There’s an art to the telling of tales. Some are good at it, and others struggle. Down Mainers seem to be born to it, at least a lot of the ones I’ve met have been. I knew one that could tell a tale that would suck me in with details that just had to be true. Of course, we both lived and worked down in the Caribbean back then, and we’d be sitting at a bar while I listened, so perhaps a beer or two had just made me more gullible. So often those stories had a ridiculous ending, while he wore a deadpan look on his face and me feeling very foolish for having believed any of it.
As a young pup, if the teller wore a belt knife and wool, I believed. At eighteen years old, on my first canoe trip on the Allagash River, which is deep in the north Maine woods, my friend and I spent a night camped near an old geezer and his wife. He claimed to be a registered Maine Guide, had a belt knife and wore wool, and certainly had stories. We sat around his campfire and listened for hours. His wife sat quietly and patiently smiled, probably having heard the same stories a million times.
One story had him picking blueberries with friends and they startled a bear, which of course started to chase him. The bear wouldn’t quit, chasing them up a hill, across a valley, swam lengthwise down a small lake after them, pursued them up over a small mountain, and through an enormous cedar swamp. Eventually, they came to a frozen stream that they jumped over, but when the bear hit the ice it slid and knocked itself unconscious, which was when they made their lucky escape.
I asked how come there was ice during the blueberry season. My clear lack of intelligence caused him to give me a startled look, and he said, “Well, it chased us cle-ah to Decem-bah.”
The other thing I remember about that campsite was that some joker had fastened an outlet box to the base of a tree. A wire came out the bottom and disappeared into the ground. Of course we were fifty miles from the nearest roadside electricity, so we knew it had to be a joke, but we all wished we had something with us to plug in, just to make sure.
A friend’s uncle, from down in Stockton Springs, Maine, took me on my first deer hunt. He had loads of old guns, a real smokehouse out back, and traps hanging on the wall of his shed. How can anyone beat those credentials? I would have believed anything he told me, but, like many Mainers, he wasn’t particularly talkative.
We knew better than to chatter away when visiting him. If we did, he always found a reason to leave the room. He was of the “children should be seen and not heard” school, even if we considered ourselves young men. One time, he and another old Mainer took us out fishing on Penobscot Bay. The two of them mumbled on in their colorful accents, chatting about who died, who got married, what so-and-so’s son had done, the striped bass in the bay, and the coming deer season. I don’t think my friend or I said ten words the whole day.
There is a huge difference between telling a story and offering advice. Usually the ones quickest with the advice have the least of value to give. Old timers, with years of accumulated wisdom, often weave the two together, and, without realizing it, you get sage guidance while being entertained.
The majority of the old timers I knew were deer hunters, and I never knew many really old bird hunters. Most of what I learned came from reading. Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, and Sports Afield were all a big part of my early life. Gene Hill, Ed Zern, Jack O’Connor, George Bird Evans, William Tapply, all shaped who I am. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the greatest story tellers, Burton Spiller and, my favorite, William Harnden Foster.
There is one elderly bird hunter that I see with some regularity, a gentleman from Vermont. His days in the woods were sadly finished a couple of years ago. Most of his life he worked in the woods for a paper company, running logging operations, and for a handful of years was my boss. I remember him as a man who strode easily through the forest with a long stride, and it is tough to watch him struggling to stand while leaning on a cane.
But his eyes light up when the subject turns to grouse or woodcock. We talk about dogs and old doubles and seasons past. He always was an Ithaca fan and sometimes he drags one out to show me again. The old stories get told once more, frequently with the details rearranged, but I listen and smile, and often learn another tidbit or two.
And I always leave with the promise of returning with stories of my own hunts.
So we hunt, and hunt hard, climbing steep clear cuts and crossing swamps, looking for that illusive covert that nobody else has ever found. I want to have some grand stories to tell and relive when the day comes that I’m stuck in a chair. And maybe I’ll find someone to listen.