The Maine outdoors tradition that some say has gotten out of hand
GREENVILLE — For folks who spend most of their time in a city, this northwestern part of the Pine Tree State offers plenty of surprises.
A wild animal might hop out of the woods around any bend in the road. River rapids thrill and spill thousands of paddlers each year. And deep in the woods, at the end of narrow footpaths, hikers are likely to find pristine ponds filled with frisky brook trout.
Along the banks of those ponds, they may also find a few dozen stashed canoes left behind by their owners.
The unspoken rules of the Maine custom are that anyone can use them, as long as they are returned in the same condition as they were borrowed.
Most of those ponds sit on land controlled by large forest landowners that rarely have issues with the practice. But even those who regularly use those canoes admit a problem could be brewing, especially with canoes that are abandoned by anglers.
On one recent late-spring day, dozens of canoes were seen stashed in the woods near a remote pond in Somerset County. One was decidedly mossy and apparently abandoned, while others — aluminum and dented — looked as though they’d last forever. Some were chained and locked to trees.
It’s a familiar scene at many of Maine’s most beautiful trout ponds, where boats and canoes that have clearly not been used in years sit rotting or wrecked. At some point, those boats become nothing more than large-scale litter strewn among the trees.
“I don’t know what the solution is, but there’s certainly a problem, because [the canoes] are upside-down, there’s moss growing out of every rivet,” Dan Legere, a registered Maine Guide, said of several spots near his home waters in Greenville. “[The anglers] haven’t been there for a long time, and [the boats] have just been abandoned.”
Some of the boats you find on Maine’s trout ponds were carried in by hand. Others were wheeled in on dollies. Many were dragged through the woods behind snowmobiles in the dead of winter by anglers seeking better access to another “honey hole” come spring.
Jay Robinson, a registered Maine Guide who lives in Woodville, said he has about a dozen canoes at various ponds in the region he calls “Katahdin Country.” On the parcels he fishes, the landowner has begun an effort to clean up the landings a bit.
“The Nature Conservancy, the landowner, started a canoe registration system a few years back whereby owners are given an assigned canoe registration ticket to display on their canoes,” Robinson said. “If no sticker [is on a boat], in a few years they are hauling them out in the winter by snowsled. They have hauled out many already.”
Robinson said that effort has improved things immensely.
“Believe me, there were some really bad pieces of junk littering up the landing area,” he said.
Paul Johnson, a retired state fisheries biologist who worked out of the Greenville office, said he often used boats that he found at remote ponds while working and while recreating during his off hours.
And he said that he misses his regular visits to those ponds.
“After retiring, one of the things I miss most about the move to Oakland from Greenville is all of the trout ponds so close to home where I could go in an evening and take advantage of a canoe on the shore after a walk into the pond. Nirvana!” Johnson said. “It would be a tragedy to lose this tradition.”
Jeff Reardon, the Maine brook trout project director for Trout Unlimited, has four canoes stashed in various places. At one pond, the landowner had left notes on about 75 canoes, asking those anglers to label their boats with their names, and laying out a simple set of rules. And though he loves being able to leave a boat at those ponds, Reardon sees the negatives as well.
“The old rotting canoes are definitely a problem. On some ponds, there are so many of them that the shoreline of the pond is altered. They are visible all around the pond, and it can be difficult to walk along the shore,” Reardon said. “Worse are the aluminum and plastic boats that will never rot. They are just permanent trash.”
And Reardon dares ask a question at which most only hint. He’s a secretive fisherman, and he doesn’t go around broadcasting the location of his canoes.
“What would happen if I got run over by a bus tomorrow?” Reardon asked. “My canoes would stay in the woods until they rot — a very long time.”
Kaleb Jacob, a registered Maine Guide who now lives in New Hampshire, said he often carries a 30-pound Kevlar canoe up to a mile into the woods to fish, but also uses boats that others stash at remote ponds.
And he’s a bit concerned about the disorganized mess that he sometimes finds.
“I have seen ponds that have had dozens of boats piled up, way past the point of being an eyesore,” Jacob said in an email.
And while visiting those ponds, Jacob rarely finds himself sharing the water with anybody else.
“For as many times as I have been on a remote pond, it is very rare to ever see another person on the water, so it seems to be a bit of a waste to have so many boats piled up,” he said. Jacob thinks giving anglers the chance to check out a boat that’s already there — think Zipcar — might help reduce the clutter.
But he also realizes that for many anglers, trekking overland to find a hidden gem of a pond is half the challenge, and putting a list of the ponds (and the available canoes) on an online reservation system would ruin the adventure.
In some parts of the state — Baxter State Park, for example — visitors can rent the use of a canoe on a remote pond for a nominal fee. In most cases the system is much more free-form than that.
And ultimately, that’s OK with anglers like Jacob.
“The practice of leaving dozens of boats at a remote pond is not perfect, but neither is the trail that leads there. Nor is nature, for that matter,” Jacob said. “It’s the imperfections that make the experience, and the unwritten rules that make the experience near perfect.”