Jennifer Ries: Guided Recreation in the Maine Woods

True intimacy: on inheriting stories of the land, passing the paddle, and coming full circle.

As a young person bumbling through life, looking for that blissful connection of hand to heart—wanting my work to mean something—I got the notion, rather suddenly one day, that I should become a Registered Maine Guide. I adored nature. This, I thought, would be a chance to camp more, canoe more, and make my office in the woods. The task of acquiring the illustrious guide’s patch to wear on my jacket seemed heroic, and I was up for the challenge. Shortly thereafter, I met the man who became my mentor, and the course I had set in my mind looked very different from the one that eventually unfolded.

When we met, Raymond Reitze had been professionally guiding people into the Maine woods for more years than I had been alive. Setting pole in hand, with a rare combination of gentleness and strength, he wove his tough old homemade canoe upstream through rocks and rapids. He was like a teamster whispering to his horses, asking all that muscle to move forward, back up, and step aside. He commanded his craft with love and confidence, an act that seemed to give many happy returns. Ray and I spent years together paddling rivers and snowshoeing through the Maine woods. Before I knew it, the paddle had been passed. In time, I got to wear that patch.

Time on the trail bequeathed to me an inheritance much broader and deeper than I could have imagined. Along with the woods skills came stories of the land and of the lineage of Maine guides who traveled before us, arcing back over more than a hundred years. Guides in the old days brought recreating “sports” to fish and enjoy refuge from the metropolitan hustle. Follow the arc back further to the native people who inhabited these spaces and lived by the rhythm of the seasons. In between were darker times when those who came seeking guides also came to exploit the land. We can imagine the inspiration that welled within all of these people as they beheld the vastness of the mountains, the woods and the waterways. Perhaps we are coming full circle, as we return to the woods to engage our senses, expand our awareness, test our limits and renew our spirits. We are tapping into a common heritage that, as descendants of early land dwellers, we all share. Perhaps in some small way, we are rejoining the ancient rhythms of our ancestors.

Today, the Maine guide tradition lives on. But it wouldn’t be guiding without the people who come seeking the accompaniment of a guide. These guests bring an element of discovery and playfulness to every trip. They come with a yearning that simmers in many of us: to find simplicity. Each camper blossoms with the finding of his or her treasure, be it solace, quietude, adventure, reflection, self-sufficiency, or just plain fun. Those who were strangers at the beginning of the week part in friendship. All of this humbles and uplifts us and collectively, we remember what it was that drew us here in the first place. To witness this kind of reconnection to nature and each other is a gift; to help facilitate that process is a privilege.

We are beckoned to the woods by voices from the past. We are called by earthy vespers rising out of the elements in which we revel. They entreat us to travel tenderly on the land and to protect it for the generations that will follow.

To cherish a place, it helps to fall in love with it; to fall in love with it, one needs to spend time in it. Years ago, nature writer Barry Lopez came to Maine and gave a rare public lecture. At one point, he made a suggestion that has stuck with me and served me well in my travels (paraphrased): when you travel to another land and culture, find a local and ask that person to take you for a walk. Ask him or her to tell you a story. Listen carefully. This is true intimacy.

More stories to share, paddles to pass, and circles to widen…

Photo and video by Daniel Casado. Text by Jenn Ries.