I consider it a humbling privilege to be a Registered Maine Guide. This license did not come easily, and it is required in order to charge customers to take them out into the wilderness for fishing, hunting, or recreation.
Now, anyone without a license is welcome to take guests out into the woods, no charge, and get them all fly-bitten and muddy and lost. But you need to be registered and carry a license in order to collect money for abusing guests that way.
A Maine Guide has to be ready to calmly deal with any unpredictable event. You might think that we just get paid to go fishing. There is that; but let me tell you about a few incidents from my last few years in the woods.
Every year I give several moose tours. I always have a few useful things to say, since the depth of people’s ignorance is sometimes astonishing. So, before they ask, usually, I am mentioning that the bulls shed their antlers every winter and grow new ones in the summer. I describe what they eat and how much, and I try to explain that the food source changes throughout the year, and in the winter they don’t hang around in the lowlands near water. As a veteran wildlife biologist and naturalist, I figure I can handle most any question about moose.
Then one year I had a pair of aces. These two guys, a father-and-son team accompanied by their wives, took a pontoon boat tour on Millinocket Lake with me. There were others on board as well, about eight guests in all. As we approached the meandering curves of Mud Brook, they began firing questions. Easy ones came first. What’s the scientific name for moose? (Alces alces.) How many moose are there in Maine? (About 29,000.) In the whole USA? (About 300,000.) Does the bull take part in rearing the young? (No.) How big is a moose calf? (About 25 to 35 pounds, depending whether it’s a multiple birth.) How many upper teeth do they have? (Twelve.) How fast can they run? (Up to 35 mph.) How far? (I didn’t know.)
Well, that’s where they lost me. But they kept firing questions like a couple of fighter pilots, even though I was spent. How did someone ever clock a moose at 35 mph for 15 miles? What was the biggest moose ever shot in Minnesota? Does moose milk taste like cow milk? Does a moose throw up if it eats something poisonous by accident? What’s the greatest number of moose ever hitched together as a team to drag a sled? What year was that? Is it true that a moose can walk on ice that a deer would break through because the moose has such wide feet? How many words can a moose be taught to obey? What was the oldest moose ever, that is, in captivity?
After I had failed the majority of their question, the pair of aces seemed satisfied. Then the younger one commented to his admiring young bride: “The guy doesn’t know much about moose, does he?” And he sounded sincere. A moment after he had fallen silent, through the trees I spotted a familiar black form on the water, about to appear around the next bend, so I cut the motor to let us drift with our remaining momentum. Slowing down also quieted the passengers, who all looked at me, even though they hadn’t seen anything yet. I put a finger to my lips and then slowly pointed as we drifted onto the scene.
An old bull moose is a secretive animal, and this one was no exception. At the bend, we were a hundred feet away, and a couple of cameras had begun clicking before he decided to make a dash for it. He crossed the brook in front of the boat, splashed ashore on the other side of us, and trotted into the woods.
Neither of the Alces aces had taken a picture. Nor had their wives. But the other guests on the boat, complete strangers to the moose experts, had some of the best moose images anyone will ever get in Maine. The photo with this article is that very bull, taken by one of the passengers.
Walk In, Carry Out
If you’re a Guide, you might be leading a hike when a big man falls right behind you and breaks his ankle on a trail, and you have to call in a team of six bearers to carry him out to the trail head to meet an ambulance four hours later. And for the entire four hours you’re trying to keep him comfortable and in good humor, just in case he’s a lawyer from back in the city — you never know for sure. This happened to me last summer as I was leading a troop of Boy Scouts out from the ice caves.
If he was a lawyer he kept silent about it and never did sue. But his ankle was dramatically snapped. Even though we were only a third of a mile from the trail head and the break occurred at eleven in the morning, it was three in the afternoon before a team of many bearers was able to deliver him to an ambulance where the trail met the dirt road. The miracle in this was that I had cell phone service sufficient to call 9-1-1 right after it happened.
The man bore his injury with barely a moan. He stayed alert but not very chatty. It was greatly to his advantage that his wife and son were along on the hike and that another group member was an EMT back home. I wrote to him after the accident but didn’t receive a reply.
The Water Hater
Or consider the group of college students, out for a guided canoe trip. These weren’t biology or forestry students. They were a select group of “George Mitchell” scholars with a variety of majors from all over the country and all attending colleges in Maine. The particular stretch of the Penobscot River we were canoeing, once begun, has no place along the way to meet a vehicle until the end of the day. So we loaded up several canoes and, for five hours, a young female scholar sat cross-legged in front of me, in the center of my canoe, gripped the gunwales, and wailed in panic until the very end. One of the college staff responsible for the group stroked the water at the front of the canoe while I paddled and steered from the rear.
The girl in the middle didn’t paddle or participate in conversation but cried even more after the puddle in the middle of the craft penetrated the thin layers of cotton between herself and the hull. At one point she cried in alarm, “My butt’s below water!” I started to explain that the point where she was sitting was, in fact, a couple inches below the waterline, but the canoe is buoyant and so on, and that we were not shipping water. “Then where is this water coming from?” she demanded. It was no use trying to explain that the paddle drips a little into the canoe whenever I changed sides with it. She apparently suspected that the canoe was slowly leaking.
I tried to distract her with Maine Guide entertainment. I sang “Cool Water” at first — bad idea, but I know three verses to it — then “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night,” and then a considerable repertoire of Irish drinking songs. I told every joke I knew, which was really the same joke over; I just changed all the words every time. I tried to get the scholars in the other canoes to engage with her, but they insisted on keeping a half a mile ahead so they could see a moose before the foghorn girl in my canoe came around the next bend behind them.
When at last we were coasting toward the landing, really just a strip of mud at the take-out point, and the canoe was still side-to to the shore and ten or twelve feet from the riverbank, the miserable girl launched herself from center-canoe to shore and made it without touching water. Once I stepped ashore myself, she pressed back through the throng of students and hugged me quick and said she had had a wonderful time.
How It Began
Since 1897, any qualified man or woman has had the opportunity to become licensed as a Maine Guide. You’d think that for most of that time all Maine Guides were men, but the first person to be issued such a license was Cornelia Crosby of Franklin County. She was a renowned promoter of Maine’s wilderness attractions, traveling to sportsmen’s shows around the country with an elaborate display. She was already guiding professionally by the 1890s, but it had become clear to her that guides needed to be screened, and some should be denied the license, to assure that the ones in business were qualified, safety-conscious, and an asset to the state.
Miss Crosby petitioned the Maine Legislature to set criteria for licensing guides, and it is “Fly Rod” Crosby’s legacy that Maine Guides must meet tougher standards than anywhere else in the country. Her mother was my first cousin four times removed, thus Fly Rod was my second cousin three times removed — which makes the profession all the more special to me.
If you canoe the West Branch from below Abol Bridge, you can reach First Debsconeag Lake. A short trail from the north shore of the lake leads to the ice caves. If you’d rather not arrive by water, there is a mile-long trail from the Hurd Pond Road. (And if you’d rather not try finding this attraction by yourself using only a Gazetteer and a compass, hire a Guide.)
Each year I have led several groups to this interesting site. People naturally ask how a hole in the ground can hold the previous winter’s ice and snow until August, and then once it has melted, how the air temperature in the caves can remain below 40 degrees through the remainder of the summer.
When asked, I can explain. And this is my own explanation; I have not read it anywhere, nor has anyone made a conclusive geological study to substantiate or refute my explanation.
The ice caves are only eight miles from the base of Katahdin, Maine’s mile-high mountain. Between Hurd Pond and First Debsconeag there is a hill comprised of massive, massive granite boulders, some as big as a very large house. Roughly 25,000 to 20,000 years ago, during the last glaciation, sheets of ice were pushing their way southward across Maine, and Katahdin was no barrier to their advance. The rounded rocks that we find across the landscape, such as the ones that comprise the chief crop of Maine agriculture, are remnants of the destruction this ice accomplished as it thickened, moved with the creeping slowness of glaciers, and then melted. Granite rubble, (granite being a crystalized by-product of volcanic activity), as well as pushed-up limestone bedrock, was scraped from Katahdin and other peaks in the path of the ice, and this rubble was left behind when the surface ice eventually receded and melted about 13,000 years ago.
Some of the deposits, in the form of granite boulders, found their final resting places a little more dynamically than merely settling in place as the ice melted around them. Eskers and other alluvial residue attest to aggressive activity by the flow of water within or out from a glacier. But here is what I believe happened to form the ice caves. A southward-moving sheet of ice, up to a mile thick, sheered off the pre-glacial peaks of Katahdin, Double Top, and other granite mountains in the area. Smaller rocks may have been carried for hundreds of miles within the ice or by the water coursing through it, but any section of ice burdened with a torn-off mountaintop would not have carried that load very far. At several places in the first few miles south of Katahdin, I conceive that those sections of ice bearing the greatest remnants of the mountain peaks, sheered off and piled up with ice trapped underneath as the rest of the ice sheet crept over or around the deposits, leaving the giant boulders near the peaks they came from.
Within the first ten miles south of Katahdin there are six or more hills of similar configuration. These are not high enough to have names on a map, but one of them is the hill with the ice caves in it. If I were to state it as fact, as I do to people I take to the caves, I would tell you that the enormous, house-sized boulders are right off the tops of the nearby mountains and that, if you could make your way deeper into the hill by slithering between boulders, you would come to a layer of 13,000-year-old ice, still intact, which has been protected from the surface temperatures by the insulating thickness of rock that lies above it. Instead of ice that laid on top of the ground and melted away, what you have near the shore of First Debsconeag Lake is ice that did not lie on top and cannot melt because it has not come close enough to air and sunlight in 13,000 years. There are only three months out of a year when the temperature at the surface of the ground is warm enough to melt snow and ice. That meager amount of warmth can’t penetrate the ground to the depth of the trapped ice below.
This is not far-fetched. Maine lies near the latitudes where permafrost is found in Canada and Russia. Since we can have surface frost from September 1st to June 1st, and since winter snow falls into the vertical entrance to the main cave every year and takes half the summer or more to melt away, then it is quite conceivable that we have a permafrost situation extending deep into and under the hill in this unique location.
If this is not the explanation, then there is a giant refrigerator of some sort beneath that hill and it will frost a beer mug in minutes all summer long. The other similar hills in the same area, I suspect, might be hiding additional deposits of Pleistocene ice, but no one has found a hole between boulders where you can crawl in and check.
Well, I had told a version of this theory to a group I brought to the ice caves one day, and a woman in the group said: “You want me to believe that a glacier carried a mountaintop right to here and dropped it, and some ancient ice is trapped underneath?” I agreed she had stated it far more succinctly than I did.
But she mocked me: “It was riding on top of a glacier — ‘Look at me! I’m a mountaintop riding on a glacier! Oops! I fell off!’ And now there is a cave where you can go cool off on a summer day.”
I felt that science was no match for this woman’s intuition. Then she added: “I know about glaciers. I’ve seen ‘Ice Age’. This isn’t where ‘Ice Age’ happened.” The woman went on: “This cave reminds me of that chintzy exhibit I saw at the fair where they make you believe you’re going into this room to see a man standing in a fire and really it’s just a man in a caveman suit surrounded by mirrors and a fake fire reflecting off of everything and there’s a heater that’s not very secret because you can hardly hear yourself for the blower…”
But what could I say to that? The ice caves near First Debsconeag Lake are the Maine attraction that you won’t regret visiting some summer, unless you’ve already seen a caveman standing in a fire.
I hope I continue to enjoy adventures such as these for many years to come, even though I go into the woods with a far different frame of reference than the people I take along. For, while my guests are reminding themselves to bring sunscreen and Off! for their guided trip, the Guide is preparing enough equipment for an unexpected overnight stay in the woods with four frightened guests during a sudden hurricane, and packing it all in a lightweight backpack.