Paul Doiron here—
It’s happened more than a few times now that a journalist has mistakenly referred to me as a Maine game warden. I am always quick to correct the record and say that I am, in fact, a Registered Maine Guide, not a warden. (The last thing any author needs is to be seen exaggerating your life story.) Wardens are cops with all the training, discretion, and powers of conventional law-enforcement officers. They are graduates of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and the Advanced Warden Academy; they rescue lost hikers, and investigate boat and snowmobile crashes. They catch very bad people doing very bad things. In the process, many have lost their lives.
Registered Maine Guides, on the other hand, are what people out west refer to as “outfitters,” although we are more than that. Maine is one of the only states to require anyone who leads commercial trips into the wilderness to be tested and certified by a panel of experts. The state defines the term this way:
“Guide” means any person who receives any form of remuneration for his services in accompanying or assisting any person in the fields, forests or on the waters or ice within the jurisdiction of the State while hunting, fishing, trapping, boating, snowmobiling or camping at a primitive camping area.
Registered Maine Guides have been around in this capacity since 1897, and in fact the first person to be formally certified by the state was a woman, the estimable Fly Rod Crosby [at right]. Today there are more than 4,000 of us, specializing in five categories: hunting, fishing, recreational, sea-kayaking, and tidewater fishing (whitewater rafting guides must also be registered, but it’s a different process and panel overseeing the testing). Very few of these guides make a living from their work in the woods and on the waters. Many of them, myself included, have other jobs that preclude us from guiding. The great irony of my life is that it was a love of the Maine woods that motivated me to write my first novel, The Poacher’s Son, but it was the success of that same book that’s kept me stuck in front of a computer ever since.
These days I exercise most of my guiding expertise by teaching a friend to fly cast. While out on the stream myself, I might pass on a piece of advice to a hapless stranger about the specific caddis flies that are rising or a certain pool where salmon are holding. Recently, I helped my young niece catch her first fish—a six inch brookie. (Catching a trout augurs well for her life as an angler; my own first fish was a pumpkinseed sunfish.)
I also hang out whenever I can with Master Maine Guides, the wisest of the wise. I’ve learned a thing or two from reading wilderness first aid guides and old issues of Field & Stream, but no survival manual or magazine can take the place of having a veteran guide show you how to dead drift a pheasant tail nymph beneath a cut bank at the precise depth to catch a monster brown trout. Or teach you the best knot to secure a kayak to a roof rack (i.e. the trucker’s hitch). Or even bake biscuits by a campfire using that unsung culinary wonder, the folding reflector oven.
In the future, if time ever allows, I hope to do more guiding because, as much as I enjoy learning, I enjoy teaching more. Until that day comes I’ll share a few tips I’ve picked up over the years that you might try on your next camping trip.
Dead Air: It isn’t clothing per se that keeps your body warm. Instead it’s a thin pocket of dead air between your skin and your first layer of clothing. Patagonia’s R1 pullover has an unusual grid pattern on the inside that creates numerous tiny pockets of air close to the skin for this purpose (I own three). Old-time Registered Maine Guides tell stories of having to spend nights in the woods and stuffing their wool underwear with dead leaves to create the same effect. Leaves—or crumpled newspapers—won’t keep you warm but they do trap body heat and keep it circulating where it will keep your skin warm.
Drugstore Fuel: Cottonballs are inexpensive, compact, and will easily catch a spark so include them in your survival kit as a ready source of fuel. (You can pre-soak them in petroleum jelly and they’ll ignite instantly.) In the wild, birchbark and old man’s beard moss are reliable alternatives, and birchbark will ignite even when damp.
Up in Smoke: If you light a campfire and the smoke hangs close to the ground, it’s usually a sign of unsettled weather moving in and an increased probability of rain. Low pressure prevents the warm air from rising into the atmosphere. During periods of fair weather, with a high pressure system in control, smoke will rise directly into sky.
A Sharp Knife Is a Safe Knife: At first glance, a scalpel-sharp knife seems more dangerous to use than a blunt blade, but that’s usually not the case. A sharp knife will catch easily on the item it’s meant to cut while a dull knife will slide off the surface, causing you to lose control as it slips (and then it’s a question of how good your reflexes are). This principle is even more important when it comes to axes and hatchets. A dull axe can bounce off a log when swung. That’s how many inexperienced woodsmen end up chopping into their feet.
Know Your Knots: It’s better to know a few knots really well—by which I mean you can tie them in the pitch dark—rather than feel like you have to master every bend and hitch in the book. For freshwater fly fishing, you can handle nearly every situation you’ll ever encounter on the stream by knowing how to tie an Orvis knot, a surgeon’s knot, and a nail knot. I know a bunch of others but find myself defaulting to these three almost all the time.
PS. On a different, but not altogether unrelated note I am the guest blogger today at JungleRedWriters.com discussing how Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire” inspired my new book, Bad Little Falls, which will be published on August 7. Check it out!
Great column. The birch bark wisdom saved me a couple times when everything in the wilderness was soaking wet.
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