Polly Mahoney, Legendary Maine Guide
Interview by Alisha Goslin
Polly Mahoney, along with her partner Kevin Slater, have run Mahoosuc Guide Service, based in Newry, for 32 years. In the winter they offer dog sledding and traditional winter camping, and in the summer, canoe trips and camping.
This year, Polly was awarded the Wiggie Robinson Legendary Maine Guide award at the professional Maine Guides association annual meeting. She is only the second woman to hold this title since the start of the award in 2009.
Polly told me more about how she became a Maine Guide and what her daily life entails.
How did you come to guide?
Well, I was born in Bangor and went to high school in Augusta. When I was 19, I went out west and when I was 20, I traveled to Canada. I headed to the Yukon and was introduced to dog sledding and canoeing. I spent all of my 20’s there. I came back to Maine to work for the Outward Bound school. There is a base here, Hurricane Island Outward Bound, in Newry. That is where I met my partner, Kevin Slater. He was starting a dog sledding program for the school, so I came back to help get that going. We each had a dream of having our own guide service. And that’s how we started our business, Mahoosuc Guide Service, 32 years ago, in 1990.
I heard you received the Legendary Maine Guide award. Tell me more about that.
I did. It’s called a Wiggie Robinson award. One Maine Guide receives it a year. The department of inland fisheries and wildlife gives it out. There’s only one other woman that’s ever gotten it, it’s usually men. It was presented to me at the professional Maine Guides annual meeting. You are nominated by someone else. You have to have been a Maine Guide for 10 years. There are 2 game wardens, 2 Maine Guides, 2 people from Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and whoever had gotten it the year before gets to help decide who gets it the next year, so I’ll be able to help decide the next recipient. It was such a surprise. I only found out the day beforehand that I was going to get it. It was so exciting.
How many dogs do you have?
Right now, we have 22, which is not very many for us. We often had somewhere in the 40’s. We haven’t done a breeding for a few years. They are a lot of money and time to take care of. We are reducing our numbers a little bit where our winters are getting shorter with climate change. We are still guiding in the winter, but we aren’t taking as many people all at one time.
Currently, since I’m not guiding a canoe trip, I get up at 6 in the morning and check the dogs. We have old ones that live in our house, so I get them out right away so they can do their business. I go check the dogs in the dog yard. Then have my breakfast and go back out and do more dog chores. We have pastures that they run in, so I go put them in the pastures. I then have a few hours to do whatever I’m doing on the home front, packing for a canoe trip, cleaning up after one, or office work.
Midday I go out and do more dog chores. Switch the dogs around in the pastures so everybody gets their chance to run. After lunch I have a few more hours to do whatever I happen to be working on, then it’s time to do more dog chores in the evening. I check them again before I go to bed at night.
Our days revolve around the dogs. The rest of the time is spent just prepping or cleaning up from the trips. And of course, when we are guiding, that’s full on, up at first light. We cook over the campfire. We have a more traditional style than some guides. We cook and bake over the fire. We use the Dutch oven and reflector oven. We are always getting firewood and setting up a nice camp.
In the winter, we have canvas wall tents with wood stoves in them and balsam fir bough floors. A very traditional style of camping.
Do you have a favorite guiding or camping season?
I like the variety. I don’t favor summer or winter, one over the other. In the winter, it’s definitely more challenging because of the weather, but I have all my dogs with me. I love introducing people to them. They are like my children. In the winter, it is more challenging because there are more variables and there’s also more risk involved. You have to be ON all the time.
Summers are mellower. I only take one dog with me on summer canoe trips. So, I don’t get to spend as much time with them all. I rotate around so most of them get to go on their “summer vacation” as I call it when they go on a canoe trip with me. I love meeting all the people on our trips. I love being outdoors, and I like meeting new people. Seeing how they gain new skills, have these a-ha! moments in nature. I feel like I am a bridge for that. To provide these experiences for people in nature. Providing that safe space. It’s an amazing outdoor experience to see these people connect to nature. Making a quiet space for them to connect. Yes, we laugh and have a fun time, but then we might do a half hour to an hour of quiet paddling, so people can hear the birds and listen to the sounds of nature. I never get tired of that.
When we go dog sledding, I always tell people after my lesson, when we are mushing, we go in silence. So, you just hear the dogs panting and the sled runners on the snow. It’s a very Zen experience. When we stop to let the dogs cool off, roll around in the snow, we can talk. As we are mushing along, I like to go in silence. It’s almost primeval, in a way. Takes people to another place. That’s what I really love about my work.
For more information or to book an excursion with Polly please visit mahoosuc.com.