Seven years ago this June, I spent an uncomfortably wonderful weekend deep in the Maine woods, learning about the history and mystique of the Munsungan Hunting and Fishing Club.
My host — both the cause of my discomfort and the primary reason the trip was so memorable — was Jim Carter, the camp’s owner and its head (and only) guide. Carter was, to be perfectly clear, opinionated. He was just as apt to spend a half hour expounding on national politics as he was the fishing on Munsungan Lake.
If you disagreed with him, he’d tell you that you were wrong. Then he’d tell you why. Then he’d tell you again.
Carter was prone to reciting Robert Service poems, from memory, even if his visitors had no interest in poetry … even if they’d never heard of Robert Service.
On my way into the woods that weekend, I stopped by an outfitter’s store, and he asked where I was heading. When I told him, he laughed.
“You’re going to see the Jim Carter Show,” he told me. I chuckled along, politely, not knowing exactly what he was talking about. That weekend I learned.
And last week, I was saddened to hear that the Jim Carter Show is off the air.
Carter, after a battle with cancer, died on Dec. 28 at the age of 70.
Munsungan will never be the same.
Jim Carter loved his peaceful camp on Little Munsungan, some 40 miles from Ashland, or, if you choose, about 90 miles via Medway. An Army veteran and potato farmer, Carter was understandably proud that his father, Ray, along with some friends, had built the camp in 1938.
Ray Carter spent a lot of time at Munsungan. He fished. He hunted. And eventually, he died right there, within sight of the prettiest little fishing holes you’re ever going to find in the Maine woods.
“[Dad] told his cousin, about two weeks before he died, ‘If I’m lucky, I’ll die here at camp with Jim,'” Carter told me that weekend, choking out the words.
Ray Carter did, indeed, die at camp, at the age of 86. Jim Carter wasn’t there, but found his dad, several hours later, sitting in a favorite rocking chair, his hand resting on his English setter’s head.
On that visit, Carter solemnly told his guests that when his time came, he wanted his ashes scattered at Munsungan as well.
Jim himself built the road that leads to Munsungan Hunting and Fishing Club, and in 1998 he began welcoming paying guests to his new sporting camp.
Once in camp, those sports quickly learned that they were not only deep in the Maine woods … they were also in an entirely different time zone than the one they’d left.
You can call it Carter Standard Time, if you please.
While Carter was a gracious host and loved being around people, even the most well-heeled guests learned that at Munsungan, there was no use cajoling the pipe-smoking head guide.
Dinner would be good. Great, sometimes. The pies would be fresh, baked that day (“Cakes will sit there and go moldy, but everyone loves pie,” he told me). You’d eventually sit down to eat.
After a drink or two. After a story or four. Or more. And you’d better not wear a cap to the table.
“I cook late, bitch at my guests,” Carter told me that weekend, after we’d sat down to dinner at about 9 p.m. “It’s the location and the aesthetics of camp [that draws them], and the have to put up with me to get it.”
He did cook late. He did bitch at guests. And that weekend, I learned that I was, in Carter’s words, “a neophyte.”
For the record, he called me more than that. Seeing as how this is a family publication, I’m leaving out the choice adjective that he used quite frequently.
“I can see I’ve got to put together a reading list for you,” he told me, only half in jest.
For the past seven years, I’ve half-expected to receive that reading list. And over the past seven years, I’ve learned that Jim Carter was likely correct: I was a neophyte, when it came to the big north woods, and the lands and waters that he loved.
He had been there. Done that. And he damn-well knew it.
A few years later, I showed him that I’d learned at least one of my lessons, when we reconnected at the Eastern Maine Sportsman’s Show in Orono.
During my time in camp, I remembered, Carter had talked at length about my predecessors on the outdoor beat at the BDN. He told stories about Tom Hennessey. He shared tales about Bud Leavitt. And he talked for a long while about Bill Geaghan, who toiled at this paper before I was born.
I sat and listened, and absorbed as much as I could.
Much later, at the sportsman’s show, I walked up to Carter’s booth and handed him an audio book of “Nature I Loved,” which BDN staffers had unearthed in a closet, and which we were giving away during the show. Its author: Bill Geaghan.
For once, Carter had little to say. He just smiled, wiped away what I thought was a tear, and shook my hand.
“Thank you,” he said softly. “I really like this book.”
“I know you do,” I told him. “I was listening the night when I learned that I was a neophyte.”
Carter laughed at that, and each time I saw him, he told me I’d have to return to his special place in the Maine woods.
It was a place where he loved “to watch the green climb Norway” — his way of describing the gradual reawakening that took place each spring on nearby Norway Bluff.
It was a place he liked to “chase the sunset,” with adventurous guests who weren’t in a hurry to get back to camp at the end of a long day.
“We start in the stream and head up the lake, and we just chase that sunset to the other end of Munsungan,” he told me.
We didn’t chase the sunset that day.
Some day, perhaps I’ll return, and try it on my own.
Without Jim Carter aboard, I’m sure the experience won’t be nearly as uncomfortable.
I’m also sure it won’t be nearly as good.