Book captures feel of Grand Lake Stream

Posted Oct. 30, 2009, at 11:42 p.m.
Where Cool Waters Flow, book by Randy Spencer, master Maine Guide.
Where Cool Waters Flow, book by Randy Spencer, master Maine Guide.

Randy Spencer fondly recalls showing up in Grand Lake Stream back in 1973, bound for an even more remote camp where he’d work for the summer.

“I was captivated, and I felt that magic,” said Spencer, who paid for his passage up West Grand Lake by playing his guitar and singing songs for the boater, Warren Whiting, who ferried him to Darrow Camp.

On that single trip — and the summer that followed —Spencer’s eyes were opened. He became good friends with Whiting. And he began a love affair with the tiny community of Grand Lake Stream that continues to this day.

Today he works from ice-out until September as a registered Maine guide in that town he adopted … or, if you prefer, in the town that adopted him.

He’s also an accomplished singer and songwriter who has released several CDs of original material, and he earns part of his living by writing jingles and doing voiceover work at his home studio.

And in September, Spencer released his first book, “Where Cool Waters Flow, Four Seasons With a Master Maine Guide,” through Islandport Press.

Maine books come and go, of course. Hundreds of titles by hundreds of authors vow to take readers places they’ve never gone and to explore the rich traditions we locals sometimes take for granted.

Some succeed. Some fall short of expectations. Others fall in the middle of that continuum.

And then there’s “Where Cool Waters Flow.”

Spencer’s book, quite simply, is the rare local volume that I can honestly recommend with the highest praise a fellow writer can muster: I wish I’d written it. But I couldn’t have.

Spencer’s prose is clean, quick and witty. He successfully transports readers from their living room easy chairs to the wilds of Grand Lake Stream, and does so without bombarding them with strings of adjectives designed to paint the picture he sees in his mind.

Instead, like the songwriter he is, he picks his words judiciously, commits to them and makes them do his bidding.

Consider this offering from the prologue, during which Spencer explains his emotions on that day in 1973 when he left Darrow Camp after a busy summer of work:

“That entire summer’s labor yielded only $350. But the outdoor skills I learned, the 1957 Old Town river canoe I restored, the salmon I caught trolling a fly as I paddled ‘downlake’ on leaving day, the messages the vast wilderness whispered — they all made their indelible imprint. I’d leave Grand Lake Stream, but I sensed that it would not leave me.”

Spencer never uses three words when one would do. And the result is a stunning portrait of a truly special place, illuminated by the people who live for their yearly visits to those remote Maine woods.

You may find a better Maine book than “Where Cool Waters Flow.” You may find a better outdoor book.

You may.

I haven’t.

“Where Cool Waters Flow” is not a fishing book. It’s not a hunting or trapping book. It’s not even a historical account of the village of Grand Lake Stream.

It is, somehow, all of those things at once … and none of them at all.

“Where Cool Waters Flow” succeeds as a snapshot of a life that few still live, in a place that few really know well. Spencer tells you how people ended up in Grand Lake Stream in the first place. He tells you why some stayed. And he shows you ample evidence that explains why visitors still flock there during the summer months.

During a Thursday interview, Spencer explained that during his first summer in Grand Lake Stream, he began to witness a phenomenon he’d never seen before. Over the ensuing 36 years, he has watched the same thing happen, time and time again.

“Something that you’re not going to miss as a guide in that area is the reaction of the clientele to coming to Grand Lake Stream, what happens to them,” Spencer said. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that they undergo these huge transformations. And it’s what keeps them coming back. They have these big experiences, they’re sufficiently remote and isolated for it to be, I think, that much more meaningful. And they’re looking to recapture that each time they come back.”

“Where Cool Waters Flow” captures the essence of that feeling, as Spencer takes readers out in his Grand Laker canoe, or onto frozen West Grand Lake for a day of ice fishing.

The book traces a guide’s life over the four seasons of life in a remote Maine town, and touches on many of the sporting activities that clients are able to sample. And it’s the tales about those clients that help the book shine.

The format, Spencer said, was one that he arrived at after discussion with editors at Islandport Press.

“[They suggested] to tell it through [my] real experiences with real people,” Spencer said. “We mutually agreed that that would be the most compelling way to tell the story, and maybe that would get that mystique [of Grand Lake Stream] across.”

Among the vignettes: TV executives from Boston who come to Grand Lake Stream every year; Wall Street titans who wouldn’t miss their yearly trip; two young children who accompany a guide on a daylong perch-fishing trip and end up with the adventure of a lifetime.

In addition, Spencer takes readers to the popular Liar’s Bench at the Pine Tree Store (no trip to town is complete until you’ve stopped by for a cup of coffee and some lively conversation) and offers informative snippets about the varied critters that live in the woods Down East.

Spencer also introduces us (on several occasions) to a mysterious elderly hermit named Drummond Humchuck.

Humchuck is quirky, wise and self-reliant, in true Maine fashion. He lives deep in the woods. He’s either real, or a figment of the writer’s rich imagination.

Spencer, with a grin, isn’t saying. On Thursday, when asked if he wanted to reveal anything more about the colorful character, Spencer said that the Grand Lake Stream landfill manager, Guelie Roberts, says it best in the book:

“When he was once asked on dump day whether he thought Drummond was fact or fiction, he said, ‘Neither.’”

“Where Cool Waters Flow” is a 316-page volume that retails for $15.95. You can likely find it in your local bookstore, or find more information at www.islandportpress.com.

If you’ve never visited Grand Lake Stream, reading this book will likely compel you to do so.

And if you have spent some time fly-fishing the stream, trolling West Grand or casting for bass on one of the other lakes in the area, reading this book will help you appreciate this special place even more.

And that, I figure, is about as good as it gets.

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