A Baxter legacy lives on: Memories of Kidney Pond Camps resonate with former visitors

Photo courtesy of Steve Norris
Posted May 29, 2012, at 2:03 p.m.

Why would Harold Colt, heir to the Colt Firearms legacy and fortune, with the world at his feet, chose to spend his entire summers at one haunt in the Maine woods? Why did governors, senators, world-famous physicians, military leaders, and a host of other dignitaries choose the same destination for their retreats? And why did Percival Baxter, in his late years and in compromised health, go there too for the last of his outings in his namesake park?

Those who know can’t get the answer out fast enough: Kidney Pond Camps.

To learn why such an honor roll of patrons would put their beloved, backwoods sanctum in the Pantheon of Maine’s great sporting camps of the 20th century requires talking to those who knew it best.

“My father gave a free week as a wedding present to the son or daughter of any patron,” said Steve Norris, explaining some of the camp traditions that created lifelong guests. “You also got a free week for catching the largest brook trout of the season.”

The rustic, enchanting, wilderness outpost, known affectionately as KPC to generations of visitors, was the last “private concession” in Baxter to be closed by the state, in 1987. For decades, its clientele and its legend had grown under the management of Charlie and Ruth Norris, of Dixfield, Maine, and then Steve and Nancy Norris of Orrington.

Stephen Anderson of South Portland recalled being brought there by his aunt in 1954. “We did not get to go all the way by car. We were stopped by a stream and were taken by horse-drawn wagon into the camps.” As an adult, Anderson returned with his own family in the 1980s. “Life at Kidney Pond Camps was one of grace, quiet, extraordinary food, company, and fly fishing,” he reminisced. “The clientele included people of national and international prominence.”

Like most KPC clients, Anderson fondly remembered Colt. “His off season travels took him to the far reaches of the world. He would share his slides from the Cairo Museum or describe how hieroglyphs were painted in dark caves, or take the group on a tour of the Maldives … great stuff by generator in the middle of nowhere.”

In the early 1980’s, Jim and Jan Fowler of Easton, Mass., took their two boys, aged 9 and 11, to Kidney Pond. “Moose were seen in and around the camp almost every day, and the jays and chipmunks would eat from, and sometimes sit on your hand,” Fowler mused. We fished a different pond every day, and the trout were most accommodating. It is clear now that these early life experiences had a lasting and life-molding effect on the lives of my children.”

Steve Norris, who met his future wife, Nancy when she waitressed for the camps, ran them with her after his father contracted Alzheimer’s. “There were 10 trout ponds within hiking distance, each one outfitted with a canoe,” he recalled. “Each evening, since I was a kid, Dad would sign you up for your choice of ponds the next day, and you usually had it to yourself. Everyone compared catches and stories in the evening.”

While the rest of the sprawling park was accessible to the hale and able for hiking and sleeping out, Kidney Pond also accommodated guests, like Baxter himself, who needed only a convenience or two to be able to enjoy roughing it. The closing of KPC as a commercial lease was, for many, a sad chapter in Baxter history. When it became evident the state would not renew the concession lease, letters from generations of Kidney Pond clientele flooded park authority mail boxes.

Luckily, sad chapters don’t always come last. The model and spirit of Kidney Pond Camps was carried forward by Steve and Nancy Norris when they opened The Pines Lodge on Sysladobsis Lake in Penobscot County in 1992. Many from the KPC honor roll followed them there to hear the echo of former times. They were not disappointed.

“[The Pines] continues a number of the same elements of Baxter,” Jim Fowler says. “Like Baxter, many of the guests return the same weeks each year, so friendships become very close.”

Stephen Anderson brought a van load of buddies to The Pines the first year it opened. “We had the benefit of a warm welcome and the reunification with a few of the old KPC guests!” he said.

He added that it was a special moment the first time he heard the dinner bell ringing from the porch of The Pines. He recognized the tone, and later discovered it was the bell from Kidney Pond.

“Nothing can replace KPC,” Norris reflected. “But we derived all we know about running a camp from Kidney Pond. It served us well.”

Randy Spencer’s “Where Cool Waters Flow: Four Seasons with a Master Maine Guide” won the New England Outdoor Writers Association 2010 Book of the Year Award. He is a working guide, musician, and author. Contact Randy via www.randyspencer.com

 

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