by Everett Potter
A slow day of fishing is quickly forgotten when a decent fish finally takes the fly. Granted, this sounds like a truism of the kind that my beloved Yankee grandfather might have said to me as we fished in Maine together decades ago, but it had the ring of truth to it on this day. My pal Frank and I had spent five hours fruitlessly casting towards the shoreline of beautiful Long Pond in northern Maine with nary a rise. It was hot July day and Frank had hung it up an hour earlier and had somehow managed to wedge himself cross wise on the seat of the small boat being piloted by Registered Maine Guide Casey Mealey. Frank’s afternoon torpor was turning into a sunburn just as a 14 inch landlocked salmon violently snagged my much-flailed Eastern Green Drake and put up a tremendous fight before I caught and released him. By this time, Frank had sat up, grabbed his rod, and began casting as if his life depended upon it. That’s all it took to turn a slow July day on a beautiful and remote Maine pond into an afternoon to remember. My second landlocked salmon during the evening hatch sealed the deal.
Long Pond lies an hour from Greenville, Maine in the middle of the woods at the end of a maze of dusty logging roads. The remote and pristine nature of these waters and this land are due to the vision and largesse of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which set out to buy and preserve large tracts of Maine wilderness more than a decade ago as part of the Maine Woods Initiative. The AMC now has about 70,000 acres in northern Maine, east of Moosehead Lake, and its holdings overlaps the famously difficult 100 Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail. In the decade since the original purchase, the AMC has restored and reopened two remarkable wilderness lodges and their attendant cabins in this area: Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins (see my story on Little Lyford here) and Gorman Chairback Lodge & Cabins. A third lodge, Medawisla Lodge & Cabins, is being restored and will open in 2017. What makes the AMC’s work especially heartening is that they’ve kept the essential flavor and attributes of these 19th-century traditional Maine sporting camps. These are one and two bedroom cabins with wood stoves and gas lamps, even as the AMC reaches for LEED certification for their energy-efficient lodge at Gorman Chairback.
In January, the AMC made news yet again with the purchase of “scenic and ecologically significant lands on and around Baker Mountain in the 100-Mile Wilderness region.” The purchase was completed with assistance from The Nature Conservancy.
“Baker Mountain was surrounded by conservation lands, but the Baker Mountain tract itself was not protected,” said AMC Senior Vice President Walter Graff. “It was ‘the hole in the doughnut,’ and this purchase of 4,311 Acres by AMC and its conservation partner, The Nature Conservancy, has ensured that this ecologically significant land will be protected.”
It’s a move that conserves the second highest peak in Maine between Bigelow Mountain and Katahdin, as well as the headwaters of the West Branch of the Pleasant River, a vibrant wild brook trout fishery. Having fished that area during my stay at Little Lyford a couple of years ago, in the very shadow of Baker Mountain, I can testify to the abundance of wild brookies to be found in those waters.
This time I had a chance to experience Gorman Chairback Lodge & Cabins. Originally built as a private camp in 1867, it was acquired by the AMC and opened as an AMC lodge in 2011. Nicely sited on the shores of Long Pond, it feels a bit less rustic and more summer camp-like than Little Lyford and features a central “green” Lodge building for meals and lounging, twelve cabins (some of them a few feet away from the shoreline) and a bunkhouse. There is wonderful swimming in Long Pond, which gets surprisingly warm by mid-summer, and that’s one of the major draws for the families that flock here.
Still, there were plenty of couples as well, and a more relaxed vacation vibe here than at Lyford, which tends to attract more hard core fishermen and hikers. There is a motley fleet of colorful kayaks and canoes that guests can take out for a paddle or for fishing. Long Pond is indeed long enough so that an end-to-end paddle, never minding the various coves and islands, takes a couple of hours. Crowds are not an issue: I counted a half dozen rustic houses on the entire body of water. With the AMC’s canoes and kayaks so readily available, and the waters so calm, this place is ideal for an after dinner paddle to watch the sunset over the mountains, or even better, to watch moose up close. On two nights of our stay, a bull moose meandered through the weeds in a cove not a hundred yards from camp.
There were grown ups who kayaked and read on their porch and took short hikes, families that seemed to spend most of their time in the water, and a disciplined gentleman of a certain age who swam the crawl every day for at least an hour. Only a handful were actively fishing and truth be told, the fishing was slow, the price one pays for visiting in July when the water and the temperatures are warm.
Our lakeside cabin at Gorman Chairback was rusticity itself, with a covered front porch where you could sip morning coffee or an evening beer and listen to the loons. The interior, with two beds, gas lighting, and a woodstove, was classic Maine camp comfortable. Meals are hearty and homemade, served family style at long tables. Unlike Little Lyford, Gorman Chairback even has a beer and wine list, and a half decent one at that.
We paddled and we fished, and ended up on a couple of bushwhacking hikes to reach ever more remote ponds, one of the benefits of staying out in the wilderness. The AMC leaves a couple of canoes at each of these ponds, so the reward for a mile long walk is the chance to glide out by paddle power on a pristine pond with only wildlife for company. In the four years since it opened, Gorman has emerged as the favorite lodge among AMC members, booking up quickly in summer and also in winter, when it pairs up with Little Lyford for cross-country lodge-to-lodge skiing experience.
“Each camp has its own character,” says Graff, who was visiting Gorman Chairback during my stay. “Lyford is like a little village and it’s all about hiking and fishing. But Gorman Chairback is about the lake, about kayaking and swimming and fishing as well as hiking.”
Medawisla is next for AMC but Graff says that it requires a complete rebuilding.
“It’s in rough shape,” he says. “We will build a new lodge and cabins by the waterfront, and they will have housekeeping options. It has great views of Mount Katahdin and it will be close enough to Little Lyford and Gorman Chairback to become part of our lodge-to-lodge cross country experience.”
The AMC, which was founded in 1876 to preserve New Hampshire’s White Mountains, has long been associated with that state. But Graff is quick to point out that it has been part of neighboring Maine’s efforts to preserve and protect for nearly as many years.
“At our headquarters, we just came across a photograph of AMC members going up Mount Katahdin,” he says. “The date was 1886. We’ve been in Maine a long time.”