Down East 2013 ©
To say that Randy Spencer has written a nice book about Maine is not to damn him with faint praise. Nice is not a backhanded term for blandness, but an umbrella that covers such vastly underrated virtues as good manners, good humor, and good company. Spencer provides all three in Where Cool Waters Flow: Four Seasons with a Master Maine Guide (Islandport Press, Yarmouth; paperback; 317 pages; $15.95) as well as a portrait of one of Maine’s most beautiful and beguiling villages: Grand Lake Stream.
Spencer’s book is a travelogue, history, fishing/hunting guide, and bit of a biography, but primarily it’s a storybook — literally a book of stories that would be right at home in a camp or canoe. To a Maine guide, a talent for storytelling is as necessary as salt pork for fish chowder. And all fish stories (especially those told by sports) only grow better with time. “You lie, and I’ll swear to it,” was and remains a guide’s well-weathered response, Spencer jokes.
With the zeal of a convert (he was born in Willimantic, Connecticut), Spencer has carved out his place in Grand Lake Stream in easternmost Washington County, which claims more guides per capita than any town in Maine. His transformation began in June 1973, as he sat on his guitar case at the town dock, exhausted from driving eighteen hours in a battered VW Beetle and wondering how he’d manage the last twelve miles to his job at a wilderness canoe camp.
“A bedraggled, sixty-ish man with an even more bedraggled pug pooch in his lap” offered him a lift in his boat. Accepting that lift, Spencer writes, was “one of the most fateful decisions of my life.”
“It was there that I first met Warren Arthur Whiting . . . who from that day on treated me like his long lost son. And how could I avoid being intrigued by a man who could whittle a model ship, hook a wool rug, build a solid camp with hand tools, and write a good poem all on a steady drip of Narragansett Lager Beer?”
What makes Where Cool Waters Flow fun is that Spencer can’t avoid being intrigued by a lot of things. Like parables of old, his stories both entertain and allow him to pass on what he’s learned, from lost-in-time words like “gnarr” (a thick, sinewy, sometimes bulbous-looking section of a tree) to the best way to judge the size of a bull moose (by its ears).
He occasionally goes on somewhat obscure tangents, such as facts about cod, but he always rebounds with something interesting, like how a treasured paddle found its way home after four years, or who invented the Rapala fishing lure (a Finn named Lauri Rapala); why it’s “better to fish a pork rind with confidence than the newest cable TV miracle lure with flagging faith,” or how, in a pinch, blackberry jam and brandy make a delicious glaze for lake trout.
Although it’s his first book, Spencer is no novice. He’s written for the DownEast Times, a weekly newspaper in Calais, and has a column in the Northwoods Sporting Journal called “The Singing Maine Guide.” He’s a veteran songwriter with five CDs, but his best-known song is probably “Black Flies,” which topped the charts in Maine and the Maritimes in 1981.
He writes with a light touch, an eye for detail, and a fondness for stubborn, self-sufficient people who are willing to learn the lessons, however hard, that nature teaches. You can’t help liking Jim Fowler, the aging Massachusetts sport who has a great day bass fishing in pelting rain “when other anglers might’ve heard the call of the crossword puzzle in the cabin.” And Arline Ritz, who thought a nature walk was a trip to the pet store, until she was stunned by her first view of a landscape not sculpted by man.
“It would be wrongheaded to say that the epiphany that happened that day was Arline’s alone,” Spencer wrote. “The transformative experience that she was trying to express had been mine, too, many times.”