By Kevin Ritchie
To Gary and Betty Cobb, their sporting camp is much more than a business. It is a reminder of the way mankind lived in a much simpler time. It is important to the Cobb family that the grand tradition of the rustic, secluded sporting camp continues so that future generations can experience and enjoy a way of life that previous generations enjoyed. Gary’s book, “The History of Pierce Pond” emphasizes that point through its text and archival photographs:
“But it’s not just the camps that are important. Its the woods, too. The woods are a special place – they sustain life, purify the water and air, provide recreation, and are a renewable source of timber. Properly managed, the woods will serve generations to come.” – Gary’s quote from the Preserve America: “Gatekeepers of History” webpage
The woods of Maine inform the lifestyle and the life of every student who attends Lee Academy. Many LA alums choose to move on to a wider world when they graduate, while some stay and build their lives in the scattered communities of eastern interior Maine or other rural parts of the state and country. In either case, those who are happiest follow their hearts and their interests – and sometimes doing so results in unanticipated opportunities and accomplishments. Gary Cobb, Class of 1960, and his wife Betty, developed their love of the natural world into a fascinating life in the Maine woods.
For Gary, it began in his hometown of Lee. In his earliest years, Gary lived on the Arab Road until his folks bought a house on Route 6 between Lee and Lincoln. Gary’s time at LA was filled with basketball and baseball and time spent with good friends Glen Jacobs, Jimmy Whitten, Clifford Daigle, Buddy Allen, and Hilton Hanscom, among others. The early connection with the natural world that was common to many young people of Gary’s era was enhanced by Carroll Thompson, a junior high teacher of Gary’s who liked exploring and who invited his students to do so with him. From Limestone, Maine, Mr. Thompson knew and loved the Allagash and the wilder country of the northwest quadrant of the state. For Gary, these early trips “up north” set in motion a deep love and understanding of the forests. Building on his early hunting, fishing and exploring, Gary was a student of LA teacher Dan Frazier, who had a knack for inspiring young people, and who influenced Gary’s life by helping him develop an interest in history – later expressed when Gary pursued his passion for Pierce Pond and its environs in researching and writing the book, The History of Pierce Pond co-authored with long-time camp guest, Al Fenton. For the book, Gary ventured to the state archives in Augusta to locate land deeds and historical context, and he interviewed the previous generation of old guides and camp guests, capturing their stories and wisdom before it was lost in their passing. The 2500 copies that he self-published have long since been sold, perhaps suggesting a need for a revised edition that includes this last 25 years of Pierce Pond history.
It was also in Mr. Frazier’s class that Gary first sensed some skill and built some confidence in presenting ideas to an audience, in his presentation about Benedict Arnold’s ill-fated march north – a section of which took Arnold very close to Pierce Pond. Headmaster Fred Dingley was another influence, as Gary modeled his own years teaching in Millinocket after the style of Mr. Dingley. He and Betty taught there for 5 years before realizing that they were destined to work directly in the woods – and to eventually be teachers of a different kind.
After high school, Gary went to Gorham State Teacher’s College (now the Gorham campus of the University of Southern Maine) where he met his future wife. While Gary and Betty headed north to Millinocket to teach, after graduation, Gary’s parents Floyd and Maude were operating the Pierce Pond Camps (which they had purchased in 1958), wilderness camps on the shores of a pristine body of water, set within a pristine section of the western Maine mountains. The camps are accessed via a 7-mile stretch of woods road, 3 miles of which is gated, leading to a landing where guests travel by boat to the camps. As the Maine saying goes, “You can’t get there from here” – unless you REALLY want to go. Gary and Betty’s summers were spent with Gary guiding, constructing and maintaining the buildings, helping his dad with guests, and slowly becoming intimately familiar with the topography, the weather, the flora and fauna – especially the fish and deer – with all of it. Teaching was a good profession for them, as the summers could be spent in North New Portland at the camps and the winters could be spent working with young people in the classroom. However, after several years of doing both, the camps and the waters of Pierce Pond called strongly enough that they changed careers and entered the family business. In 1970 and ’71, they spent winters at camp without electricity and running water, along with their two young children and Gary’s sister Judy and her then-husband, Robert Mallett. Robert and Gary trapped beaver and also built a mold for the world-famous “Grand Lake Stream” style of canoes and they began the first of many handcrafted Grand Lake Streamers that came out of Pierce Pond.
When Gary talks about the camps and the pond, his deep appreciation of the beauty, history and wildness of the region is evident. What is also evident is the wisdom and long-term vision that he developed, integral to his relationship to the place. Gary understands – and has for many years – that the old guides and old guests, the natural resources, the scenery, the remoteness, and the lifestyle that makes Pierce Pond a treasured place is unique, and its conservation is essential to maintaining both a livelihood for family, and a rare type and quality of experience that comes to be cherished by most guests who visit Pierce Pond. For both Gary and Betty, the enjoyment of teaching never left them, and they found a way to blend both worlds beginning in 1969 and for the next 15 years, when they established “Wilderness Bound”, a summer camp program for boys, located in camps on land nearby to Pierce Pond Camps. “Senior Voyager” and “Junior Voyager” campers attended for 3-5 weeks and built skills and camaraderie as they canoed, camped, fished and hiked down the Allagash and, in season, the St. John Rivers, as well spending time in the outdoors on the Dead, Penobscot and Kennebec Rivers and at Pierce Pond. The campers baked bean hole beans and caught brook trout and salmon on flies they tied themselves. Over the years, Gary expanded the program to include fly-tying courses and nature weekends. Even today, decades after the last camp, Gary and Betty hear from “their boys” – many of whom have become registered Maine guides or have maintained a connection with the natural world for themselves and their own families.
As his awareness grew, of the value of history and tradition, Gary sensed that Pierce Pond Camps was a unique and historic place that represented a way of life that was fast disappearing. In the early ’80s, unprecedented development pressures were coming to the most rural places in Maine. Shorefront lots became “hot property” and remote sections of the state were being bought and carved up into “spaghetti lots” which met the letter but not the spirit of Maine’s development laws of the time. Gary, and others who loved Pierce Pond, could see that it was only a matter of time before the special character of the Pond would be transformed by the pressures of supply and demand. When a land development company, the Patten Corporation, bought 2000 acres in the region, the family, long-time guests, and others knew they needed to act quickly to try and preserve the place they loved. In 1989, this group formed the Maine Wilderness Watershed Trust (MWWT.org) in hopes that the Trust could buy easements to conserve and protect crucial lands, in perpetuity. Early on, they were able to buy an easement on the shoreline from the now-defunct Scott Paper Company, which ensured that no further development – ever – would occur, but that the land would still be carefully used for its historic purposes of hunting, hiking, trapping, and land and species management. Today, this is still an active trust (mwwt.org) working towards the long-term vision of owning or having easements on the entire Pierce Pond watershed. To date, 11,000 acres of wetlands and forests are in conservation easements, including more than 30 miles of lake, pond and river frontage in the Pierce Pond watershed.
Gary’s passion, skill and involvement in the woods and its future did not go unnoticed. In 1989 Gary was elected president of the Maine Sporting Camp Association and in 1991, he was named “Sportsman of the Year” by the influential Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. Also in ’91, Maine Governor John McKernan appointed Gary to a three-year term as a member of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Council, an analysis and advisory board to the Commissioner of Inland Fisheries. From 1992 – ’98, Gary also served as a member of the founding board for Operation Game Thief. He was appointed to the Governor’s Committee on Forest Sustainability from 1990 – 1996 and in 1997, Gary became the first civilian on the Maine Warden Service Hiring Board. Respect for his perspective and his life’s work had put him in positions of leadership and responsibility for the vast woods and waters of Maine. This past fall, Gary received the Outdoor Lifetime Achievement Award from Inland Fisheries – a capstone to a remarkable career in the Maine woods.
As a trustee of Lee Academy from 2001 until 2015, Gary helped bring some “hang in there” perspective to the board during lean financial times for the school, and he was a vocal supporter of taking endowment funds to renovate and re-open Weymouth Hall in the early 2000’s, a move that has been crucial to the school’s current finances. Interestingly, Gary’s grandfather and uncle served on the board, in their time, and Gary’s sister Judy has now been appointed.
Gary’s sense of history and his entrepreneurial nature also resulted in the purchase, many years ago, of one of the last operable ice cutting saws in Maine. Taken from a small general store in Abbot Village, it was refurbished and served as the centerpiece of a Bangor Daily News article and video (see link: http://bangordailynews.com/video/ice-harvest-at-cobbs-pierce-pond-camps/) about ice harvesting. Other glimpses of Pierce Pond Camps can be had by searching YouTube – passionate guests have posted some fun videos! Among Gary’s most-enjoyed times in the woods were his hikes into the back ponds, the trout ponds beyond even Pierce Pond. He especially enjoyed deer hunting, but was not single-minded in his hunts; tracking in the fall was often a time to explore new territory and seek out old stone walls and cellar holes, remnants of human settlement in past generations. Years ago, he took up flying (his dad had been a bush pilot). His plane, a Piper Super Cruiser, is stored in a hangar in Lincoln and will likely be for sale in the near future. During his active flying days, Gary often would take lucky “sports” aloft to view the watershed of Pierce Pond and he also used the plane to keep track of area woods operations and to have a sense of what was happening at surrounding ponds.
In a world of interesting connections, Gary tells me that his grandfather grew up on the property where my wife Kendra and I now live. Once known as “the Cobb Farm” and previous to that “the Burke Place”, Gary remembers, as a boy, wandering through the old farmhouse and barn, then-abandoned, during the 50s and early ’60s, before Arthur and Ruth Taylor rebuilt the property.
In recent years, Gary has weathered two brain surgeries to address deadly tumors. Chemo and radiation treatments have slowed him down, but he still spends time at the camps where his spirit is anchored and he continues to enjoy the beauty and wildness of the region.
Given his woods skills, his impact on so many young people and guests to the camps, as well as his own history of leadership and the careful pursuit of his vision for the region, Gary is – and in a broader sense, represents – the Maine woodsman who blends the prototypical old Maine guide knowledge and savvy with the skills of an entrepreneur, educator and mentor who provides leadership in current times.
Pierce Pond Camps will live on into the future, as Gary and Betty’s son, Andy, now operates the camp, a direct result of an easement with the Trust – Pierce Pond Camps will always be run by a Cobb. He and Betty also have a daughter, Jennifer, and two grandchildren. Both children were born during their parent’s days teaching in Millinocket during the boom times of the paper industry in Maine.
As Gary and I finish our conversation, his final thought, both to young people leaving Lee Academy and to other young people in the region is to “learn to respect the natural world – have contact with the woods and waters in your region so you know the area and you learn to love it.”
Sources for this article include:
- A very enjoyable phone conversation with Gary Cobb.
- A recounting of Gary’s personal educational, career, and public service history, from his daughter, Jennifer.
- Letters of recommendation from several former students, guests and guides, which were originally part of the nomination process for Gary’s award from Inland Fisheries.
- The article and video from the Bangor Daily News about ice harvesting on Pierce Pond.
- The website (MWWT.org) of the Maine Wilderness Watershed Trust.
- The article from Inland Fisheries, about the award to Gary.
- Other online resources, via Google search.