Eric Stirling says that first-timers to his sporting camp often share the same reaction. They'll drive down the long dirt road from the tiny North Woods outpost of Kokadjo to the shore of First West Branch Pond. They'll park in the lot behind the eight log cabins, their porches aimed at the narrow pond and White Cap Mountain, a famous Appalachian Trail peak, rising 3,800 feet behind it. They'll take in the unbroken woods all around, see wood smoke puffing from the chimney of one of the camps, maybe notice a moose roaming along the water's edge."You'll see people get out of their cars and say, 'This is incredible. I had no idea a place like this existed anymore,' " Stirling says. "Then they'll make a reservation."
There simply are not a lot of places like West Branch Pond Camps anymore, in Maine or anywhere else. Dozens of sporting camps remain in the North Woods, scattered on remote ponds and lakes, but few of them are quite like this, seemingly unbothered by the passage of a century, wrapped in a cloak of history.
"We are in a bit of a time warp," says Stirling, who runs the place with his wife, Mildred, and his mom, Carol. But it's a very carefully considered time warp. Stirling knows just what he's doing. Where many other sporting camps have put in phones, kitchenettes, even TVs to keep pace with the times, to attract guests in an era when hunting and fishing, the sports that put the sport in sporting camps, are in decline, West Branch Pond has foregone all that, electing to keep things simple and timeless. "We're one of the few camps that has always had an American plan," Stirling notes. "So we've always had a kitchen. Most of them did, back in the day."
And even with the world encroaching ever more rapidly — the Moosehead area is the proposed site of the largest development in the history of Maine [Down East, August 2006] — the future for these classic camps seems bright.
The drive to the rustic campus of West Branch Camps is just long enough — forty-five minutes from Greenville — for the concerns of the outside world to begin to fade away into the woodlands. The lodge sits in an impressive valley between White Cap and much smaller Hedgehog Mountain. White Cap trundles along for miles across the pond, and you can follow every rise and fall of its ridgeline from the field in which the camps sit.
The West Branch in question isn't the fabled West Branch of the Penobscot, which is miles to the east, but rather the western tributary of the Pleasant River, the coursing water body that carved Gulf Hagas. It pours out of the southwestern side of the roughly mitten-shaped pond. Water and mountains seem ever present here and where they stop, the woods begin. Surrounding the camps and pond in every direction are thousands of acres of timberland owned by Plum Creek, the company that now proposes to build almost one thousand homes in this area, one of the last undeveloped regions in the East. When snow drapes itself across these mountains, the world seems even more remote.
The camps themselves are wonders, a hardscrabble assortment of graying log buildings that look all of their hundred years, each with a different layout and collection of handmade furnishings. These two- and three-bedroom cabins and the long main lodge, with their weather-beaten patina, cast-iron Ashley stoves, and hand-hewn rafters, could teach a thing or two to home owners who are working so hard to make their houses look rustic. "Rustic?" jokes Eric Stirling. "We have plenty of that."
So much rusticity, in fact, that some campers are intimidated. "When customers arrive for the Howell Camp, they'll look at me and say, 'You're putting me in there?' Because from the outside it looks pretty rough. But when you step inside you see it's a beautiful old cabin." Campers are even more reassured when they find that like all the others, the cabin has running water and even electricity for a few hours in the evening, thanks to a diesel generator. Other than these conveniences, though, things are much the same as they were at the turn of the twentieth century when many of the camps were built.
Keeping it real is almost a mission for Eric Stirling; he has as much nostalgia for the old ways as everyone else, probably more so, having grown up here. The camps have been in his family since 1910. He and his brothers, Jack and Nathan, were reared and schooled onsite, following their grandfather Cliff Kealiher around, carving their name in the fresh cement of the springhouse down on the pond, reveling in the adventure of life an hour from the nearest town. They came by their woods skills naturally and got their education about people and cultures from all of the guests at the camps. Then it was off to Gould Academy for Eric — he's an avid cross-country skier and the Bethel school had a great ski team — and then to Bates College, where he studied economics.
Stirling's field of study might seem unusual for a kid who always knew he wanted to go home and run the camps. "I could see how mismanaged the forest was, and I thought if I really want to help it, see how it's being run, and understand the market forces behind it, that was the best way." After college, Stirling worked in an apple orchard, sold produce at the Portland Public Market in its early days, picked blueberries, and taught algebra at the Hyde School in Bath. "Doing all those things, I gained a lot of skills for working here," he says.
Stirling met his wife, Mildred, a photographer from Greenville, when she came to the camps to take pictures of his mother for a project she was working on. Now she helps customers and does some of the decorating while Eric and his mother, Carol, run the day-to-day operations.
After three years at the helm, Stirling says he still learns something new on every job he tackles. "I can now look at a project and tell you who did it and when they did it," he says. "That's the advantage of having generational ownership. The continuity, the history."
When you have a compound of century-old structures, there's always something that has to be rebuilt, fixed, or improved. Stirling tries to do everything in as historically accurate a manner as possible — "I'll look at old photos of the camps first," he says. It's a sensibility that he thinks is disappearing. "I was at another camp recently and they were putting on vinyl siding and vinyl windows. There is nothing worse than vinyl and logs. It's quite a clash." Redecorating the interior poses another trap for design-challenged lodge owners. "I know one camp, and the first thing they did was take out all of the homemade old beds and put in metal frames. We really try to maintain the old furnishings because they're authentic. There's nothing premanufactured here."
That attention to detail is not lost on guests. "The place looks much the same now as it did when I first visited in 1959," says Dick Landon, a landscape architect from New Haven, Connecticut. Landon has been coming back to the camps most years since then, often bringing as many as twenty friends with him and "taking over the whole place." He makes it a point to come in the winter, when he'll ski, snowshoe, ice fish, and "toboggan on the side of the mountain." The appeal? "It's as much for the sense of place, the sense of history, both mine and the camps. We've been a part of that history now, becoming close friends to Eric's parents and his grandparents and now to Eric." Loyalty like this has helped keep the camps alive and enriched them. People will often make their reservation for the next year before they leave.
"About 80 percent of our guests are repeat business," says Stirling. "One of the neatest things about running a sporting camp is the extended community. We have families — their kids bring their kids — who have been coming back for generations. We only see them once a year, but they're still like family."
These guests fall into a natural sort of seasonal rhythm, with the fishermen coming in the springtime, families following after school lets out, fishermen returning in the fall, along with leaf-peeping couples. Skiers and snowshoers follow when the camps reopen in February and March. Even though fishermen come back every year, Stirling says he has lost many of them to colder waters to the north.
"Many serious fishermen will go to Canada these days," he contends. He's also seen a decrease in hunters at West Branch Pond. "I take one or two parties of hunters a year," says Stirling. Those are deer hunters or bird hunters. "I don't take moose hunters any more," he says. "The moose are more valuable to me to watch. The future definitely seems to be in wildlife watching."
The transition from hunting to nature watching has been happening at sporting camps across Maine for decades now. "Some made the switch years ago. The end of the log drives — and that whole era — dramatically changed sporting camps," says Dave Surprenant, who owns Chesuncook Lake House and serves as president of the Maine Sporting Camp Association. But for many it's been a largely painless evolution. "As hunting drops off the eco-tourism seems to be making up for the losses," Surprenant says. "Traditional sporting camps industry-wide, as far as we are concerned, seem to be picking up."
Ownership for many camps has been a more difficult issue. A large number of camps lease their land from paper companies, and with multinational corporations exchanging vast tracts of the North Woods like Monopoly pieces, the future can be uncertain at best. At West Branch Pond it was like that for years. However, the Stirlings were able to buy their thirty acres from Plum Creek three years ago when Eric took over. If the conservation easement aspects of the Seattle-based timber-company's massive development plan go through, West Branch Pond will be surrounded by wildlands protected by the Appalachian Mountain Club. "We're in a pretty good position," says Stirling. "Things are looking rosy."
If Stirling's own plans come to fruition, life beside West Branch Pond will get even rosier. He's partnering with the Appalachian Mountain Club's Little Lyford Pond camps, seven and half miles away, to offer camp-to-camp skiing in winter. He's working on birding trips with the Maine Audubon Society. He's looking at marketing in Europe.
Running a sporting camp isn't an easy life, though. In terms of a career, "it's one step above a hardscrabble farm," Stirling says. But he's enjoying himself, and he's looking forward to many more years.
"If you have a good location, which most sporting camps do because the old-timers picked the best spots, and if you serve good food and keep the place clean, I'd say you'd do okay. There are so few places that are this beautiful. I can't wait to have kids and have them experience this."
If You Go
Cabins at West Branch Pond Camps rent for $90 a night in winter for adults, which includes three meals. Find out more at www.westbranchpondcamps.com