The day began like many others in Jake Morrel’s career as a bush pilot: He was to pick up a group of outdoorsmen and fly them to a far-flung lake so they could have a look around.
“[These camps] were for sale, and they thought maybe it would be a great place,” said Morrel, who now lives in Sangerville. “They’d fix up some of the derelict camps and they could have sort of a retreat where each guy could have his own camp.”
That’s not how the day turned out.
“They looked all around, just disgusted that they’d spent all their money flying that far to look at [camps in such disrepair],” Morrel said. “I looked at the location and what could be done with the buildings that remained, and I made up my mind right then — I didn’t tell [my wife] that night: I’m gonna get it.”
He did, and for nearly a decade, he and his wife, Beth Morrel, owned and operated Hardscrabble Lodge on Spencer Lake, 40 air miles from Greenville, and easily accessible only by float plane.
At the urging of a friend, Morrel has written 36 short stories about his life as a bush pilot and sporting camp owner. Called “Hardscrabble Lodge: True Maine Bush Flying Stories,” the 170-page paperback provides plenty of backwoods adventure tales for Mainers who have grown up hearing similar tales about the state’s vast north woods.
“I flew [for a living], and I saw the perfect opportunity to have a fly-in lodge,” Jake Morrel said. “There was just something in me that liked that lifestyle, [the idea] that I could use a plane, and you had to use it, rather than just play with it.”
In order to get their hands on Hardscrabble Lodge, they had to take on a business partner. Luckily, Jake knew just the man to talk to.
“I bartended with a guy at Squaw Mountain [in Greenville], a nice guy from Philadelphia,” Jake Morrel said. “We had a few too many beers one night and decided we’d make an offer on the place. I can’t remember, they wanted $50,000 or something like that and we offered $21,000. They accepted.”
That was in about 1977, Jake Morrel said. But now, they were faced with opening up a sporting camp — and finding guests who would visit — in a short time window.
“So now we’ve got a business, whether we wanted it or not, and we only had that winter to get everything ready to operate,” he said.
He and his partner, along with Beth, got down to work, rebuilding what they could, and visiting sporting shows in the northeast to tell potential “sports” what they could expect.
One of the benefits of the location: The lake consisted of two large pieces separated by a narrows, and protected by ridges. If the wind blew one direction, pilots could land on one piece of the lake — into the wind — and tie the plane down in the protected narrows. Then pilots could take off out of the other piece of the lake.
The stories included in the book recount life in the Maine woods, where they raised their small children and welcomed guests who often returned year after year. Morrel’s plane was a workhorse, and he often used it to carry deer that his clients had shot, or ferry canoes into remote ponds for fly fishermen to use.
And though he loved the life he chose, he says now that each day he headed out in his plane, he knew that his margin of error was slim.
“I’m flying all day long, and all it takes is one small mistake in that airplane, and we’re belly-up,” he said. “There is definitely tension behind what seems to be an idyllic situation.”
Jake Morrel had a few close calls, including one in which a sleepy passenger in the back seat leaned against the throttle control and nearly forced an emergency landing.
After a short run at Hardscrabble Lodge, the Morrels realized that the idyllic life they’d enjoyed was going to change.
Once accessible only by plane or an 18-mile four-wheel-drive ride over very rough roads, civilization — or something like it — was heading their way.
“[In the mid-80s] Scott Paper started to build a major highway into that country,” Jake Morrel said. “It took ’em about two years to get as far as Hardscrabble. By that time, all of a sudden, everyone in the world could drive in there.”
And that wasn’t what he’d signed on for.
“I was basically dealing with fly fishermen only. I was flying them, every day, to all the little ponds in there,” he said. “I realized, right away, that was going to change. So either I’m going to go into the recreational vehicle business and have [ATVs] lined up out front, or I needed to get out.”
The Morrels chose to get out about 30 years ago, and both say they think fondly about the times they spent there.
They also know their memories of the place — and the stories that Jake wrote for the book — are the only Hardscrabble experience they’ll ever get.
The main lodge was torn down by one subsequent owner. And attempts to visit the old property, which is no longer a sporting camp, haven’t turned out so well.
“We did go back with our daughter, because she grew up there,” Jake Morrel said. “We were told in pretty straight terms that we weren’t really welcome. We wanted to picnic, and they said, ‘No.’”
Having spent several years living in that remote section of the state, being turned away is tough to take, he said.
“When you live in country like that, where in the winter there’s nobody within 14 miles of you, even though [we stayed] for a pretty short duration, you get this feeling that ‘this is mine,’” Jake Morrel said. “Then, there’s that old saying: You can’t go home. It’s true. You can’t go home. Not to a place like that.”
“Hardscrabble Lodge” is available through Maine Authors Publishing at maineauthorspublishing.com.