SKOWHEGAN — On a muggy July evening, Maine game warden Kris MacCabe swabbed sweat from his brow, sipped from a water bottle and leaned on the tailgate of his state-issued pickup truck.
In front of him, in a throng stretching all the way across the front of the Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream stand, a crowd waited for a brief opportunity to meet MacCabe and other stars of “North Woods Law,” an Animal Planet TV show that has been adopted as a favorite by viewers around the world.
“I’m gonna run out pretty soon,” he said, pointing to a rapidly dwindling pile of color mini-posters that he and his fellow wardens were autographing. “I’m gonna have to start signing cars pretty soon.”
Then he flashed that made-for-TV grin, gestured to the next person in line to step forward and indicated that if it came to it, he’d do just that.
“Line ‘em up,” he said with a chuckle.
Line up they did, some more enthusiastically than others.
Like 7-year-old Hunter Mills of Bingham, whose parents didn’t tell him that they were stopping at Gifford’s for more than a cone to celebrate the ice cream stand’s 35th anniversary.
Hunter is as big a “North Woods Law” fan. He swears that he wants to become a game warden when he grows up. And his favorite warden was standing just 10 feet away when his mom let him open his eyes, after leading him through the throng.
“We surprised him,” Jessica Mills said. “He was jumping up and down and being all smiles. He was all excited.”
She said that no matter where Hunter is, he always runs to the living room when the show is on.
“All my son has to hear is the tone, that music, and he automatically knows what show is on, and he runs out to the living room. [He yells], ‘Wardens!’” she said. “And he freaks out when [MacCabe] comes on the show. [He says], ‘I want to meet him. I want to be just like him.’”
On this hot, humid evening, it was tough to peel Hunter away from his idol. First, he posed for photos with MacCabe. Then he went to the front of MacCabe’s pickup truck, where he met Morgan, the warden’s K-9 partner.
Then he returned to MacCabe’s side, where he fanned the hot (take that however you want … his fans will) warden with one of the paper posters.
Some in attendance, such as Sarah Price of Ethos Marketing, were stunned by the crowd that showed up to see the wardens.
Price’s company does the marketing for Gifford’s, one of the state’s iconic ice cream companies. And despite staging various promotions for Gifford’s, she wasn’t really prepared for the scene that unfolded as hundreds of fans parked on the side of busy Route 201 and hiked down the hill to see their state’s very own TV celebrities.
“On opening day, every year, Gifford’s gives away free cones,” Price said, as an estimated 400 people worked their way through the lines to meet the wardens. “And this rivals or beats the turnout that we have on opening day, with free ice cream.”
Maine game wardens more popular than free ice cream? Who’d have thought that was possible?
As it turns out, nobody. Not even MacCabe’s wife.
Emily MacCabe is a longtime employee of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the agency that oversees the Maine Warden Service. Involved in public outreach, public relations and programming, she has spent long hours looking for ways to let more people know what the department was up to.
Putting wardens on TV was not even on her radar screen before the show began airing in 2012.
“If you told me 10 years ago that people would line up to meet a game warden and have their photo taken with them, I wouldn’t have believed it,” MacCabe said. “It’s really awesome to see people so excited to learn more about what they do and why they do it, and to be happy to shake their hand.”
Before the show began airing, she admits that when people met a warden, they’d be much more apt to tell people like her husband what they were doing wrong.
“We definitely didn’t have as many positive interactions with the public,” she said. “I honestly think that having that glimpse at what they do day-in and day-out has really resolved a lot of confusion for the public about what they’re out there to do and why they’re doing it. They’re not just out there to ruin your day.”
Col. Joel Wilkinson is the state’s chief warden and perhaps the state employee most responsible for the show’s existence. Wilkinson said that when Engel Entertainment, a production company, first approached the department with its idea for a show, some of his colleagues were less than enthusiastic.
“When I pitched the original idea to [my staff] — especially my management team — was very apprehensive,” Wilkinson said. “[Mostly] because a lot of the work that we do, and a lot of our trade secrets, they were afraid were going to get out.”
Wilkinson’s response: Enter into a contract with Engel that gave the DIF&W full editing rights, and make sure that the production company shared the warden service’s values and refused to create drama for drama’s sake. Another key concern: Making sure that scenes that depict the tragedies that wardens often respond to are not aired unless a victim’s family approves.
“We wanted the average person who sat down and watched this show to say, ‘Wow. These guys do a lot for this state and a lot for the sportsmen and women,” Wilkinson said. “[They’ll say], ‘But they also do a lot for the general public. And not only are they important, but we can’t do without ‘em.’”
The show, as Wilkinson had hoped, has supplemented the DIF&W’s efforts to communicate with the public in ways that are hard to quantify. Neither the warden service nor the DIF&W receive money for their participation, but the resulting publicity has helped both reach a new segment with their conservation messages.
“It’s had quite a far-reaching audience, and we never would have achieved that — never would have achieved that — on just our state efforts,” Wilkinson said. “So this public-private partnership has done good not only for the entertainment company … but also for us.”
A legion of “North Woods Law” fans would likely agree.
Fans from all over
At the Gifford’s meet-and-greet, the wardens signed a few hundred autographs and posed for a similar number of photos.
And some events, the crowd is even larger: Wilkinson said between 2,000 and 2,500 fans show up for an annual “North Woods Law” day at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray.
And the show’s fans aren’t just from Maine. Just check out the “North Woods Law” Twitter page.
Kelly Musser, a college student from Marquette, Michigan, said she likes to watch the show to see the real-life situations that crop up. She has never been to Maine but thinks the job that wardens perform is one she’d like to explore.
“Personally, I’m planning a career in the field of wildlife crime,” Musser said via Twitter.
Connie Foster of Chicopee, Massachusetts, checked in via email just before embarking on a trip through Maine to Nova Scotia.
“We chose to drive instead of taking [a ferry] in hopes of seeing the wildlife of northern Maine,” she said. “My boyfriend is teasing me that if we see one of the wardens, I’m going to make him stop.”
Mike Zwirko of Melrose, Massachusetts, went to the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor and said he still loves the state. Watching “North Woods Law” interests him because it allows him to see parts of Maine that he hasn’t visited yet.
“The wardens serve as great ambassadors to Maine through the shows and the efforts they make to protect its resources,” Zwirko said in an email. “Maine, in my opinion, is the prettiest state in the union, with great people as well.”
In Maine, many residents also have become fans of the show.
Zachary Small of Athens stopped by Gifford’s and waited in line to meet Kris MacCabe, and he made an odd request.
“I asked him if he could write his slogan [in addition to signing his autograph],” Small said with a laugh.
If you’re a true “North Woods Law” fan, you’ll know what MacCabe wrote. (According to the show’s producers, he utters the same phrase an average of eight times per episode).
Always obliging, MacCabe did just that: “Holy smokes!” he wrote.
Now, the not-so-good news for fans of the show.
“North Woods Law” may be on its last legs.
Or it may not.
Wilkinson said that the current contract calls for filming to take place until the end of this year. New episodes would likely air in 2016.
After that? Who knows.
Wilkinson said warden service and DIF&W staff, the governor’s office and Engel Entertainment will ultimately decide whether the show continues into the future.
“Here’s the thing I’ve learned in my job: You never close your door on anything good,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson has a reason for being enthusiastic about the show, though he won’t tip his hand and say he’s leaning toward lobbying for a new deal.
This summer, the DIF&W has begun staging “Camp North Woods,” which he said has taken advantage of the show’s popularity to teach an outdoors and conservation message to children.
This year’s camp was capped at 96 children who were chosen via lottery, but it will rise to 300 next year. After that, Wilkinson said he hopes 500 attend in 2017, with enrollment of 1,000 per year by 2018.
“That, to me, is the biggest takeaway of this whole thing,” Wilkinson said. “These kids are looking up to these officers, and it provides our officers the opportunity to positively influence these kids.”
And he said he thinks that the show’s cachet with younger viewers, who are often the most excited to see their favorite wardens in person, will pay dividends in the future.
The state’s future game wardens? Many of them are watching their future unfold in front of them at 8 p.m. Sunday nights, when the show airs.
“When you have 2,000 to 2,500 kids standing in line to meet your staff at the wildlife park, or at these other events, I think that’s where it’s going to start paying dividends: When some of these kids get to be 17, 18 and are trying to decide if they’re going to go to college and be a game warden,” Wilkinson said.
Three years after the show began airing, Wilkinson can look back at early disagreements with senior staff who didn’t want to participate in the TV experiment and see that he made the right decision.
The show has spawned all kinds of requests. And some of those requests matter a lot more than others.
Like those that come from seriously ill children through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“If you’ve got a kid who’s got cancer, who’s dying of cancer, and that’s all he wants is to meet Kris MacCabe or [fellow warden] Jonathan Parker and have them come visit?” Wilkinson said. “Being able to do that for those kids and that family … has been tremendous.”