When Millinocket guide Wiggie Robinson died this June at 85, the Maine sporting community lost more than a wonderful friend and a sportsman whose life made a difference. Wiggie represented a way of life that is not much evident any more. He was without question a real woodsman, a fast-disappearing breed of rugged individual whose hard-earned knowledge and woods skills literally changed the face of this country.

What is a real woodsman?

In a thought-provoking article in Gray’s Sporting Journal, E. Donnall Thomas Jr. explores this question. As Thomas observes, you hardly hear the word “woodsman” or “woodsmanship” used anymore. Most of us who like to hunt and fish are sportsmen, not woodsmen. Hunting woodcock in an alder run with your English Pointer, fly fishing a remote trout pond in Aroostook County, or even hiking half of the Appalachian Trail, does not a woodsman make.

A woodsman, Thomas explains, comes by his title only one way: woodsmanship. Either you have it or you don’t. A woodsman, says Thomas, knows about “knots, canoeing, fire starting, tracking, wildlife identification, camp cookery, working with dogs and horses, wading streams, staying dry, preparing fish and game for the table, interpreting and analyzing signs, skinning and stretching pelts, sharpening knives, using an ax and crosscut saw, repairing equipment, map reading, backcountry navigation by dead reckoning and compass, never getting lost and knowing what to do when you did.”

Of course, America’s most reknowned woodsmen were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Their expedition and the amazing survival feat that it entailed could not have left such an incredible national legacy without a vital component: woodsmanship.

Maybe it is a stretch to compare Wiggie Robinson to a Lewis or a Clark, but they all shared many skills that fall under the common mantle of woodsmanship. Wiggie did a lot more than fish, hunt and trap. He was a gatherer and consumer of wild things, whether it was fish, vension, wild mushrooms, woodcock, or fiddlehead greens. In Millinocket, his gardening skills were public knowledge. He had so many canoes stashed at remote trout ponds he sometimes lost track of them. He was a cook, a canner, and a wild cranberry jelly maker. He fixed things, and knew how to make do. He knew Katahdin country like the back of his hand, and all the critters that abound there, big or small. He knew gundogs and how to work with them. He told stories.

As Thomas writes, there is also an attitude, as well, that defines woodsmen. “Real woodsmen are patient and observant. They are comfortable in the woods alone, and when they are in the company of others, their own comfort in the outdoors becomes contagious. They never ignore an opportunity to learn from what they see and hear, but they know that they’ll never learn it all.”

Wiggie Robinson personified that imponderable quality. He could have crewed for Lewis & Clark. And he would have gotten all the way to the Pacific and back, at least in his younger days. He was a true woodsman.

Does Maine have any other real woodsmen left? I can think of a few, and I’m sure that you can name a couple if you really put on your thinking cap. It would be a worthwhile exercise to identify these real Maine woodsmen and spend some time just talking.

Speaking of time, Thomas has a theory as to why the woodsman is disappearing from the American landscape. Time. Lack of time in our frenetic culture may be the culprit. There is only one way to learn woodsmanship, and that is by spending time in the woods. Lots of time.

You can become a Maine Guide by simply purchasing a guide’s study book or attending classes, but you can not purchase woodsmanship. And it is this fact that makes the woodsman so valued, so special, and why the inevitable disappearance of every true woodsman from our midst is more than a loss of the person.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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