ALLAGASH, Maine — Over the years, the forests of northern Maine have produced a fair amount of legends. Tylor Kelly certainly counts among them.
The octogenarian has pretty much seen and done it all — from harvesting timber using horses to working the river logging drives to navigating ice choked waters to rescue stranded townspeople during a spring flood.
But Kelly outdid even himself this week when, after years of declining all attempts to throw any sort of party in his honor, he decided to have his first-ever birthday party at age 80.
Everyone was invited.
“If he lets us do a 90th [birthday party] we are going to need a bigger venue,” said his daughter Darlene Kelly Dumond as friends and family from as far away as Kittery packed into Two Rivers Lunch, a cafe in Allagash, last Wednesday afternoon. “No one could believe Daddy agreed to this.”
Sitting in his usual spot in the cafe his wife opened more than 40 years ago and now run by their daughter Darlene Kelly Dumond, Kelly greeted a stream of well wishers and friends amid constant banter, joking and reminiscing.
“I was thinking this was maybe marijuana,” he laughed when presented a fresh bouquet of flowers.
“I think this present is for you,” he called out to a retired physician at the party and held up a tool set.
“It’s just another year, right?” called out one friend.
“Yep,” Kelly replied, “And now I have 80 under my belt.”
In fact, it was reaching that milestone that prompted him to agree to the party.
“I’m only going to turn 80 once,” he said. “So why not have a party?”
Just a week ago, Dumond said, her family floated the idea of a party and her father immediately vetoed it.
“But later that night when I was home, I got a call from Mama saying ‘your father wants to talk to you,’” she said. “That never happens [because] Daddy will not talk on the phone.”
But in this case, he made an exception, followed quickly by another one when he told her to go ahead and plan a birthday bash.
“I was absolutely surprised,” said Leitha Kelly, his wife of 58 years. “But then he says, ‘you know, I think you can have a party, I’ll never be 80 again,’ so I told the family, ‘Quick! He wants a party.’”
This, Leitha Kelly said, after decades of avoiding all but the smallest of family gatherings to mark everything from graduations to milestone wedding anniversaries.
“All through the years, whenever we had a reunion or big gathering, he’d be there to help me set up and lug tables or do whatever was needed,” Leitha Kelly said. “Then just before any people arrived, he’d be gone.”
Tylor Kelly admits he’s far more comfortable out in the woods or on the rivers he’s called home for eight decades, he’s also a man who enjoys a good story and he’s got plenty to tell.
As a boy, he recalled, he and his friends would wait for the rivers to freeze in the winter and then put on skates, fashion “wings” out of plywood, hold them on their shoulders and let the wind propel them over the ice.
“I grew up on the other side of the Little Black River,” he said. “Back then, there was no bridge, so we took a ferry across [and] if someone got there before you did, they’d sometimes take that ferry [and not bring it back] and then you’d be stuck wading across the river.”
Over the years, bridges were constructed over the three major rivers running through Allagash — The Allagash, The St. John and Little Black.
In 1989, record flooding and ice jams destroyed those bridges and Tylor Kelly was among the only people willing to venture out — at night — in a canoe to rescue people trapped by rising waters. Some had taken refuge on their roofs as flood waters flowed into their homes.
“I got my canoe with a motor and me and Clayton Jackson, we brought out more than 100 people,” Tylor Kelly said. “I remember there were people from the state there and wardens, but no one was willing to venture out.”
With ice chunks the size of small cars bumping against the canoe in the dark, Tylor Kelly and Jackson made trip after trip transporting people to safety.
“I had to help,” he said simply. “Was I scared? You don’t get scared while you are doing it, you get scared after.”
For Tylor Kelly, being on the water is second nature as he has spent his entire life navigating the rivers for work and for fun.
“Yeah, I worked running the logs down the river,” he said. “You know, I wish I could go back to that, it was hard work, but it was peaceful work out in nature [and] not like the rat race today.”
Tylor Kelly also made a name for himself as a champion canoe racer. He and his cousin Ransford “Pike” Kelly were forces with which to reckoned in the late 1960s and early 1970s, winning races around the state.
Dumond recalled one race in particular in 1969 when the two men won a 30-mile run from Allagash to Fort Kent as part of a centennial celebration. They did it, Dumond said, using an Old Town canoe after the company had contacted the Kelly men and asked if they would like to use a new 20-foot wooden canoe in the race.
After winning the race, the company gifted them the canoe.
Those races were often family events, according to his daughter Lisa Powell.
“Some of my best memories are of Mama packing us kids up so we could go watch Daddy come down the river in the races,” his daughter Powell said. “He always wore a red bandana on his head and we’d sit there and just wait and watch for that bandana.”
Powell was on hand at the diner for the birthday party, having traveled to Allagash from her home in southern Maine for the party with her son Jesse Powell.
“I wanted to see him on his birthday,” Jesse Powell, 33, said. “I have such great memories coming up here as a kid and him teaching me how to shoot a bow or driving down dirt roads and my grandmother yelling at him to slow down.”
Describing his grandfather as “the manliest man I know,” Jesse Powell credits Tylor Kelly with teaching him everything from how to fish “to how to make a whistle out of a tree branch.”
Sharing that kind of knowledge is second nature to Kelly, Lisa Powell said.
“Daddy is just so well rounded and loves being out in nature,” she said. “He likes helping people and telling them about the woods and how to get along out there.”
For years Tylor Kelly did more then get along in the woods — he made his living there as a logger, trapper, registered guide and hunter.
“He still hunts, fishes and will guide friends,” Leitha Kelly said. “I don’t think that will ever stop.”
As for any chance this 80th birthday marks a start of a new career for Tylor Kelly as party animal?
“Nope, this is it,” he said with a laugh, and then turned serious for a moment.
“I have a good life, good wife and good kids,” he said. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d go down the same road.”