At Weatherby's, the more things stay the same, the more they change.
One day last summer I was walking past Weatherby's Fishing Resort in Grand Lake Stream, and I heard a dull and rhythmic pounding sound coming from behind one of the log cabins. This seemed worth investigating, so I wandered up the cedar steps from the stream and found Jeff McEvoy, who owns the lodge with his wife, Beth Rankin, on the far side trying to coax a new sill into place with a sledgehammer. The sill was not being wholly cooperative - it continued to stubbornly veer off a few inches from the cabin wall. McEvoy nodded hello to me, and after a couple more whacks put the sledgehammer down. "It's that big boulder," he says, crouching to peer underneath. "That's not going anywhere." The sill would have to be removed and notched to fit around an immovable force. [For the rest of this story, see the June 2008 issue of Down East.]I have the good fortune of being able to stop by Weatherby's pretty much whenever I want in the summer. A decade ago my wife and I bought a camp in Grand Lake Stream - a town with a year-round population of about 150 located amid thousands of acres of timberland and lakes in far eastern Maine. Each day I walk into town to pick up the paper and mail. I head down the leafy path past the dam and see how many gates are open. I scan the bulletin board at the post office located in the old stone schoolhouse for stray bits of local news, like who might be selling their boat. I pick up a Moxie or motor oil along with the Bangor Daily News at the Pine Tree Store, the town's one outpost of commerce.
And over the past decade, I've learned to pay attention to the sounds, especially unfamiliar ones, since they tend to be harbingers of change.
For instance, we've started hearing more ATVs hereabouts. It's the new toy of choice, and we hear the throaty up-and-down of the engines making their way up the ridges and down the paths near town. The thunder of logging trucks rumbling across the bridge in town has also changed since we've been here. Thousands of acres on the far side of town land were sold to an investment fund shortly after we arrived, and logging was stepped up; we heard trucks all day long. Then the land was bought by bothered residents who formed the Downeast Lakes Land Trust (Down East, May 2006), and the rumbling was reduced to a more sustainable level when logging was reduced in the new 27,000-acre community forest.
The land trust also acquired miles of shoreline along lakes and river, and added a handful of new canoe-access campsites. So we've started to notice more canoeists paddling up the lake in their Royalex canoes. This has its own rhythm. There usually comes a point early in a canoe trip when kids in a canoe convoy accidentally hit the side of the hull with the shaft of the paddle. This produces a rewarding echo back from the white pines along the lakeshore.
"Hey, listen to this," someone says. Thunk. Pause. Ka-thunk. And then everyone tries it, and within a minute someone shouts, "hey" and everyone shouts "hey," and then someone hollers an obscenity, followed by more of that and then the shouting quickly dissolves into laughter. This usually lasts for three to four minutes. And then there's silence again as they paddle down the lake and out of earshot.
The sound of a sill being pounded back into place struck me as satisfyingly old-fashioned, the sort of thing you might have heard a century ago. When Jeff and Beth bought Weatherby's five years ago, I expected a shift in the traditions of the century-old lodge, and figured that any day racks of plastic kayaks would appear on the lawn and we'd start hearing the even hollower sounds of paddles on rotomolded plastic headed up the lake.
But that didn't happen. It turns out I didn't really know Beth and Jeff at all. They march to a decidedly more traditional rhythm.
"It's a cultural thing," says McEvoy, who is committed to keeping Weatherby's a traditional fishing lodge. "Lodges will always be here, although maybe not always run as lodges. Some might be turned into corporate retreats. But I bought the place as a guide first. And I bought the place to fish, and to be out with people who come here."
Weatherby's sits atop a low rise studded with maples both old and grand and young and pesky. Rocks surface through the grass and leaves here and there, not aggressively as they do along the coast, but more like mildly curious groundhogs testing the air. The property, which doesn't sit on lakefront but rather in the village center a couple hundred yards from the outlet of West Grand Lake, consists of weathered grey and maroon log cabins that cluster like moons around a planet, with the central role played by a white clapboard and shingle lodge with prominent gable and porch.
The main lodge has been a village landmark since there was any village to speak of. It was built in the late nineteenth century and was originally the "big house," home to the manager of the prosperous tannery on the banks of the stream. (The huge, abundant hemlocks that lined the lake provided the tannins for the hides.) After the manager who built the house departed, it became a boarding house for tannery workers, a role it played until 1898 when the International Leather Trust bought the tannery and shut it down.
In 1904, the big house was acquired by Frank Ball from Massachusetts, who saw a need for boarding other visitors - specifically anglers in search of lodging. Fishermen were increasingly hearing word of the clear waters that hosted plentiful salmon and brook trout, and Ball converted the house into a lodge for sports, adding a handful of simple cabins in the woods around the main house. Fishermen and hunters streamed in by boat and buckboard. They hired guides, spent the day in the woods, and came back laden with trout and salmon and grouse and moose and bear and plenty of good stories.
Business grew. In 1922 the lodge was bought by Rutherford L. Weatherby, who grew up across the border in New Brunswick. And the Weatherby family - Ruthie was succeeded by his son, Beverly - ran the lodge for more than a half-century, giving it the enduring name and sterling reputation as one of the foremost fishing camps in the state. Weatherby's drew in celebrities like baseball star (and pretty good angler) Ted Williams, actor Bert Lahr, and pioneering cardiologist Paul Dudley White.
The Weatherby era drew to a close in 1974, when Charlene and Ken Sassi of New York state took over the lodge, running it for nearly three decades. And when they put it on the market at the turn of the millennium, luck had it that among those who came calling was a young Maine couple who already knew something about the traditions of the woods.
Jeff McEvoy grew up in southern Maine and later attended the University of Maine. Orono proved to be an ideal launching pad from which to explore the eastern Maine woods - in the 1980s McEvoy apprenticed as a guide with the Wheatons (another legendary sporting camp family in eastern Maine), and later worked as a guide with Sunrise County Canoe Expeditions, leading trips down the St. Croix River along the New Brunswick border.
After college, McEvoy guided sea kayak trips in southern Maine, worked at the Patagonia store in Freeport, and ultimately signed on as a community organizer with the Natural Resources Council of Maine. That last job brought him back to Washington County in the late 1990s, where he was involved in advising local residents who were organizing the land trust. Along the way he and Beth had two kids, Keaton and Carson, and they settled into a comfortable family life.
While happy with southern Maine, McEvoy and Rankin started to think about where they wanted to be in a decade's time. And for his part, McEvoy was pretty sure it wasn't sitting behind a desk in Augusta. "Anyway, coming from the environmental community and being involved at the ground level, I felt that I could probably accomplish more as a business owner than in Augusta," he says.
What to do? "I had been to a lot of camps through my work at the Natural Resources Council," McEvoy says, "and I starting thinking this was something we could do. And it was something I thought we could do well."
They had heard that Weatherby's might be for sale, and when they came visiting McEvoy felt right at home. "I knew what this region was all about," he says, having met Bev Weatherby and locally respected guides while working here during college. "They made this place what it is." Rankin and McEvoy bought it in 2002, and now spend about half the year here, and half in New Gloucester.
"It really was a family decision," says Rankin, who had been a clinical social worker before becoming a sporting camp owner. "We wanted our kids to grow up with us, rather than the babysitter - which is what was happening." Because the school year doesn't overlap precisely with the sporting camp season, the kids attend school part of the year in the nearby town of Princeton, and part in New Gloucester, something the kids enjoy. "They don't miss a beat," Rankin says.
"It was important for us to honor and preserve the tradition of the sporting camps and the culture and history of Grand Lake Steam and its guides," she adds. "But in order for that whole culture to be viable, you have to bring some new life into it. We're a young family, and that's how we manifest it."
Keeping a sporting camp going is like keeping a schooner afloat. It's constant work. Instead of an intrusion of the sea, there's the intrusion of the woods. The breach is less cataclysmic, but the result is the same: unless you stay on top of things, you end up going under. So you replace the sills, and you keep the chinking up between the logs to ensure the rain stays on the right side of the walls.
But it also requires keeping traditions alive, maintaining an intangible culture that's been carefully cultivated over the years. And so the rhythms at Weatherby's remain built around one thing, as they always have been. "Here, all you need to worry about is fishing," McEvoy says during a chat in his small office. He leaned back in his chair as he told me this, and he delivered his comment in the tone of a professor of mathematics. If there had been a blackboard behind him, McEvoy would have pointed to the "X" and noted that this is the constant (X = fishing), and that everything else is a variable that must be adjusted accordingly.
The rhythm goes like this: Start with an early breakfast. The guides then show up - the majority of Weatherby's guests hire guides for at least part of their stay ("Weatherby's probably uses more guides than anyone else in the state," McEvoy says. Last June, for instance, he hired seventeen different guides.) A bag lunch is packed and sports and guides head off to the lakes and rivers. They return. Dinner is served precisely at six-thirty - expect tasty and filling; don't expect nouvelle anything - and early in the season you'll finish dinner with enough daylight lingering to walk down to the stream for another hour or so of fly-fishing. McEvoy has Orvis equipment for sale, and books about fishing to read while here - including three editions of The One-Eyed Poacher, a largely forgotten classic of Maine sporting literature set in the Down East lakes region. McEvoy has tracked these down online as if he were stalking a woodcock in the woods.
Businesses seem to follow one of two models: they either hustle to keep up with the shifting whims of a fickle public, or they focus on what they do best and stick with it. More businesses probably fail following the latter path. But not all, and in time those that follow this path develop something others strive for: authenticity. Weatherby's has that in surplus.
As does the region itself. Grand Lake Stream is the de facto capital of the Down East lakes region, an area that, thanks to efforts of the land trust, now has a buffer against unbridled development. And tradition seems to be holding on here stronger than elsewhere. While some local sporting camps have closed - Colonial Sportsman, just across the stream from Weatherby's, was converted to a private home last summer - many remain and most are actually owned and run by registered Maine guides who are in it not for a large cash-out, but for the sporting life. Among them: Leen's Lodge, Grand Lake Lodge, Wheaton's, and Chet's Camps. Think of the region as a Maine Sporting Camp Preserve.
"The Down East lakes region lagged behind and was undiscovered for a long time," says McEvoy. "That's sort of over now, and we're very fortunate we had the land trust protect so much of the land and our lakes at this point. Without it, the lodges and the guides days would be numbered."
Prospects here seem good. While hook-and-bullet sports are falling off in popularity nationwide, hunting license sales have remained even in Maine, and fishing license sales have gone up over the past decade. With a rush of development in southern Maine, and uncertain prospects around Moosehead Lake, other traditional sporting areas may be edging off the map. So the allure of Grand Lake Stream as an authentic outpost in the Maine woods grows stronger.
In an era when the traveling public acts like crows, grabbing at new, shiny things that lose their luster in a season or two, Weatherby's and Grand Lake Stream is more like a solid boulder and immovable force, and one that refuses to change.
If You Go:
Weatherby's Resort is located at 112 Millford Road, Grand Lake Stream. 207-796-5558. www.weatherbys.com.
- By: Wayne Curtis