daily reminder hanging in her Fryeburg home of her two epic journeys. “When you see the different places on the maps, it jogs your memory of all the things you did and saw on the trail,” she said.

Marion Sprague watches birds in her Westbrook backyard through the binoculars her husband gave her. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

MARION SPRAGUE, birder, outdoor educator: After becoming a Master Maine Naturalist two years ago, Sprague became co-director of the Maine Young Birders Club, conducting monthly birding walks around southern Maine to help grow the ranks of young birders, which the club has done.

So she knows how important outdoor gear is to new and avid birders. The best outdoor gifts she’s received were her first high-end pair of binoculars, given by her husband, Lucas Ahlsen (the Nikon Monarch 5, which retails at $300) and also the heated bird bath they got together. The bath has brought to their yard birds they previously didn’t see at their feeders, like Sprague’s favorite: the northern parula. The binoculars have helped Sprague find and see more birds beyond their Westbrook home.

“I had inherited binoculars from my family. They were big and clunky. When you switch over to a better quality optics, the experience is so much richer,” she said.

BRIAN HARNISH, wildlife photographer: Brian Harnish’s favorite outdoor gift of all time is the professional high-end Canon camera his parents, Barbara and Steve Harnish, bought him three years ago, shortly before his father died. 

Brian Harnish uses the Canon camera his parents got him three years ago to capture bald eagles, white-tailed deer, and the night sky. Photo courtesy of Brian Harnish

The camera holds sentimental value, but it also guides Harnish into nature, which is not always easy. Born with spina bifida, Harnish must use full-leg braces, or, at times, a wheelchair. But the professional camera has given him a view of deer, bald eagles and the Milky Way that he can’t ignore. He carries it when he picks his way carefully down the banks of the Kenduskeag River to photograph the famous canoe race there in the springtime, and out onto area golf courses in the dead of night, to photograph the night sky. 

“When I get a shot I like, or something someone else likes, I get a lot of joy out of that,” said Harnish, who lives in Orono. 

DON HUDSON, outdoor advocate, hiker: At age 13, Don Hudson first stood on Katahdin during a wilderness trip he was chosen for while a camper at Chewonki. Now 70, Hudson said that moment standing atop Baxter Peak stayed with him and, he believes, inspired many key decisions in his life. 

When he went to graduate school at the University of Vermont in 1978, Hudson did his thesis on the rare Alpine plant, the star-like saxifrage, that is found atop Katahdin. And in 1982, while he was finishing his doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology at Indiana University, rather than teach college he accepted a job as a naturalist at Chewonki, the outdoor center that introduced him to Katahdin. He worked there for 28 years, including for 20 as its director. And when he retired, Hudson, who lives in Arrowsic, became co-founder of the International Appalachian Trail that has its southern terminus on, you guessed it: Katahdin. 

A Chewonki wilderness camping trip on July 19, 1963, features Don Hudson, then 13, perched atop the sign. Hudson went on to do research work for a master’s degree in botany on Katahdin and to work as the executive director of Chewonki for 20 years. He credits this trip for all of it. Photo courtesy of Don Hudson

“When I look back on it, standing on Katahdin looking out over the vast forest, I thought it was remarkable. My father was a Methodist minister and every two years we moved to a new place. But I hadn’t seen anything like that. The leader pointed out the lakes, and the Allagash and the Penobscot’s West Branch. And I thought, I want to see all those places,” Hudson recalled.

STEPHANIE CLEMENT, conservation advocate: Clement still recalls the hike with her father in their backyard in Virginia when Stephen Clement “snuck an apple into his bag” and later appeared to pull it off a pine tree. Stephanie Clement was so mystified then about how a pine tree could produce an apple; she credits her father with sparking her curiosity in forests that years later led her to become the conservation director at the Friends of Acadia, a post she’s held for 23 years.

So last Christmas, as a nod to her father’s help, she gave him a membership to the Midcoast orchard, Out On a Limb, which sells five loads of rare apples to its members through the fall (for $165). Clement, who lives in Bar Harbor, each week for five weeks brought her father buckets of apples at his home in Bass Harbor, where together they shared the adventure.

“It really was a present for me,” Clement said with a laugh. “It was really fun to pick them up and bring them to my dad and we’d lay them out in slices and try them all. So that gift of him getting me interested in conservation, especially trees, morphed into the gift I got for him last year. I’m going to get it for him again this year.”

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