Just ask Christine Howe about her favorite camping story, and the co-owner of Spencer Pond Camps in East Middlesex Township on Moosehead Lake will talk about Europe, a busy executive, and a family transformation.
That executive, Howe explained, came from Europe to Spencer Pond for 10 days with his wife and children.
“[He] arrived tense and with a grim face,” she said. “The first three days … they tried to do every possible activity within an hour radius, from whitewater rafting, to a trip up Moosehead on the [steamer] Katahdin, hiking, kayaking, moose watching, fishing, etc.
“By the end of the week they were all preparing meals together, and days were spent relaxing, talking, swimming in the pond, watching the birds from the porch, or reading to one another and playing games,” Howe said.
“When he left, he thanked us with tears in his eyes. He said he didn’t think his family had ever connected on that level in their day-to-day life, and this experience was one they would always treasure and pull from in the future to keep their family together when daily pressures pulled them apart,” she said.
Stories like that are not unusual to the families who run Maine’s wilderness camps. In fact, that’s part of the allure of the family business.
The other part? The pure joy of introducing guests to Maine’s natural wonders.
Howe and her husband, Dana Black, operate Spencer Pond Camps while balancing full-time careers at Bank of America and lobstering respectively. Previously, her grandparents, Anne and Chick Howe, owned the camps for 40 years and operated them for 25 years. Christine Howe and Dana Black are registered Maine Guides, following in the footsteps of camp founder Mose Duty and Anne Howe.
Established in 1901, the camp has roots in the William Tell Hunting Club and the Maine Guide tradition. Howe’s grandparents assisted in writing the exam that must be passed in order to become a Registered Maine Guide. Today, Howe family tradition exposes children, parents, and others to “unplugged” Maine.
“The focus here is on families,” Howe said. “[We are] teaching children and adults how to connect with nature through self-guided experiences and are fostering an environment where all our welcome, from the avid sportsman to the extreme ecotourist.”
Family is also a common focus at Libby Sporting Camp in Ashland. The camp, founded in 1890 by Charles Cushing Libby, is now in its fourth and fifth generation of ownership — with the sixth generation helping out. Guests may not come by train, canoe, or horse and wagon anymore, but the camp’s goal is the same: showcase Maine and the simple pleasures of the outdoors. In 2010, the Libby family was named the Maine Tourism Association’s Hall of Fame award winner.
“We are maintaining the wilderness family-centered tradition,” said Ellen Libby. “We don’t claim to be a resort and don’t want to be. We want to know our guests by name and find out a little bit about them during their stay.
“People enjoy the seclusion and the chance to be together as a family without the ‘real’ world for a few days to rejuvenate … in the great north woods, or as most folks call it: ‘God’s country,’” Ellen Libby said.
From God’s country to Maine’s largest state park — Baxter State Park — another heritage camping experience is found at Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps. Established in the mid-1880s, the camp is still privately owned and only accessible by hiking or skiing to it or by float plane. The camp is owned by Charles Fitzgerald; camp operators Holly and Bryce Hamilton are registered Maine Guides.
“Probably the most important thing about the heritage of the camps is that they are the last of their type,” Holly Hamilton said. “With no vehicular access, you have to work to get in here just as you would have with most camps years ago.
“Once you arrive, you truly feel you have stepped back to a different time. Percival Baxter stayed here on his first trip to climb the mountain (Katahdin) in 1921. This was the trip when he decided to try and create the park,” she said.
According to Hamilton, the land is owned by the state, and the camps lease the land from the Baxter State Park Authority. The park itself is a draw, but Hamilton noted that the ability “for families to spend time together” is a greater attraction.
That’s the point, after all, Howe said. “Running the camps is a labor of love,” she explained. “We are fortunate to be here to share it with our children and other families.”