“Carving a home in the north woods” chapter 5

When land was surveyed in the early days of Maine, in order to make certain parcels of land “legal” for settlement, areas were divided into “townships” and plans were developed for full-fledged towns.  Certain groups of speculators, or would-be settlers, would often buy the township and “plant it” with settlers and establish plans with a structure for church and education.  When the number of settlers reached a certain population, limited self-government was granted and the status of that township was declared a “plantation.”  When the plantation grew to it’s expected population it was granted civil rights and became chartered by the state as a municipality with elected officials.

In the case of Northfeild Plantation, where both Les and Ken Orman grew up as boys, working long hours on their grandfathers potato farm, it never reached enough of a population to be established as a town.  There are a few other plantations that still exist throughout the great north woods, but Northfield  was home to many legendary moose hunts and some record black bear were harvested over the last few decades.   It  had three apple orchards spread out over ten square miles and four percent of it was water.  Only twenty houses were ever built, and the population at the last census was thirty seven people.  This made for a practically non-existent economy,  but the lack of human presence made for some of the best hunting and fishing in the state.

Ken had bigger dreams than the plantation could offer.  He completed his Bachelor’s degree in business, leading to a career in  real estate and  investments.  He  had some very good years in business yielding great returns on his investments, mostly in real estate, typically sub-developments. Unfortunately, the previous business year hadn’t been as generous to his portfolio.  He suffered such a financial  loss he had no choice but to sell his half of the family farm.  Les had managed to convince the Nature Conservancy to buy his brother’s share of the land to be put it into wildlife conservation.  Though it allowed Ken  to keep his house, along with other investments that were at an all time low, he lost his stake in the farm that he grew up on, working long summers and harvesting whitetail deer and upland game.  It was a decision  he knew he would regret.  Unfortunately,  after a very expensive divorce five years earlier that emptied his savings account,  and put an end to his winter vacations on the west coast of Florida (His now ex-wife owns the bungalow they bought after a real estate boom twenty years ago) he really had no choice. The irony for Ken was that his portion of the farm was now in the hands of the nature conservancy, never to be developed into housing lots.  He had made all his money buying land and developing it with investment groups over the last four decades of his life, and now the land he grew up on was protected… from him.

Les, on the other hand, was never aggressive about making money.  He lived a simple life as a potato farmer after graduating high school.  He spent much of his time hunting and fishing.  He had harvested several record bucks over the years and was a local legend by the time he was thirty years old.  His recognition got him into working for a guide service in the slow season, and eventually he started his own guiding business.  In the years that followed, he guided some very influential clients including some outdoor writers who got him international recognition through magazine articles.  There were offers to appear on several television shows, but he declined all of them.  Les was always happy to teach someone how to fly fish, track a white tail deer, or call in a bull moose, but he only wanted to work with one or two people at a time.  He never liked the idea of a camera focused only on him.  He felt that most of what was he saw on television was contrived and wasn’t always done in good style, or for that matter, within the true ethics of hunting.  It seemed to him, the marketing and technology behind hunting was slowly eroding the sport that he loved so much.  All the hunting magazines featured trophy sized animals on the front cover.  Every story mentioned the latest firearm and specific specialty cartridge that was used, right down to the manufacturer of the bullet.  It seemed  there was hardly any reverence for the game harvested, except that it was going into a record book somewhere, to the hunters credit.  The way Les felt about hunting was that pursuing any game animal was an opportunity to reconnect with the land and natural world.  Growing up on a farm he saw animals raised for consumption, and always felt the wild animals he harvested had a much better quality of life compared to animals raised within the confines of a pen.  When a person harvests an animal in the wild for the sake of consuming it, they have taken something from the land.  That person then has a duty to preserve and protect the habitat for future generations.  Similarly,  a rancher raising cattle has to ensure his land is suitable for raising future herds.  When clients wanted pictures taken of themselves, posing with a bull moose or a giant brook trout, it sometimes seemed less about the game and more about the individual being photographed.  There were some exceptions, but he saw a growing trend in “sportsman notoriety” and less focus on learning the ways of the woods and streams.  However, as a professional guide it is his duty to see his client gets the experience they came for, complete with documentation.

The next morning Les had coffee boiling by six o’clock and John could hear bacon sizzling in the same pan used for trout and fiddleheads the night before. “I need to leave by seven o”clock but don’t feel you have to run off, unless you are going fishing again, and in that case, you have overslept,”  Les said with the usual smile.   “Actually I have to drive back to Bangor and either return the car, or extend my rental.”  “You plan on buying a truck?” Les asked.  “I’m not sure yet,  been thinking about a few options, don’t know what I should do.”  Les slid the bacon out of the pan onto a brown paper bag he flattened on the counter. “Well if you plan on living up in these parts, you most likely want a pickup.”   “I guess the more I think about it,  I will need a truck for lumber and firewood.” Les cracked two eggs on the edge of the pan and they popped in the bacon grease.  He had toast and some hand-churned butter on the table ready for a hungry guest.  The two ate breakfast and drank coffee talking about local lumber yards and saw mills.  Les had a friend who ran a saw-mill and he thought John could save quite a bit of money using rough-cut lumber.

“Its a three hour ride to the town where the funeral service is, so I’m staying the night and won’t be back until late tomorrow afternoon,  you are more than welcome to stay here tonight if you want.”  John felt like he was taking advantage of Les, having just met him the day before.  “Oh I can stay in Bangor tonight, I need a shower anyway.”  The shower here works fine, and you can use my phone to call the car rental company.”  The idea of not wasting a day in Bangor was appealing to John.   He should spend as much time as possible getting to know the local area.  “Okay, but let me at least do something  for you like mow the lawn.  “Ken tells me you might be looking for some work up here?”  “Well I have to figure something out.   I am spending money faster than I would like to, and I have nothing coming in.”  “If you are interested I have a list of projects around here I would be happy to have taken care of,   I just don’t have the time.”   “What kind of projects?”  John asked. “Paint the barn, stack the firewood, fix a couple windows that rattle at night, stuff like that.  I could keep you busy all summer.”  John thought it was a stroke of luck to have met Les and now he would have a chance to be around him over the summer. “I would be happy to work around here doing whatever I could.  I have done a little house painting but not much carpentry.”  Well you can figure it will be good practice towards building your camp.”  Les said.  “Okay then, where is the woodpile?  I can start there.”

John spent the day stacking wood and trimming the grass around the barn that needed a good coat of paint.  He arranged to have the car until the weekend giving  him time to consider shopping for a vehicle.  He was also thinking about how he was going to explain this whole thing to his family.  As far as anyone from New Jersey knew, he was on a fishing trip to northern Maine and coming back to find a job that best suited his last four years of  university education.  They had no idea he was in the process of buying land,  wanting to hand build a cabin where he could be free from the modern conveniences everyone else felt they needed to survive in the modern world.  John knew it was possible, but also knew he had absolutely no skills in the woods. He could barely catch enough fish to survive a weekend, never mind hunting and foraging food.  The books he read as a boy romanticized the life of woodsman and trappers, but it left out the hardship, suffering and emptiness they lived with every day.  When you are alone in the wilderness it makes a person feel small, you sense things differently than when in the confines of a house or a city.  Things around you smell, taste, feel and sound different.  You hear the slightest movements in the forest, and the smallest bird catches your eye as it hops from tree to tree.  You notice a difference in the waters surface indicating a beaver swimming or a fish chasing an insect.  The smell of a fire is comforting and food tastes better.  These are all things you would never experience driving in a car or flying in an airplane.  When you eat food at a restaurant there are too many distractions from people moving and music playing.  When you cook a fish over a fire beside a stream you are connected to the world it came from and you are part of it.  When you return bones and skeleton to the place it came from it starts another cycle of life in that area. The further we separate ourselves from the world our sustenance comes from, the less we value and appreciate it.  The concept of “living off the land” seems parasitic when observing cultures of people who “live with the land,”  taking only what they need, and putting back an equal amount, leaving habitat undisturbed and letting nature take it’s course.  The wilderness has its own system of checks and balance and will always take care of itself.  Whenever there is a road built, or a housing track goes up, simultaneously there is loss of habitat and it decreases the lands “carrying capacity” for wildlife.  When the carrying capacity is depleted, there  can be no wildlife except the rodents and parasites that can exist in that environment.  There is a sense of irony when a luxury home home is built  lake front to enjoy the  pristine natural environment…. complete with a chemically fertilized lawn and a boat house carved into the already eroding shoreline.  It will reduce habitat by four times it’s own footprint,  eventually eliminating the surrounding wildlife, decreasing the appeal to the already molested shoreline, and coincidentally providing a nesting area for rats.  There is a reason the term “rat race” is used describing everyday life.   John wanted no part of it.  Clearly he had a-lot to learn about coping with the cold winter months and feeding himself, but he knew it was possible, and felt the sacrifices would be worth while.

When Les returned home he was happy with John’s progress.  The only fault he pointed out was that John didn’t stack the ends  correctly on the wood pile.  He told John that you have to cross stack the ends to give support, otherwise the pile will fall over within a week.  John re-stacked the pile and realized exactly what Les was explaining.   He laughed thinking about the fact he had a college degree and didn’t even know how to stack wood!   He also liked that Les had explained it to him rather than become frustrated with his lack of experience.

After the wood pile was stacked correctly, John went into the kitchen and Les had already put out the nights dinner consisting of deer meat, potatoes and more of those delicious fiddleheads.   John was starving as usual and finished his plate quickly.  “You definitely like to eat.”  Les said.  “yeah, and you make  really good meals.”  “Well you get plenty of practice being a guide and living alone.”  John wanted to know what happened to Les’s wife, but felt uncomfortable asking about it.  He also wondered why Les didn’t have any children.  “Do you have any kids to take over the guide business?” John asked. “Nope, never had children.  My wife always wanted them, but I was in a farming accident when I was a kid.” John saw images of metal parts spinning at high speeds and had to adjust his sitting position.  Maybe that was something he doesn’t have to know about either…

“I have been thinking about finding a helper that was willing to learn the ropes and maybe take on some of the work I am getting to old for.  The problem is finding someone who wants to do the work and gain the experience.  Most people who need a job have to earn more money than guiding offers.”  John was quick to respond.  “I would be willing to help you, if you thought I would be of any help at all.”  “Oh I have been thinking about it for the last couple of days.  I figure if you want to do some stuff around the house, and maybe help out on a canoe trip or two, and see if you like it, we could go from there.”  “I would be grateful for any chance to learn about living up here and actually getting hands on experience with someone like yourself.”  Les got up and took two glasses down from the cupboard which suggested a glass of his coveted cider was next.  “I do like your attitude and work ethic John.  Most people your age want nothing to do with learning the mechanics it takes to make this life possible.”  “I really have no experience with any of it, but I find it satisfying in a way that is hard to describe.”  ” Les passed him a cold glass of cider and sat back down.  “I have to tell you though, its backbreaking work and long hours.  Those loads get heavier every year and the nights get longer.  I still love guiding but I miss the clients that used to enjoy it as much as I do.”  “Do you still get satisfaction from teaching these things?”  “Yes, I suppose, but today folks have so many other things on their minds with the hustle of earning a living that they seldom unwind enough to really enjoy the experience.  As I get older, I feel less in touch with them making it more a job than a lifestyle.”  John drank the cider as fast as he ate the deer steaks.  “Well I would be grateful if you gave me a chance.  Even if I didn’t cut it as a guide, I need to learn the skills if I plan on sticking around.”   “As I said, you have the right attitude.  The hardest thing for people to understand is that every client is different.  I hate the word client, but that’s what we will call them.   Everyone has a story, and as I mentioned before, you never know what a person is going through in their life.”

John spent the next couple of days scraping paint and re-attaching old ceder shingles on the barn.  Some shingles had to be replaced and much of the trim was rotten to the point of disrepair.  Les was handy at carpentry, but admittedly, was no expert.  After two long days of preparation the barn was ready for paint.  Les returned with two five gallon buckets of primer, and when John applied it the old boards reacted like a kitchen sponge.  The weather was cooperative for the next few days, and at the end of the weekend the old barn had taken on a new look.  The trim had been fixed and squared and some of the windows were re-pained and now shut tightly without rattling.  Les took down the old front door and completely built a new one that slid easily on the old forged tracks that had been made on-sight when the farm had its own blacksmith shop.

As much as John didn’t want to think about it, he needed to return the car and buy a bus ticket back to New Jersey.  He thought of alternate scenarios  but the best one consisted of a job application working for the forest regulation committee.   It wasn’t a complete fabrication because he did notice an ad in a flyer at the hardware store that mentioned an opening in the surveying department.  Regardless what he told them, he knew it would be less than expected by his parents. That was what he had to deal with in a few days.   For now, he rolled down the window and felt that cool air from the Aroostook River and  smelled the green peaked trees filling his mind with thoughts of campfires and sizzling brook trout.

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