The cliché of sportsmen telling tall tales is as old and worn as a favorite pair of L.L. Bean boots. That said, we still love to hear these stories because a friend or family member’s point of view gives life to the tales, but what is easily overlooked is there’s often an untold perspective. For every campfire story about that whopper of a salmon grandpa caught, there’s a warden who’s quick to point out that Rapid River is fly-fishing only. And that trophy buck? Funny thing there, too. It turns out, spotlights aren’t permitted as scopes, and, this might be nitpicking, but antlers don’t grow from duct tape. As a lifelong outdoorsman, I’m clearly toeing a fine line between good candor and heresy. You see, when we’re talking about hunting down the truth in Maine’s woods, we need to clarify whose version of the truth we’re going with.
Call me crazy, but I tend to believe the storytellers who took an oath to perform their duties “honestly and faithfully.” The others are just full of—well, you get the point. What you might not have known is that wardens can spin quite the unbelievable yarn themselves. This first dawned on me at my father-in-law Nathaniel (better known as Nat) Berry’s retirement party. After thirty-four years of service, it was a fun-filled evening of conversations that began with “Remember that time. . . .”
The highlight of the night came when a warden named Chris Simmons stood before the gathering and cleared his throat. He was joined by Warden Tom Santaguida, and from the get-go, it was obvious their toast wouldn’t be filled with undying praise for the man of the hour. The giveaway? They were giggling so much that neither of them could complete a sentence.
After taking a moment to collect themselves, Chris began, “Nat, you know we love you, but. . . ” He went on to explain that working for Lieutenant Berry wasn’t all fun and games. On the contrary, if they asked for time off to attend an event together, they were often told that coverage was needed, so only one of them could go. The choice of who was up to them, which, in effect, meant they didn’t get to go.
One day, after missing out on an evening of carousing in Portland’s Old Port, Chris received a nuisance wildlife complaint. A plump skunk with an appetite for trash had taken residence in a cul-de-sac community. Anyone who dared discourage the new neighbor quickly learned the hard way that it had no intention of moving out. Needless to say, this aspect of a warden’s job can flat-out stink. Chris and Tom’s moods were soured by the time they had caught the skunk and returned peace and aroma to the neighborhood. They came to the conclusion that the safest place to release the animal was into the wild of Lieutenant Berry’s dooryard. Quite proud of themselves, it wasn’t long before “coverage” was again needed during a bachelor party of a mutual friend, whereupon they figured one animal wasn’t enough for a repeat offender.
“That was worth two skunks and a beaver,” Tom declared.
Set back from the road and surrounded by forest and a small duck pond, Nat’s backyard was an ideal place for animal relocation. Or so they continued to tell themselves.
By the third violation, they’d established a scorecard. This mischievous judicial system served its purpose for a couple of years, until the infractions were so numerous (or, perhaps, the judges had become too indiscriminate) that all nuisance wildlife was being released on Nat’s property. On one occasion, they’d gone so far as to deposit a raccoon directly into Nat’s new garage.
“Don’t worry,” Chris said. “We closed the door behind us.”
“You didn’t?” Nat shouted.
“Oh, we did. We kept a tally, and I have the list right here.” Chris pulled a piece of folded-up notebook paper from his pocket and made a show of opening it. “At the top of our catch-and-release list are twenty-eight skunks.”
Tom read the next one. “Twenty-five raccoons.”
And so on down the list of problem critters they went, until . . . “Two opossums,” Tom said, setting off another round of giggling. For a second, I thought this was the end, but then Chris raised his hand to say there was more. The room went silent.
“And one . . .” Chris said, pausing for dramatic effect, “black bear.”
The resulting ovation was interrupted by the fire alarm—the timing of which was highly questionable, to say the least. As the crowd shuffled out to the parking lot, the only person not in stitches was my mother-in-law (go figure, she being the one who was home alone with the girls while her husband was out on all-night poacher vigils).
For me, this was the moment the seeds for Open Season took root. I didn’t know it at the time, but many of the men in attendance that night would contribute to these twenty stories from twelve game wardens. Altogether, their cumulative experience represents more than three hundred years of Maine Warden Service folklore. With all due respect to Mike Joy—who is still an active-duty warden at the time of writing, and whose story of being stranded on a Sebago Lake ice floe was too unbelievable to pass-up over an age requirement—all other stories are from retired wardens.
Before reality TV, GPS devices, and dashboard computers, these wardens presided over a coming-of-age era for the Maine Warden Service. It was a time when a compass, map, and their wits were what mattered most in the field. Every day offered the potential for an exciting new adventure, many of which endangered the wardens themselves.
As you read these stories, imagine yourself sitting around a crackling campfire. You might even have a cold beverage in hand. A man dressed in a flannel shirt and dirty work jeans sits on a log across from you. He’s telling warden stories, and the weathered crows’ feet around his eyes serve as proof of authenticity. Through the flames, you envision the man’s younger self, clad in a warden uniform. Just remember that many of his stories take place before the Warden Service adopted the iconic green outfits we see today, and so he would have been wearing the same blue that’s associated with the U.S. Air Force.
The man isn’t just telling warden stories; he’s sharing his life experiences. Through his eyes, we see what it was like to become a warden in 1960, banished to the far outreaches of Maine at a time when being handed a badge, service revolver, and law book, along with a hearty slap on the back, served as on the job training. His memory contains details of the Ludger Belanger disappearance that were never made public, and are enough to make any honest person’s blood boil. The man speaking has been part of numerous daring rescues, at one time found himself needing aid after driving a snowmobile through lake ice, and has even been attacked by an enraged man with a chainsaw.
Not all of his stories are a matter of life and death. You hardly notice the fire dying down as he tells humorous tales of poachers being caught in compromising situations, lucky breaks in bizarre cases, and how trickery was sometimes their best approach. But before you get any grandiose ideas, know that being a warden isn’t easy. In the fall, especially, it means endless days and nights away from family. This is trying for everyone, especially spouses, and you wouldn’t be human if sometimes, amidst the doldrums of another all-night stakeout, you didn’t wonder if it was all worth it. The answer is yes, of course—he wouldn’t trade his career for anything, but you best know what you’re getting yourself into.
He drops his head and there’s a long moment of silence. The fire is nothing more than glowing embers now, and in the waning light you can hardly see his eyes as he asks if you really want to know what it was like to walk in his shoes? Because if you do, there’s something else you need to know. Not all of his stories have a happy ending. His voice cracks as he speaks of a boy who slipped through river ice. It has been twenty years and he still thinks of the boy, sometimes unable to sleep at night. Are you listening? This is important. As vast and wonderful as the Maine wilderness is, there are inherent dangers. There’s no group more skilled at outdoor search and rescue than the Maine Warden Service—you better believe that—but still, they aren’t always able to save the day.
The man takes a deep breath and stokes the embers of the fire again. All of which brings us back to point of view. Believe it or not, the key aspects and incredible twists of these stories are all factual. Please bear in mind that some of these tales are over fifty years old, and the fog of memory can only go so far regarding exact conversations and environmental conditions. Creativity filled the gaps, and in these cases, my re-creations have been given the consent of the warden as being true to the spirit of the experience. Of course, many names and personal descriptions have also been altered to respect the privacy of those who, shall we say, might have a different campfire version of these stories.