Charlie Tucker’s life was about to change when scouts for the television reality show “Mountain Men” walked into the Ashland Dollar Store several years ago looking for a 9-volt battery.
They struck up a conversation with Jim Dumond, a retired game warden and former owner of Dean’s Motor Lodge in Portage. His knowledge of the Maine woods and its residents led the TV crew to hire him to help find someone from the area for the History Channel series, which features men from Alaska to North Carolina who live off the land.
Dumond recommended Charlie Tucker, a retired logging contractor and fur trapper, and the lifelong northern Maine resident became one of a half dozen men featured in the last two seasons.
“What we do here sells to the national public,” Tucker told a group of visitors to his self-constructed log home on Rowe Lake last week, adding that the audience for the show is not Mainers but people in the city who, since 9/11, are asking, “Is there another way to live?”
Tucker’s home was one of two stops on a one-day tour of the North Maine Woods sponsored by the Caribou Parks and Recreation Department on Oct. 30. The other destination for the participants in the “Take It Outside” tour was Hewes Brook Lodge, at the confluence of Hewes Brook and the Fish River, run by the Daggett family.
Tucker and the Daggetts, private leaseholders, represent the recreational component of the North Maine Woods, a private, nonprofit corporation of forest landowners and managers involved primarily with commercial use of the land. North Maine Woods Inc. encompasses 3.5 million acres north of Moosehead Lake and 175,000 acres between Millinocket, Brownville and Greenville, known as the Katahdin Iron Works Jo-Mary multiple-use management area.
North Maine Woods Inc. cooperates with more than 100 private outfitters, camps, guide services and other recreational businesses licensed to operate on North Maine Woods lands. Fees for use of the acreage help fund land management.
“The agreements go way back; the relationships are historical,” Al Cowperthwaite, executive director of North Maine Woods, told passengers in one of two Caribou vans traveling out of Ashland on the American Realty Road. As the visitors passed trucks loaded with wood chips lined up to unload at a biomass plant that uses chips to generate electricity, Cowperthwaite explained how the honor system by which loggers pay fees based on the weight of their loads helps defray the cost of road maintenance.
Similarly, fees collected for recreation such as camping and hunting support the costs of providing those activities. More than 100,000 visitors a year pass through the 13 checkpoints on the North Maine Woods perimeter, 60-70 percent of them hunters, he said, adding that a growing number of hunters are women.
“Women hunt to get meat that’s not full of chemicals,” he said, observing increasing concerns with the quality of processed food. A recent hunter safety class in Presque Isle attracted 150 people, many of them women.
The two vans turned from Pinkham Road onto Jack Mountain Road and eventually found “Tucker’s Turnpike” leading to a large log cabin labeled “Camp Tucker-Inn.” A fire was blazing in a pit under an outdoor shelter where Tucker and his companion Rita Morgan greeted the visitors with hot raspberry, strawberry and chaga tea. The chaga mushroom is a parasitic fungus that grows on dying yellow birch trees.
After touring the two-story log house, the group gathered for chicken soup, homemade bread, sweets and a conversation with Tucker, the son of a district forest ranger and grandson of a Maine guide.
“I’ve been in the woods all my life,” he said. “I came in on a plane when I was 1 month old. The outdoors is in my blood. You head into the woods when you’re down. The woods are soothing.”
He said the television scouts apparently saw in him “the willpower and stubbornness” they were looking for when he was chosen as one of the mountain men, but he has found the show’s emphasis on drama sometimes compromises authenticity.
“I hate when you don’t have reality,” he said.
After visiting Tucker’s root cellar, made famous on one of the TV episodes, the visitors traveled on to Hewes Brook Lodge, entering under a high gate labeled “A Bit of Paradise.”
Phil Daggett took a break from work on the construction of a two-story conference center to explain the history and future of the lodge overlooking the Fish River. Recent expansion and modernization is turning Hewes Brook Lodge into a retreat for conferences and meditation as well as high-end lodging for the snowmobiling, hunting and fishing clientele.
“Ninety percent of our business comes from Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and coastal Maine,” said Daggett, who with his mother and siblings are the fourth and fifth generations of the family to run the lodge.
“We draw people for one thing and they see other possibilities,” Daggett said, mentioning two weddings scheduled for next year.
Whether through televised episodes on “Mountain Men” or real adventures from Hewes Brook Lodge, people from around the nation and beyond are drawn to the North Maine Woods.
“A lot of people don’t get to peek into that world and understand what that kind of life is like,” Marc Pierce, one of the “Mountain Men” producers, told writer Patrik Jonsson for an article in the Oct. 6, 2014, issue of Christian Science Monitor. “There’s more independence there. There’s more satisfaction in doing things that make you closer to the land or nature, or forging a living with your hands.”
Tucker would agree.
“I learned everything on my own,” he said. “Maine is the easiest state to live in if you love the woods.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.