Custom of the Country

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, August 1999

Custom of the Country
They make their own paddles. Their own pemmican. Their own packs. They make you happy.

Welcome, tenderfoot: the Conovers on Sebec Lake, Maine

"Nature will speak to anybody eventually," says 44-year-old Garrett Conover, who, like his wife, Alexandra, makes his living helping people listen. Maine guides in the oldest plaid-wool tradition, the Conovers have been leading clients across their beloved woods and mountains for more than 20 years, using equipment antedating the sepia pages of an old L.L. Bean catalog: pack baskets and canoe paddles handmade from native ash, wood-and-canvas canoes mended with traditional crooked knives tempered in their own workshop, personalized pemmican, moccasins sewn from smoked deer hide—and almost none of the freeze-dried accoutrements of the latter-day outdoorsman.

The original Maine guides were woodsmen accredited by the state in 1897 to publicize the daunting beauty of tannin-rich rivers and to deal with the influx of tenderfeet from Boston and New York. The guides assured their clients' pleasure and survival. For the Conovers, armed with liberal arts degrees and "a stubbornness about not working indoors," says Alexandra, it seemed a fine career path. "The Maine guide tradition was alluring, but it was hunting and fishing mainly. I thought, 'Why not take people into nature?' "

They apprenticed themselves to northern Maine legend Mick Fahey, who'd learned his skills at the source—from members of the Penobscot tribe. "We would grill him and take notes," recalls Alexandra, as he schooled them in such arcana as powering their canoes with the same 40 to 60 strokes a minute used by Indians and trappers for centuries. These days the moccasin is on the other foot: Trips with the Conovers' Willimantic-based North Woods Ways are equal parts woods enlightenment, skills development, and bush therapy. Bread bakes in a collapsible sheet-metal oven, venison cooks over a deadwood fire (no gas, no stoves, no exceptions), Egyptian cotton tents luff in the pines. "On day one a client is usually bewildered," Alexandra says, "but day four is the magic one. They lose lines from their faces and shed years." In addition to breaking in greenhorns, the Conovers have trained more than a dozen apprentices on their short courses in Maine guiding.

Even the Conovers need to unwind now and again. Vacation might be the two-month snowshoe trek they undertook across 350 miles of northern Quebec's frozen Ungava Peninsula, pulling homemade sledges, living on boiled ptarmigan and their own body fat, and rolling into Kuujjuaq starving and seeing double, with a quarter-cup of oatmeal and 16 raisins between them—in what Garrett calls "a sustained state of euphoria." For Alexandra, too, it was a little slice of heaven. "If I had croaked," she adds, "I wanted him to tell everybody how happy I was." —JIM CONAWAY

PHOTO: Kip Brundage

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