The buckboard stopped here
Sebec Lake, Maine — MAINE's Route 150, a secondary state road, cuts northeasterly out of Skowhegan and winds through villages, truck farms, and wood lots. When it turns north out of Guilford, the farms fade and the woods close in. The road ends at a clearing of hayfields, three white clapboard houses, and 20 log cabins. Beyond lies diamond-shaped Sebec Lake, abutted by spear-shaped pine and waves of gnarled, knobby mountains.
Ninety-four years ago, Burton Marlboro Packard rode down the dirt trail that later became Route 150 and never rode out. He stayed to build a string of cabins to accommodate sportsmen who took to the Maine woods and waters in pursuit of grouse and deer, salmon and lake trout.
The hunting and fishing camp has remained in the Packard family for four generations. Burton's great-grandson Jerry and his wife, Amanda, now own Packards Camps, one of the oldest sporting camps in Maine.
Clothed in the woodsman's uniform of rubber-bottomed boots, jeans, plaid shirt, and weathered felt hat, Jerry Packard oversees the camps from an office that doubles as a kind of family museum.
Hanging from the walls and rafters is an ancient collection of deep-trolling reels, a 1913 Lockwood Ash outboard motor, a store sign advertising ``Grubstakes for Bear Trappers and Gum Pickers,'' and an array of antlers and mounted fish.
According to Mr. Packard, family ownership partly accounts for the longevity of Packards Camps.
``The continuity of the family carries over to the business,'' he says. ``Most people, particularly city people, see change all the time. We're a place that they can return to that's basically remained the same.''
Maine's sporting camps trace their origin to the 19th-century ``great houses'' of Moosehead Lake, Poland Spring, and Rockport, which were popular among monied sportsmen from Boston and New York. Smaller log cabin camps, such as Packards, flourished in the shadow of these grand resorts, catering to people of more moderate income who journeyed to the Maine woods to fish in the spring and hunt in the fall.
In 1894, using savings from his job as a fireman at a nearby spool mill, Burton Marlboro Packard bought a parcel of land at the head of Sebec Lake on which stood a lodge, barn, outhouse, and bowling alley.
Initially, the lodge's clientele was a rough-hewn crowd of loggers, river-drivers, and spruce-gum pickers. To lure sportsmen from the south, Packard cut a stagecoach line from the lake to the village of Abbot, where passengers would arrive from Bangor by way of the Bangor & Aroostook railroad.
The ``sports'' paid 50 cents to ride, or follow on foot, as the buckboard bounced over the boulder-choked road to the newly named Packards Camps.
Packard's daughter-in-law Christine, who for 30 years operated the business with her husband, Burton Nessmuc Packard, explains that the camps stayed full because there were only two ways of getting to them - steamship from the south of the lake and buckboard from the north.
``Once the sports were in,'' she says with a laugh, ``it was pretty hard for them to get out.''
Guests slept two to a bed, even if they weren't from the same party. At night the rooms were filled with cedar smoke to fight the ubiquitous black flies. Every month a guide would shoot a deer and roast it over an open fire. Every week the guests would combine their catches for a giant fish fry.
To supplement his income, Packard cut ice out of the lake, packed it in sawdust, and sold it in town.
Later generations logged birch and trapped beaver, fish, and marten to keep Packards Camps going.
Jerry Packard's older brother, Burt, a bearish, genial man, has pieced together, log by log, two camps built by his great-grandfather to fashion his own cabin on a remote island in Sebec Lake. He says that Packards Camps has survived because of ``family and basic things that were learned in the woods and passed on to each generation.''
``My father showed us that all you really need to get through the woods is a compass and a sense of the land,'' says Burt. ``He would tell us boys to get on the side of a ridge, keep the sun on our shoulder, and follow the land's contour down to the stream. And there we'd find him, waiting.''
The wilderness is the main thread that unites the Packard family.
``It takes no great talent for two people to walk into the woods and walk out again,'' says Burt. ``But it takes considerable talent for two to walk in, separate, and walk out again. That's where this communion is based. You can't see him, or hear him, but you know where he is.''
Outdoor skills have instilled in the family a sense of resourcefulness and self-sufficiency, complementing the hyphenated professions of the Maine woodsman. Jerry Packard describes his job as a combination ``carpenter-plumber-electrician-politician-outdoorsman-salesman.''
``Our survival here has always depended on everyone contributing, including the kids,'' Packard says. ``If everyone doesn't pitch in, we as a family don't make it.''
The fifth generation at Sebec Lake consists of Jerry and Amanda's daughters, 11-year-old Laura and eight-year-old Jessica. As the girls clean cabins, deliver messages, and meet guests, they gain a sense of their family's history at the lake. ``Packards Camps has made us a closer family,'' says Amanda. ``We eat, play, and work together. The kids don't always like it, but we're here for them.''