SOMETHING FOR THE KIDS
Old Town, Maine sits hard against the Penobscot River on the northeastern half of Marsh Island. Ten miles to the south lies Maine’s third-largest city, Bangor, and the southwestern half of the river island is home to both the town of Orono and the University of Maine. Great conveniences and advantages are found in a part of the state where cultural, educational, and commercial venues abound; but from the Penobscot River in Old Town both east and north lie vast tracts of working forest, abundant with fish and game. For those who seek opportunities in the outdoors with other amenities close at hand, Old Town is just about perfect.
As a community, Old Town’s historic roots are as an industrial city. In 1965, the Maine Register described the many manufactories and retail stores in the city, citing an aggregate payroll of some 10,000 workers, split between the city’s two paper mills, several shoe factories, sawmills, two canoe factories, the woolen mill, and all of the businesses to support those going concerns.
Old Town also has a vibrant outdoor tradition. The state’s oldest hunter’s breakfast, now run by the Old Town Rotary, was started by the Jaycees, and in its heyday, would host thousands of sportsmen pouring into the woods on opening day of deer season. The Canoe City Rod and Gun Club hosted the Great Works Junior Rifle Club until the gradual shuttering of the mills caused both to go by the wayside.
Old Town has made out better than many communities facing the existential crisis of many mill towns in a changing global economy. While many of the factories are gone, Old Town Canoe and LaBree’s Bakery still thrive, and the largest of the mills—established as Penobscot Chemical Fiber—has found new life as Nine Dragons. Demographically, it’s arguable that there are more sportsmen as a component of the population than in almost any other community in Maine.
Some chance conversations led to a broader discussion about the sporting heritage in Maine, which eventually led to the formation of the Maine Youth Fish and Game Association.
Matt Dunlap had landed in the curious position of an incumbent state representative running for re-election. Looking back, it wasn’t as heavy a lift as he imagined it at the time, but not wanting to leave anything to chance or take the voters for granted, he was out and about, walking door-to-door, and re-introducing himself to the voters of Old Town.
He was pretty well established at this point, having served as House chair of the popular Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. But he was getting some fearsome interactions from the sportsmen of Old Town.
“Might be nice to have a fish and game club around here again,” he kept hearing from folks, who would say it with a faraway look in their eyes.
No way, he didn’t say, smiling. No way. I don’t have time for that and I’m not doing it. He didn’t say that, either, instead continuing to smile and agreeing it would be nice.
Once the election was over, though, he reflected on how many times he’d heard that, and when former IF&W Commissioner Lee Perry and a skilled cadre of staff, biologists, and game wardens came to Old Town for a sportsman’s forum, near the end he spoke of what he’d heard, and asked the question—“How many here would be interested in putting together a fish and game club?” Of course, every hand of the assembly at the local Elks lodge went up. Defeated, and feeling like he had to follow through, he took a little leftover campaign money and took out a quarter-page advertisement in the Penobscot Times inviting anyone who wanted to participate to meet as a group and begin the work of forming a fish and game club.
They had good people participating, and they had a lot of help. The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine sent sample by-laws from different clubs, and they looked at what types of functions clubs engaged in. They wanted to be relevant and sustainable.
They met every month; while the core group of about a dozen never changed, new folks would come and offer helpful suggestions. One source of tremendous value were local game wardens.
As they grappled with what they were going to be—their mission, their vision, their goals gradually taking shape—the critical moment came when then-district game warden Dave Georgia observed of the deliberations: “You guys. You keep talking about kids—youth field days, Hooked on Fishing, Not on Drugs—everything. I see you all in the field. None of you hunt together. None of you fish together. But you talk about area youth a lot. Why not just make it a youth organization?”
They all looked at each other. What a great idea.
The more they talked about it, the more excited they got. And maybe—just maybe—if they worked really hard, in twenty or so years they might come up with enough resources to buy a little piece of land and start an actual camp for the club. The Maine Youth Fish and Game Association was born.
Never underestimate the power of a good idea, and the endless interactions that game wardens have with sportsmen and landowners who also like a good idea. Dave talked about what the group was working on. A lot. His conversations got people excited, and then they were told that a land manager for International Paper wanted to come to our next meeting.
International Paper had a problem. Along the Stud Mill Road—a private logging road that runs from Costigan to almost Machias through the Maine woods—a former sporting camp that had been taken by the military for exercises during World War II had gradually developed into a place that people liked to party and act up. It had been a management issue for International Paper for years, and in an effort to change the culture, the company petitioned the state to designate the eleven-acre great pond—Pickerel Pond—as kids-only fishing for youth under the age of 16. But the culture didn’t change, and International Paper found their problems compounded by people taking their kids fishing to a place where a lot of partying and hooliganism was going on at the same time.
They wondered if maybe an organization chartered around youth outdoor recreation and education wouldn’t have better luck in precipitating a culture change.
The rest is history. Dave Cole arranged for the association to take control of the area around Pickerel Pond in T32 MD, which sounds exotic. In fact, it’s about twenty minutes out of town. As the word spread, so did the manifest love of the community. Mike Hartt, who owned Northern Log Homes, donated all of the material for a building. Sunrise Materials donated the material for the foundation. Thornton Construction donated the excavation work. When the group struggled with how to actually put the building up, Jim Martin, a semi-retired contractor, showed up with a crew and started building the place. The electricians and plumbers at the Georgia-Pacific paper mill were made available to plumb and wire the place. The Maine Trappers Association donated half the cost of drilling a well; when Ken Gould Well Drillers showed up to do the work, Ken asked what this place was all about. When he was told, he donated the other half of the cost on the spot.
On and on. From donations by Old Town Canoe, the Reinzo family, retired warden Gary Pelletier, the Old Town Rotary, the Penobscot County Conservation Association, the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation, Bryant Construction, the Thornton family, generous support from the Fisheries Division at IF&W and the Old Town Trading Post, White Sign, the Archer’s Edge in Old Town, and the community at large, since the Maine Youth Fish and Game Association, Chapter One was incorporated in 2001, the mission of the club has grown exponentially. With an active youth board that compliments the work of the adult volunteers, the club hosts four weeks of summer day camps, free ice-fishing days, winter camps put on by the youth board, and other activities. The facility boasts a regulation 100-yard shooting range and a smaller 60-yard pistol and archery range, dock facilities, Adirondack shelters, complete with a commercial-kitchen equipped clubhouse, pole barn, and storage facilities.
The first, smaller shooting range was put in courtesy of the Reinzo family and the Maine Army National Guard, who also donated heavy gates that were designed to secure the facility. Thanks to strong community support and the popularity of the facility, they’ve almost never had to use them. The organizational mission is to protect and enhance our most important natural resource—our youth. The association has been many young person’s first truly interactive experience with the outdoors.
As an organization, they dreamt big. They discussed some type of an event every weekend or at least once a month—but quickly learned that any event requires a ton of planning and logistics. The core group were volunteers, all with jobs and families, leaving them with limited time to give up whole weekends, one after the other. They had to focus.
One early bit of luck came through an interested party with young kids—former Old Town Police sergeant Travis Roy, who leveraged his ties with the Penobscot Nation to use the facility for its first camp—the Cops and Bobbers program in 2003. Over the course of the week, both tribal and community children could engage in the outdoors through fishing, camping techniques, archery, and a host of other fun outdoor activities under the watchful eyes of local volunteer law enforcement officers.
That got the board thinking—“could we do a summer camp?”
The first year or two, they hosted two weeks of day camps. The first week was for younger kids, aged 8-11, and the second was for kids aged 12-15. An earlier act of the Legislature restricts the fishing access of Pickerel Pond to anglers under the age of 16, so that’s always been the cutoff.
Working with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W) and the Legislature, other statutory changes were crafted to protect the organization, including setting up the area as the Maine Youth Fish and Game Wildlife Management Area. This was executed by the Legislature after International Paper dropped the lease and gave the land outright to the State of Maine, and the association is licensed to run the programming. In this way, if the board runs out of volunteers and the non-profit fails, the area, its facilities, and mission can always be protected for future youth programs.
IF&W is a generous benefactor to the facility, assisting with programming for summer camps, and providing plenty of hatchery trout for stocking the pond for year-round fishing for kids.
The summer camps hosted by the Maine Youth Fish and Game Association are a much-anticipated fixture for area youth; enrollment is limited to 60 campers in each week, and the application process opens in conjunction with the Eastern Maine Sportsman’s Show hosted by the Penobscot County Conservation Association each March, and typically fills up quickly. The programming for the summer camps isn’t static, much to the delight of repeat campers; but it does run the gamut of activities. Campers are likely to learn outdoor skills like building a fire without a match, recovering a swamped canoe, map-and-compass, firearms and range safety, fly-tying and fishing, along with just about everything else. Past programs have included tree identification and birding, astronomy, and trapping demonstrations, among other outdoor activities.
Recognizing the limitations of an all-volunteer board, the association hires a summer camp director to provide for a professionally-run and safe experience for the young campers. Each year, the board assembles and hosts a popular dinner auction in conjunction with the Old Town Elks that raises thousands of dollars to underwrite the expenses of the camp. This keeps the costs for area families down as much as is practical. For 2021, the cost of a week at the camp is $150 for the younger campers and $200 for the older group.
In 2010, the board recognized that the activities and use of the facility had outgrown its original footprint, and they began a capital campaign to expand the original clubhouse and add complementary facilities—including a commercial kitchen—to broaden the reach of the club. With a generous financial pledge from the Thornton family and expert engineering and construction work provided well below cost (FREE?) by Thornton Construction, the expanded facility was dedicated in 2012.
Shepherded by board member Chris Brissette, who managed all of the traffic and paperwork for expanded licensing by state officials, the Maine Youth Fish and Game Association is poised to leverage additional funds from IF&W that promises to greatly expand the summer camp offerings of the association, fulfilling a long-term goal of the board.
The Youth Board of the Maine Youth Fish and Game Association is comprised of actual youth organization members. This dynamic group learns leadership and program design by raising their own money for programs of their own and they also serve as ambassadors to the community on behalf of their fellow youth members. In recent years, the Youth Board has raised money for lifetime licenses to be given in a random drawing at several association events and has hosted a Winter Camp in February to help young people experience the Maine outdoors in new and exciting ways.
Bracketing the Winter Camp are the association’s free family ice fishing days, where hundreds of people come to introduce their children to ice fishing. The association provides everything—traps, bait, and they even drill the holes for the youngsters. After a busy morning of fishing, the association provides a free hot dog lunch for everyone, assisted by volunteers from Kohl’s Department Store.
The mission of the Maine Youth Fish and Game Association has attracted staggering community support. Every service organization in the area has followed the lead of the Old Town Rotary and has supported the programs of the association; area businessmen like Argo Regan of the Birmingham Funeral Home and Linda and Clarence “Buggsy” Bryant have devoted countless hours to the club; the Redding, Roy, and Greenleaf families have given countless thousands of volunteer hours to supporting the kids who use the facilities. Old Town Archery and the Old Town Trading Post have stepped up to help with programs and events since the very beginnings of the organization.
Now in operation for twenty years, the Maine Youth Fish and Game Association continues to rely on committed volunteers to bring the outdoors of Maine into the hands of young people.
Long out of the Legislature, Matt Dunlap likes to tell a story about one of the early ice-fishing days. A former commercial cook, he usually supervises the kitchen operations. Things were going pretty smoothly, so he decided to take a walk down to the pond from the clubhouse and help out some kids learning how to fish.
“A family had just moved to the area from the Midwest,” he recalls. “They had a daughter, probably eight or nine years old, and she wasn’t too sure about this ice-fishing thing. I had to coax her onto the ice, which she tentatively did after I jumped up and down on it for a while. I set her up with a couple of traps, showing her how to put a shiner on the hook, play out some line, and set the flag. She stood back a ways, wary of the ten-inch hole I’d drilled through the ice for her. And just like that—the flag pops up! I show her how to set the hook, and she pulls in a fourteen-inch brook trout. Her eyes were as big as saucers. For days we had all worried about whether the traps were ready; whether we had enough; did we have enough bait? Did we have enough food? Watching this young girl catch her first trout brought it all back to center—this is what it’s all about. The kids. That experience. Since we started, we’ve watched that scene play itself out over and over again.”
Old Town’s population is no longer just made up of millworkers; but in the modern economy, two-income families are more the norm now than ever. Time-stressed families often struggle to find the time to take kids out camping, fishing, canoeing, shooting or hunting. Introducing young people to the outdoors in the 21st century helps the community of the Maine Youth Fish and Game Association live its creed: “Our Maine objective is to enhance our most precious and valuable resources: Out youth and our wildlife.”
Would like to salute and honor our Founding Board Members. These are the people who made it happen: