BAXTER STATE PARK, Maine — He’s spent days and nights on the slopes of Mount Katahdin when a 70-below wind chill meant the weather was improving.
He’s chased bears up trees and unruly campers out of the park.
During the past 30-plus years, Chris Drew has likely worn out enough boots hiking the trails of Baxter State Park to keep a large Boy Scout troop in leather for several seasons. By his own account, Drew has seen it all while working as Baxter State Park’s chief ranger.
“And if I haven’t seen it, I’ve heard it!” Drew said one recent afternoon while making rounds in the park.
But beginning next week, Drew will have to do something he hasn’t done in decades: register as a normal visitor when he wants to use the park. Drew is retiring after 23 years as chief ranger and 36 years as a Baxter park employee.
“Anybody who loves the outdoors, work up here and you’d think you’d died and gone to heaven,” the 62-year-old Aroostook County native said. “Most people have to take time off for this. We get paid for it.”
Spend a few hours riding around the park with Drew in his state-issued pickup truck — license plate “BSP 2” — and it’s easy to understand why the chief ranger’s sense of humor is well known among Baxter staff and volunteers.
The stories are endless — and often endlessly funny: tales about bears (he once handled eight in one day), latrines, campers, even bears in latrines with campers.
The weather is often a central character in the stories, such as the week while living at Chimney Pond when Drew said the wind chill never got above negative 80. Then there was the time he had to dig through 10 feet of snow so he could fetch a few logs for his wife from Chimney Pond’s woodshed.
Former longtime park director Buzz Caverly, who describes Drew as “fantastic” and “an individual of high character and high caliber,” said the chief ranger’s stories are always true. He just has a way of telling them that makes them, well, even more amusing, Caverly said.
“He was one of the key people I would ask to speak to people when they wanted not only to learn more about the park but to be entertained,” said Caverly, who hired Drew in 1972 and worked closely with him until 2005.
Of course, Drew also has witnessed plenty of tragedy, such as the experienced winter trekkers with whom he helped forge a trail through the snow on Katahdin’s slopes. Several in the team were killed in a fluke avalanche several days later.
The chief ranger is responsible for law enforcement and search and rescue efforts in a 209,000-acre wilderness park that offers a myriad of ways for visitors to get into trouble. From the steep and sometimes dangerous paths up Mount Katahdin to the dozens of remote lakes and ponds, Baxter crews average 30 to 40 rescues annually with one or two fatalities every year.
Baxter director Jensen Bissell credited Drew with knowing the park “better than anyone on the planet.” That knowledge and Drew’s experience in all weather conditions helped park staff members, whether they are preparing visitors for what to expect while hiking or responding to incidents, Bissell said.
Visitors also praise the park for its cleanliness and Baxter staff for its friendliness.
“Nobody sets that standard better than Chris,” Bissell said.
With his thick Maine accent, broad smile and easygoing nature, Drew chats up park visitors so smoothly that you would think they were old friends.
“You boys will sleep well tonight unless you cramp up,” Drew said with a smile to a group of men with crewcuts just back from hiking mile-high Katahdin. His advice: Head back into town, eat some meat and drink some fluids to avoid the 3 a.m. cramps.
Grinning, one of the men replied that fluids were definitely on the night’s menu, eliciting a laugh from the chief ranger.
Drew also has earned a reputation for working on behalf of his fellow park employees.
He was instrumental in convincing the Legislature years ago that a ranger in Baxter should earn the same as someone working a similar job within the Maine Forest Service.
Drew has also worked to upgrade staff and trail crew living quarters in this often-unseasonable part of northern Maine. And he supplies fresh produce from his expansive garden to the college students who earn about $60 a week working on trails and facilities during the summer.
As the man in charge of all campgrounds, trails and facilities within the massive park, Drew’s influence is visible to — if not always noticed by — thousands of users every year. Leantos for hikers, cozy bunkhouses, group campgrounds and latrines have all been built or rebuilt under Drew’s tenure.
He also put a high priority on maintenance and keeping the park clean, Bissell and Caverly said.
Asked his favorite places within Baxter, Drew did not hesitate with a response: Webster Lake and Traveler Mountain. The latter offers better views of the surrounding peaks than Katahdin, Drew said.
Moments later, Drew offered up the fact that the late Gov. Percival Baxter is one of his two favorite Mainers because Baxter created the park that gave him his dream job. (Gen. Joshua Chamberlain gets the other nod for “saving the Union” at the Battle of Gettysburg, Drew said.)
Drew showed no signs of sadness about retiring after 36 years. He and his wife live about 15 miles from the park’s northern gate, so Drew said he can visit whenever he wants.
Only this time, the man whom Bissell called the best fly fisherman he has ever seen may have a couple of grandsons with him when he pulls up to the Baxter gatehouse.
“All them boys want Grampy to take ’em fishing,” Drew said. “So I’m going to be forced to go fishing.”