FAIRFIELD, Maine — When registered Maine guide Gil Gilpatrick accepted a job at the Skowhegan Regional Vocational Center back in 1970, he figured he’d be teaching some valuable life skills to students who shared his passion for the outdoors. He also figured that his bosses would tell him exactly what he ought to be teaching.
Boy, was he wrong.
“I thought [the students] would be experienced kids [when it came to outdoor adventures],” Gilpatrick, now 78 years old, recalls. “That didn’t turn out to be the case. Some of them hadn’t been farther away from Skowhegan than Norridgewock, unless they were from Norridgewock. And they hadn’t done very much outdoors.”
Evening up the slate: Their teacher hadn’t done much teaching, either.
“When I first started, took the job, I didn’t know for nothing,” he says. “I didn’t know what was going to be involved or what they wanted me to teach … I hadn’t taught before and I naively thought that they were going to tell me what to do. That isn’t the way it worked. I kind of had to develop the program myself. So I started looking for things that would interest young people.”
His approach worked: Over the next 24 years — until his retirement from teaching in 1994 — Gilpatrick taught scores of high school-age students how to build things like strip canoes, snowshoes, and snowshoe-themed furniture. Each year, he took a group of his senior on a weeklong adventure in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. He wrote books explaining how to do the many things he had mastered, which were absorbed by generations of outdoors enthusiasts.
During his summers off, he guided paying customers down the Allagash, sometimes with his wife, other times with one of his daughters.
Eventually, Gilpatrick’s name became inexorably linked with that special northern Maine waterway that he loves; he has served on numerous committees dedicated to Allagash issues.
And in 2010, Gilpatrick was honored by his peers as the first living recipient of the Wilmot “Wiggie” Robinson Legendary Maine Guide Award. Robinson himself won the first award, posthumously.
None of that was really part of Gilpatrick’s master plan, he’ll tell you.
In fact, back when he was a kid who still went by his given name of Volney — he didn’t become “Gil” until University of Maine buddies decided that was a better name for him — he just knew he liked getting outside, no matter how miserable it got.
“I didn’t know enough back then to wear long sleeves, so I’d get home and it looked like measles on my arms where I’d scratched all the mosquito bites,” Gilpatrick says with a chuckle. “But that has its benefits, too, because now when mosquitoes bite me, I don’t itch at all.”
But if you stepped back in time and told young Volney Gilpatrick that he’d spend much of his life in the woods, paddling Maine’s great rivers, and teaching others all that he’d learned?
“I’d say, ‘bring it on,’” Gilpatrick says. “I never had a clue. I just enjoyed being out there [as a kid] and that’s the way it went. I didn’t have any big plans, back then, to be a guide or anything else.”
Gil the teacher
After spending 10 years away from Fairfield and Skowhegan while in college and the U.S. Army, Gilpatrick returned in 1962, earned his guide’s license, and worked at the family greenhouse business.
In 1970, he accepted the teaching position, and quickly learned that he needed a curriculum for his Natural Resources program. Eventually, those lessons turned into his popular series of outdoor books. But first, he had to master the skills himself.
“It started with building snowshoes,” says Gilpatrick, who explains that his boss also had an interest in that craft.
“We got snowshoes, and I started studying it, how to lace it,” he says. “I spent … I don’t know how many evenings in front of the cookstove, fooling with it and taking [the lace] out and fooling with it again, and finally I got it.”
While he was learning how to make snowshoes, he took plenty of notes, and the school secretary, who had been enlisted to type those notes, suggested that he might have a book on his hands. Gilpatrick agreed.
“So that’s where it started. Once I got that [book] done, I said, ‘Well, I build canoes, too. I’ll write that, too,’” he says. “DeLorme published both of them.”
Left out of that explanation is this interesting tidbit: Although Gilpatrick estimates that he has now built or overseen the building of more than 500 strip canoes, he had to acquire that skill after he began teaching.
“I started that from scratch, too,” he says. “Again, this is in the first years, when I was casting about for projects [to teach], and a friend brought me a Popular Science magazine with a three- or four-page article on building a strip canoe. I said, ‘Well, I can do that.’ So we did. And we just went on from there.”
Not long after that, Gilpatrick started taking his senior students on river trips. First, smaller rivers. Then the mighty Allagash. In all, he did 25 Allagash trips in 25 years with students, he says.
And in the summer, he took others who were willing to pay for his expertise. Consider: By that time, Gilpatrick had established himself, literally, as the man who had written the book on Allagash trips.
Mr. Gil and Mrs. Gil
You can’t write about Gil Gilpatrick — “Mr. Gil” to many of his students — without writing about his wife of 55 years, “Mrs. Gil.”
Dot Gilpatrick met Gil in college and has been his partner ever since. During the summer months, she also served as an assistant trip leader with her husband as he took eager (but sometimes ill-equipped) paddlers on the Allagash.
Two of the couple’s three daughters also filled in when there was an open spot in a boat.
“When they left the nest, so to speak, I was left with nobody to help me,” Gi Gilpatrick says, explaining that a full trip consisted of 12 paddlers, counting him. When one bailed out, Dot was on call and willing to grab a paddle.
“A lot of times, it was the night before, [and] we’d find out that somebody couldn’t make it, and Dot would frantically run around packing her stuff for the trip,” he says.
Once on the trip, Dot played a key role, her husband says, proudly.
“To giver her credit, she always got my ‘problem,’ he says. “If you had a problem on the trip, give it to Dot. She dealt with them.”
By “problem,” Gil isn’t talking about lost food or burnt biscuits. He’s talking about the paddlers that could make a trip a disaster.
“I don’t mean to say we had a lot of problems. But every once in awhile, we had someone come along who was a real loner, or very inept as far as paddling is concerned,” Gil Gilpatrick says.
That’s when Dot was at her best.
“I remember one guy … we’d been on the river four, five days. And he’s paddling along with Dot, and he says, ‘I just can’t do it!’ Gilpatrick says. “He still hadn’t got it, how to keep the canoe running straight, or whatever.”
Together, Mr. and Mrs. Gil got through that trip. Just like they always did.
Age is not a number
Look at Gilpatrick, and you see a man of advancing years; try to guess his age, however, and you’ll likely miss by a mile. You might say 65. You might say 70. You won’t say 78. No way.
He’s still active. He’s still lean. His handshake is still bear-trap firm.
But he knows he’s no longer young. And he knows others know it, too.
“I’ll tell you, there’s age discrimination in this business,” he says, more resigned to the fact than bitter. “The year I turned 70, I was still guiding and I had my website … and was communicating with [a potential client]. After you’ve done this enough years, you kind of get a feeling of, ‘Yeah, they’re coming.’”
When talking with the woman on the phone, he got that feeling. No deposit had changed hands, but he knew the woman and her group were heading to the Allagash.
“The last thing she asked me was, ‘I’m kind of worried about my father because he’s 70 years old,’” Gilpatrick says. “I said, ‘I don’t know your father, but I’m 70 and I’m still doing all right.’”
“I never heard from her again,” he says.
Later that season, he went on the trip that finally convinced him that clients looked at him differently when they learned his age.
“Things were going fine. They were a nice family and they helped and pitched in in getting the wood and all of that stuff,” Gilpatrick says. “At some point the subject of my age came up, and I never made a secret of it. I said, ‘I’m 70.’ After that, they couldn’t do enough for me. They wouldn’t let me lift the canoe, they wouldn’t let me do anything.”
That’s when Gilpatrick made his decision.
“I says, ‘Boy, I think it’s about time that I hung it up,” he says. “So I did. That’s when I quit.”
Not that Gil Gilpatrick is sitting around, feeling sorry for himself. He’s still active, you see. He still goes moose hunting. He still builds things. And he still spends plenty of time with his bride of 55 years.
“I work in my shop … I build a canoe now and then. I build a chair now and then. And do whatever has to be done,” he says, turning to Dot for confirmation. “What else do I do?”
Dot smiles and points out the window, and the forest beyond.
“He’s cutting wood,” she says. “For next year.”