Nearly a century ago, canoe builders on West Grand Lake were tinkering with their molds. The far-flung fishing and hunting spot in Washington County was popular among sportsmen and tourists, but the elements posed a challenge on the windy, glacial lake.
“What they needed was a canoe suitable for those conditions,” explains Bill Shamel, canoe builder and unofficial historian, as he sits on the patio of his Grand Lake Stream home. The community of about 100 people is sandwiched between West Grand Lake and the aptly named Big Lake, roughly 55 miles northeast of Ellsworth.
Shamel is quick to point out that the Passamaquoddy Indians were the real canoe builders in the region. The Indian Township Reservation is about 10 miles northeast of Grand Lake Stream. But in the early 1900s, another invention came around that would change the canoe trade: the outboard motor.
Back then, West Grand Lake’s canoe builders also were fishing guides; they were acutely aware of conditions on the water. In the 1920s, some began to affix the outboard motor to their canoes. They modified the boat’s stern, making it square rather than pointed.
“They were just making subtle little changes here and there to adjust to what they were seeing on the lake,” Shamel said.
Still, a unique design caught on, and the end result was a 20-foot-long canoe so distinct that it earned its own name, the Grand Laker.
Ninety years after the first Grand Lakers appeared, Shamel and other craftsmen are keeping the canoe-building tradition alive — even as the business and the region change around them.
Grand Lake Stream’s prevalence as an ecotourism spot dates back even longer than the area’s namesake canoes. Weatherby’s Resort, located on the main road, includes a guest lodge that was built in the 1870s. Back then, there were no streets; the community was only accessible via boat across Big Lake from the town of Princeton.
The waters are known for landlocked salmon and bass; the brook that connects West Grand Lake and Big Lake has featured fly-fishing only since 1903. A hatchery helps support the fish populations.
While there are roads now, the community maintains a certain rustic appeal. Registered Maine guides still climb into Grand Lakers and accompany tourists fishing, and the groups pause for suppers of meat and potatoes by the shore.
“You’re fishing in a wild setting. There’s very little development,” says Jeff McEvoy, who has owned Weatherby’s for 16 years.
The widespread conservation is due, in part, to the work of the Downeast Lakes Land Trust, which has preserved 55,000 acres of forest around Grand Lake Stream, and maintains seven hiking trails for visitors. In addition to human passer-by, the area is home to white-tailed deer, bobcats, loons, heron and the occasional moose or black bear.
“They’re afraid of you more than you’re afraid of them,” McEvoy reminds visitors.
But while the landscape remains pristine, the culture around it seems to be changing. Some changes come under the label of progress and equality: McEvoy noted that fly fishing has traditionally been seen as a man’s sport, but the “women’s fly fishing movement is really growing.” Weatherby’s offers women-only fishing classes, specifically designed to help female novices get their shot at the salmon and bass.
Other shifts reflect different trends. McEvoy notes that it’s more difficult for families to take vacations when many kids participate in year-round sports.
Shamel adds that, while summer visitors used to spend a month in Grand Lake Stream, now “somebody can come up from Boston just to fish for a weekend.”
Canoe builders, too, are reckoning with the changing times. Shamel is a native of Houston, Texas, but learned the craft from his father-in-law, Lawrence “Pop” Moore, a lifelong canoe builder who passed away in the 1990s. Shamel still uses Moore’s mold and makes the boats from wood, covered by a waterproof canvas. It’s a rare practice — canoes these days are more often made from fiberglass.
“All of us fourth- or fifth- generation builders are getting old,” Shamel says. He added that building the canoes is time-consuming, and material costs are rising.
He remains hopeful about the tradition, though. He taught canoe-building at the WoodenBoat School in Brooklin for a while, passing along his father-in-law’s knowledge. He also has exported Grand Lakers all over the world.
“The further you get away from Maine, the more heads it turns,” he says.
Still, many of the canoes stay on the water they were built for, as new generations of tourists try their luck at salmon and bass fishing.
“The lodges have been kind of instrumental in keeping it going,” Shamel concludes.
Weatherby’s Resort is located at 112 Milford Road, Grand Lake Stream. Tel: (877) 796-5558.