A North Woods Dynasty
Matt and Ellen Libby are the fourth generation of Libby's to be catering to anglers in the farthest corners of Maine, and if you ask them, they'll tell you experience counts
By Andrew Vietze
THIS is definitely a forgotten spot in Maine," says Matt Libby, sweeping his arm gently across the panorama of lake and hills that stretches from the porch of his cabin to the horizon. In the distance, the sun is dropping, falling behind two round peaks and sinking into the forest of pines that rings the lake. A dock just out from Libby's compound into the placid black depths, and from its end it seems just a skip to an island that sits like a crown of firs offshore. The insistent whine of an outboard floats in off the water.
"People think 'Oh, Millinocket Lake, I've been there," Libby says. "But they're referring to the lake south of Baxter Park and don't realize there are two Millinocket Lakes." Now forty-five, Libby has spent his whole life beside this Millinocket Lake in this lost region, a wild country of woods and water between the highlands of Baxter State Park and the deep forests of Aroostook County. The nearest town is forty-five minutes away by unforgiving logging roads, and that town is Ashland, home to about 1,500 people and not much else. In the popular imagination, says Libby, a rangy man with a graying beard and an Old Town canoe T-shirt, the state's largest county begins where its largest park ends. In reality there are miles and miles in between.
What's to be found there? In a word: Fishing and Libby Camps, the grand sporting enterprise founded on Millinocket Lake by Matt Libby's grandfather, great-uncle, and great-grandfather in 1890. Eight simple cabins, handcrafted from peeled spruce and fir logs, lit by kerosene lamps and heated by woodstoves, are situated just back from the water on a slight rise, the big bay windows of each staring squarely at the lake. A mixed woods of birches and pines has grown up all around them, and the cabins are well spaced for privacy. A network of trails connects to the lodge around which life at Libby's orbits.
The lodge is a long narrow, single-story building on posts, and like many of the structures at Libby's, it seems to have grown with the years. At the back is a broad porch with Adirondack chairs set before a majestic view of the water. A massive anchor, once used to hold the end of a logging boom in the days when timber was dragged across the lake, hangs from a rough-hewn cradle just off the porch.
Inside the dining room, all glossy logs and pine floors, moose-rack chandeliers and stuffed and mounted wildlife. Trophy fish stare down from the walls with mouths agape, and there's a library filled with books on angling (Fly Fishing for Trout; Modern Fly Casting Method; Advanced Fly Casting; Knots and Connections). Over the last 110 years, fishing has become synonymous with Libby's, and famed angling outfitter Orvis endorses the camp. Matt fishes-that's how he likes to spend his rare down time. His son, Matthew Jr., and daughter, Alison, fish. His wife Ellen, fishes (though she prefers duck hunting.) Even resident chocolate lab Chris, one of the four dogs on staff at Libby's is serious about fishing, sitting in the shallows of the lake for hours with her nose just above the water's surface, watching for minnows with surgical focus. The Libby's employ four full-time guides and have ten more on call to lead sports after the brookies, lake trout and landlocked salmon that swim in the hundreds of lak es and ponds and streams in the area. And Matt's two floatplanes make the whole North Woods available to guest anglers.
Unlike most other sporting camps in Maine, which have made attempts to appeal to families and nature lovers to help offset the decline that the fishing and hunting industries have seen in recent years, Matt Libby has no interest in changing his focus. The unofficial motto at Libby Camps is "Catch and Relax," and that's the way things will remain.
My camps are a little different than others," Libby says. "We're centered on serious fishing. We don't want to be a resort. I grew up in a fishing camp. I'm the fourth generation here. That said, we have become a place where a family can fish, where we can take kids, and they can catch fish just about every cast."
Matt and Ellen and Alison, and their staff - several of whom have been at the camps for a decade or more - take great pains to make sure everyone is comfortable, anglers or no. Each cabin has a porch with its own Adirondack chairs, perfect for whiling time away. There's also a sandy beach for swimming, canoes and kayaks for paddling, miles of logging roads and trails to roam in search of moose and bear, and three ample meals a day to look forward to. The Libby's keep a truck parked near Grand Lake Matagamon, too, so Matt Libby can fly in and drop guests off to explore the wild wonderland of Baxter State Park.
Sit down at dinner, though and it's clear why most guests are here. Meals are served family style, and the talk is all fishing. People travel far and wide to wet lines in the waters of this forgotten part of Maine, and they tend to come back once they visit. Tales are told over Ellen's comfort food - chicken, spaghetti, steak and often last long after her delicious deserts are downed. There are conversations about bears and moose and renegade loons that try to take hooked fish right off the line.
"We both love to fish, and we've fished all over" says Clint Mauk, a retired banker from Toledo visiting with his wife Pat. "We decided we wanted to do some fishing Maine, and I did some research. We didn't realize we'd probably picked the best camp in Maine. Today between the two of us, I bet we caught 100 fish. Of course, yesterday we caught two. But our guide was just tireless; and we saw at least ten moose and three bears."
At the other end of the table is Tom Baynes, a federal judge from Florida. A genteel angler in his early sixties, he's been coming to Libby's for the past ten years straight. At an adjacent table is a software saleswoman from Hudson Massachusetts. Her husband is here to fish. "He'd love to do this for a living," she says. "I wouldn't. I'm here to sit in the sun, drink wine, and walk the dogs. It's been great."
At another table is a father and son pair from Connecticut and New Hampshire, respectively. They ended up at Libby's by accident. They'd intended to spend this fishing vacation at a lodge in Quebec, but as son Brian, an anesthesiologist, says, "Daimler-Chrysler had rented the whole lodge - for the next twenty-five years. So we came here. We didn't realize how luck we were."
Matt Libby didn't realize how lucky he was until he went off to study natural resource management at the University of Maine. "When I left home, the last thing I wanted to do was come back here," he says. "But when I left college there was no question what I wanted to do. It's funny how I kept coming back to it".
The camps were originally located on the island just offshore from Libby's in the middle of the lake, and they hosted such notables as Teddy Roosevelt and Jack Dempsey in their early years. In the thirties the lake was dammed, the water level rose precariously close to the cabins, and some were relocated to the mainland and are still used today. The remnants of the others can be seen on the island.
Libby and his three brothers had the run of the place growing up, the thinking being that they couldn't get into much trouble in such a remote locale. " It was so hard to get to town then, it was unbelievable," says Matt. "It took 2Â½ hours. There were no roads. If you really had an emergency, you'd have to canoe to Oxbow (a small outpost village) - you could do it in about a day."
Luckily Matt Libby's father had a floatplane, which made life manageable. When he passed away in 1959, Matt's mother, Elsie, took over the camps, running them for another eighteen years, overcoming whatever challenges the fates threw at her.
At Umaine, Matt met a young woman from Houlton, and swept her into a lifestyle she never pictured for herself. "Growing up I imagined I'd live in a home just like my parents did," says Ellen now. " I guess I figured it would be more of a Leave it to Beaver, Donna Reed scenario." When they met Matt talked a lot about "camp," and when they received their diplomas, the couple knew where they were going. They bought out Mrs. Libby. Of Matt's three brothers (one is now a surveyor and two are Amway distributors), two are involved with the camps, part owners of the outpost cabin end of the business. Their mother, now in her eighties, lives near Portage Lake and still helps maintain one of the remote camps.
"I graduated from college on May 20, 1977, and we opened camp on May 21," says Matt. Both he and his wife worked other jobs in the off-season in the first year to stay afloat. "I cut pulp; I was a millwright . . ." says Matt, his voice trailing off. "Ellen taught school. And we did everything possible wrong at the camp. I lost just about all of my mother's old customers. They'd say, 'You don't do things like Elsie used to.' And, of course, I wasn't interested in doing things the own way. I had my own ideas."
In their second year, Matt was offered a more serious position at the mill and had to make a decision whether to get out of the family business or dedicate himself to it fully. He and Ellen decided to give it a go. "That was the best decision we ever made. I did a lot of learning. I still learn every day."
Today the couple presides over what might rightly be called a North Woods Empire. They own eight cabins at Libby's proper and have ten more at remote ponds spread from Cliff Lake at the Allagash headwaters to the Aroostook River. They own another set of camps in Labrador. They employ eleven people full time.
We're always busy," says Matt, a Master Maine Guide who gets into the woods with guests when he can. "When we started the camps in 1977, deer-hunting season paid the bills. Now the bills are paid long before November."
"In the nineties we've grown tremendously," agrees Ellen. "The airplane has helped with that. There's such a big area that we can fish now. In the plane you can go anywhere in fifteen minutes."
The marketing possibilities of the Internet have also made a huge difference. I'd bet we get 50 percent of our new guests that way," says Ellen. The camps still face some concerns though. Libby Camps sits on land leased from Irving Oil Corporation, which is headquartered in New Brunswick. Before Irving it was the property of the giant Bowater paper company. Before that it was Great Northern. In recent years leaseholders have felt the pinch from the new landowners (Downeast, September 1999), with fees going up and regulations changing, so there's a sense of uncertainty. "Who knows what the ownership will do when their woods runs out?" Matt says rhetorically.
For the time being though, life is good beside Millinocket Lake. September is an especially popular month because the temperatures are pleasant, the bugs are few and the fishing is good - Libby says the fishing is relatively healthy in this part of Maine. And the future looks fairly bright. Alison Libby, who's studying business at the University of Maine, has expressed interest in taking over the camps. "She says she's going to buy me out," says Libby with a smile, Matt Jr., has indicated he might like to be involved, too.
As the day draws to a close, Matt sits for a rare moment of quiet on a cabin porch. A passing guest yells up, "Just another day in paradise." Matt quips back, "Somebody has to live in paradise."
While Millinocket Lake and its surrounds might not be everybody's idea of paradise, Matt and Ellen are content and their lifestyle is the envy of many. "I could see a lot of people doing this for about a month," says Matt. "But I enjoy people. I'm always thinking about somebody I want to talk to out in the dining room. It's neat to see people come here all stressed out and then see them leave happy."
In a couple of months after the hunter of deer season have departed, the Libby's themselves head off for a bit of a respite. They spend winters at a place they recently purchased near the ski slopes of Sugarloaf USA. Right now, in the swing of summer, Matt Libby is looking forward to some downtime. Some downhill time.
"But after three or four weeks away from here," he says, "I'm ready to come back."
Copied by permission from September, 2000, DOWN EAST Magazine.
Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.