The Lure of Libby

Grab the flannel and fishing poles—we're off for a north woods weekend at Libby Camps, granddaddy of sporting outposts.

Just one pancake, but it’s as big as the dinner plate. The edges are nearly jutting over the side. “We told you,” the hunters across the wide wooden table are saying, nodding knowingly as I reach for the maple syrup. They’ve already been here a few days.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The day before, photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I have begun the nearly three-hour drive from Bangor to Libby Camps, where the log walls of the lodge are hung with lacquered trophy fish from decades past; mounted heads of moose and deer; and vintage photographs of master guides with their “sports,” the guests. Before we get there, we make a quick stop at an I-95 overlook for the view of treetops and peaks that lead to the outline of Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park. When we walk around to get a better look, the scenery in the sunshine and the rush of crisp air are literally breathtaking.

To get to the iconic Libby Camps, you basically keep heading north until you’re there. Following directions sent by the camps, we stay on I-95 for most of the route, then continue on state roads through increasingly smaller towns and past a hardware store and gas station or two, through Patten (population 1,017) and Oxbow (population 50). We’re somewhere northward of Baxter State Park and are the only car in sight when we arrive at a gatehouse for the North Maine Woods, where we stop to fill out paperwork and pay a user fee. I realize this unmanned self-registration booth must be fitted with motion detectors or cameras when, suddenly, a telephone in the booth begins ringing loudly. After Peter Frank answers and has a quick conversation about payment instructions and our reservation at Libby, the gate swings open to allow us to make the final leg, 20 miles on unpaved logging roads.

It’s autumn—we’re arriving squarely in the October/November woodcock- hunting season—so blaze orange is the color of the weekend. We’ve brought along vests and hats in the safety color, and here and there I notice standout trees with leaves tinged orange as well. After spotting a Libby sign then following a narrower road to a group of lakeside log cabins, we arrive.

Fire and Bread

A steady wind that’s churning the water across Millinocket Lake catches the door and holds it open as we walk in a side entrance of the Libby Camps’ lodge. Although we arrive in a gush of commotion, all’s calm inside. The fire’s going in the stone fireplace, and Jessica “Jess” Libby steps from the kitchen in a knit dress and tall boots. Behind her through the doorway, I can see a table crowded with tall loaves of golden-brown bread.

This feels like walking into a slice of history. The first Libbys are said to have come from England to the coast of Maine in the 1660s, and by the 1850s some of the family had moved north toward the Allagash River. The wilderness and solitude obviously suited them. After C.C. and Melissa Libby married and opened a hotel in Oxbow Plantation in the 1880s, generations of couples in the Libby family have continued to bring comforts to Maine’s remote North Woods. Next, it was Ike and Lillian. Then Allie and Elsie. Then Matt and Ellen. And since 2014, it’s been Matt and Jess Libby’s turn to own the camps and welcome sporting travelers to the 20-acre lakeside compound in Piscataquis County, about 130 miles north of Bangor. On the afternoon we arrive, Jess is bagging up the bread she baked earlier—a pillowy, yeasty recipe that includes molasses and wheat cereal—and she invites us to return in the hour or so before dinner to watch some of the kitchen action.

We’re also greeted by a smiling man with a beard, Darren McNeill, who says that he prefers the traditional title of “chore boy” to describe his role, and soon he is driving us and our gear in an ATV cart along the shore to “The Point” cabin, which is perched on rocky hill with an unobstructed view of the lake. It’s a roomy, spotless cabin with a several pine log beds layered in quilts, a round table large enough for games or puzzles, a woodstove, and a stack of firewood. McNeill reminds us of some of the particulars at Libby Camps: there’s no electricity in the cabins, but there’s hot water in the shower thanks to a generator that’s run during daytime hours. For light, each cabin is fitted with propane fixtures that he demonstrates how to light with a turn of a lever and a match. And then, in case we don’t want to be fully unplugged during our stay—but we do!—he mentions that Wi- Fi is available in the lodge.

Lodge Dinner

After getting settled in and watching the sun sink lower over Millinocket Lake, Peter Frank and I celebrate our arrival with a cabin drink—a splash of whiskey over a shard of the lake’s ice. (The next day Matt Libby will show us the icehouse and shovel into a mound of wood shavings to uncover a trove of ice blocks. It’s frozen treasure that was cut from the lake back in January by members of the Libby family, staff, guides, and guests who arrived by snowmobile for the annual ice-harvesting ritual.) The cocktail crowd in big-city bars would love this, I think. The oblong shard looks like a crystal pendant in my glass.

When we walk back over to the lodge for dinner, several guests dressed in flannel shirts and blue jeans (and the like) are now sitting around the fireplace or gathering at a table of appetizers, which features tortilla chips and an addictive hot-pepper-chicken cheese dip. The kitchen is buzzing with activity, too. Along with Jess, two other women are helping to cook and serve while Matt Libby and guide Scott Story stand at the stove sautéing samples of their woodcock and ruffed grouse recipes in cast-iron skillets—these sizzling medallions of breast meat are the prized result of the day’s hunt and are being prepared for the sports to try. Other guides and the rest of the Libby family are gathering at a staff table between the kitchen and the camp’s offices.

Meanwhile in the dining room, the moose antler chandeliers are hanging above tables now set for six or eight, and we sit down to join the banter and the easy pace of a lodge meal of roast pork loin, hot applesauce, fresh-baked bread, and zucchini succotash. Everything is brought to the table on large platters to be passed and shared. Our tablemates— everyone keeps the same seat and table throughout their stay—all have stories to tell. It’s particularly fascinating to meet Dick Winslow, an octogenarian from New Hampshire who, I learn, has penned several maritime history books. Winslow says he came to Libby to try some remote canoeing day trips here after recent canoe trips in Scotland and the Yukon region of Canada. Other talk around the table centers on everyone’s dogs or children (or both) and reports of the day’s hunt. Some use the word “partridge,” which Matt Libby tells us is the preferred term for ruffed grouse among locals. After tasting a just-prepared partridge dish that’s practically still sizzling when it’s brought from the kitchen on a platter, our new friend Mr. Winslow sips from the glass of wine in front of him and declares: “I now prefer grouse to chicken.”

Hunt and Fish

Following the coffee and pancakes the next morning, we’re invited to tag along on a hunting party led by Matt Libby. The upland bird-hunting season for ruffed woodcock is only in October and November, so this is a rare chance. The season for ruffed grouse is October through December. The sporting guests we’ll join are Brud Ludington and his 19-year-old son, Luke, from New Hampshire, who tell us as we all load into Matt’s extended-cab truck that their family started visiting Libby Camps more than a decade ago. Brud says it’s his third trip here already this year.

Everyone is decked out in at least a few pieces of safety orange. I’m especially happy to join because this is dog-assisted hunting. Matt drives us a few miles into a stretch of woods that was timbered in recent years, which is evident from the young aspen and birch trees. We park somewhere off an unmarked dirt road. But Matt knows where he is. He says that, for wing shooting (shooting birds in flight), he’ll range out as far as 50 or 60 miles from the Libby Camps lodge into the more than three million acres of the North Woods. “That way,” he says, “we don’t hunt the same place twice.”

Matt has brought two dogs in the truck’s kennels, and the one he releases for the morning hunt is Piper, a Brittany spaniel. Like Matt’s other three spaniels and his one English setter, Piper is both a working dog and one of the family pets. Hunting dogs are riveting to watch. Guided by scent and what can look like sheer joy and wild abandon, they bound off down trails or into the woods with purpose. Piper starts zigzagging ahead on the overgrown logging road we’re following on foot. The bell on her neck is in a constant jangle. When Matt wants her to circle back, he whistles.

We see moose and deer tracks in the mud but no birds after a couple of miles of walking, until Matt stops and says, “We’ve got a dog on point.” The Ludingtons look to see the object of the dog’s singular attention: a ruffed grouse perched in a tree. When it flies, Brud’s shot drops the bird. Another grouse isn’t much farther in this section, where fallen logs are mossy and there are low hills to climb over. We follow Piper again, and soon the father and son have two of the gray-brown birds to bring back to the lodge.

By now it’s lunchtime, and Peter Frank and I open thermoses of hot turkey soup packed for us at the lodge and then split off from the hunt to catch up with a fishing guide at a prearranged meeting place on Munsungan Stream. Lucky us. Jeff LaBree is a Maine Guide from Rockland who specializes in fly-fishing in the North Maine Woods. LaBree takes us to a trailhead, and we walk with paddles and poles for a few minutes until we get to a beautiful small pond where he has a canoe stashed, and where no one else will be fishing. Floating on the pond, I think of how peaceful the entire trip has been. Now, the only non-wild sights and sounds are the occasional guide’s truck and a few high jets overhead that we guess are traveling to or from Montreal.

In between LaBree’s patient instructions (for me) on the rhythms of fly casting, we learn he’s a fan of Maine’s storytelling humorists—and he’s right up there with them, in my mind, as he recounts some past guide trips. There was the time he was asked to teach two children, ages three and six, the art of fly-fishing from a boat while the parents went on a separate excursion. Much of that outing, he admits, was spent skipping stones. Another time, a woman asked to be led on a waterfall hike with “a full outpost lunch and a table beside the top of the falls.” LaBree lugged the table up the trail, yet only a few minutes into the picnic, the guest complained that she was getting uncomfortably damp and insisted they must retreat.

We spend a couple of hours this way, casting, floating, and laughing. Peter Frank and I each take turns fishing, and although we feel a bite or two on the line, we don’t get any into the boat. It’s the fishing, not the catching, that matters, we say on our return walk in the sweet-smelling fall woods.

The Big Picture

The extraordinary experiences continue during our weekend at Libby Camps. At night, just before dinner, Scott Story invites us into the guides’ cabin, a log-built bunkhouse next to the lodge. Inside, among the twin beds and gear, I count eight hunting dogs resting in crates or on beds. He introduces us to one of the eldest spaniels, Libby, a petite female with a limp and a white speckled coat. The dog is retired from hunting, and she is one of the reasons why he wanted us to stop by. “When the dinner bell rings, Libby always howls,” he tells us. “And we bray with her. We’re her pack now.”

We all continue talking, but at the first sound of the bell, Libby raises her head and starts braying. We lift our heads and do, too, in a howling chorus. She looks around the room a few times to make sure everyone’s doing it, then she sings on, full-throated, until we stop.

The next morning, Matt catches up with us in the dining room while I’m looking at a series of photographs of Libby men posing with their seaplanes, beginning with his grandfather, Allie Libby, in the 1950s. “Do you want to fly?” Matt asks. And within the hour, Peter Frank and I are walking to the end of a floating dock at the shore and climbing into a plane with Matt and his young son, Parker. It’s a 1973 Cessna 185 that Matt uses to transport guests to the camp and to even more remote fishing ponds and hunting outposts. With a rumble of the engines, we go splashing up from the lake and into the day’s clear sky. Fall’s leaves are still hanging on, and I look below at the camps and the Gatorade yellow of the aspens in the landscape we’ve been exploring. In a looping tour, Matt points out waterfalls and ponds, Beetle Mountain, Baxter State Park, and Mount Katahdin. I jokingly request a moose sighting, and within minutes he’s spotted one bull in a bog, and then another. It’s a grand finish to our stay.

A few days after returning home I receive a letter from Mr. Winslow, who includes copies of articles on river trips and fishing. “It was great to see you at Libby’s. There is a sense of esprit de corps there,” he writes. His note brings back memories of all the people we met at Libby Camps: at our table at the lodge, in the guides’ cabin, and on our hunting and fishing excursions. Esprit de corps in the North Woods, for sure.