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Will Atkins- Trapper, Woodsman
Will Atkins, who became a legend in his own time, spent most of his life in Oxbow, Maine. Born of a poor family in the small town of Valcartier, Quebec in 1857, he left home when he was fourteen to trap on his own in Canada. He must always have been a strong resourceful person, for running a back-country trapline on snowshoes in sub-zero weather was a rugged and dangerous occupation. As a young man he drifted into the Rangeley Lakes country where, in addition to trapping, he acted as guide to many sportsmen who came to that area to fish for trout and to hunt moose, caribou and deer in the surrounding woods. He also guided in the Moosehead Lake region for the wealthy guests who stayed at the famous Kineo House. On the advice of one of his clients who encouraged Will to go into the sporting camp business - and who perhaps helped finance him - he spent two summers in the mid-1880s cruising by canoe for a suitable location in which to build camps. He finally settled on one of the game and fish-filled areas of the Aroostook River headwaters country west of Oxbow. Here the first camps were built at Millinocket Lake, and the new business began operation in 1890 with many of Will's old clients coming to the then only sporting camps north of Moosehead.

Will Atkins is featured here in a photo from November 25, 1905 while at Munsungun Lake. He was a well-known hunter, fisherman, trapper, guide, sporting camp operator and taxidermist during the turn of the last century. Will is wearing moccasins and double-knit socks and reportedly, rarely wore gloves or mittens. He established the Oxbow Lodge in 1903 and in later years, two of his sons, "Sleepy" and Bill, became game wardens.
Since the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad ran only to Oakfield at the time, sportsmen were carried the 35 miles to Oxbow from the rail terminal by buckboards. (Five years later, the Ashland branch of the railroad was completed to Masardis, so the buckboard trip to Oxbow was shortened to eleven miles.) At that time, sportsmen - both men and women - usually stayed for several weeks and sometimes for two or three months. They would stop at the Libby Hotel in Oxbow to rest, and to change from their traveling clothes into ones more suitable for canoe and woods travel. From the hotel they were taken by buckboard another three miles along the Oxbow road to "The Flats," where the road met the Aroostook River. Here their guides, with canoes, waited for them. Canoes often had to be poled upriver when the water was too swift or too shallow to use a paddle. Because the 23-mile trip to Millinocket Lake was too tiring for a one-day trip, Will built a camp at the Salmon Pool, five miles upriver from the flats, where his clients could enjoy superb Atlantic salmon and trout fishing. Later still, a set of camps was built some 16 miles from Oxbow, and such a resting place more nearly divided the long canoe trip to the lake. The atkins sporting camps were a family enterprise. Will's wife, Susan, cooked for the sportsmen, and Susan's father helped build the first camps.

The Atkins enjoyed a happy and prosperous life until Susan died of appendicitis six years after the birth, in 1893, of their daughter, Eldora. To get a doctor into such a remote area - or indeed a patient out - in a reasonable length of time was impossible. Will became so well-known among sportsmen of the eastern United States that, to accommodate them, he built camps in several other locations, including Millimagassett and Munsungan Lakes. He ran his extensive business by himself until 1902 when he married Maude Littlefield, by whom he had four children. Soon, owning thirty camps on or around the three lakes west of Oxbow to handle the increasing number of out-of-state hunters. The hotel was built in the summer of 1903. In the previous winter, every neighbor who had a team, hauled lumber for its construction from the sawmill in Masardis up the Aroostook River on the ice. A 1905 brochure described the Atkins Hotel: "A first-class hotel has been built at Oxbow for the accommodation of sportsmen bound for camps and coming out of the woods. All modern improvements, including two baths, toilets and washstands, have been installed. Each room is large and well-furnished with white enamel bedsteads, oak bureaus, washstands, tables, rockers, chairs, etc. A fine view can be had from the front porch or any part of the house. The house is heated by a furnace. The walls are decorated with fine specimens of moose, deer and other game of this region. A safe for valuables is provided. Local telephone service."

Scenes at the early camps, early 1900's.                             Sled load of moose heads from camps.

Rates were set at $2 a day for board and room; $3.50 a day for a guide and the guide's board; and 50 cents a day for use of a canoe and outfit. Round-trip transportation by rail from New York to Masardis cost $27.15; from Boston $17.85. If a client came to Portland from New York by steamer and then by rail to Masardis, the round-trip was $24.85. An excellent taxidermist himself, Will employed four local, talented helpers in his large taxidermy shop located behind his hotel. There were often 150 mounted game heads - moose, caribou, deer, bear and smaller game - waiting shipment to clients from the cities. Moose was the prime attraction for hunters. By 1910, when Will had fifty-two camps in the headwaters country of the Aroostook and well over a hundred canvas canoes, he decided he had enough of the sporting camp business and sold out to his neighbor, Will Libby. One can only speculate on the reasons why an obviously capable man in his mid-fifties would sell a good business which he had worked so hard to build. His son, Wilfred, a former Maine Fish and Game warden, offers the most plausible explanation, "My father was a 'loner' by nature. His first love was trapping, not sporting camps, and he just got tired of catering to people."

Will Atkins felt, too, that a decline in the fish and game populations had begun. The last caribou left the country shortly after 1900; moose were decreasing; and since northern Maine is the limit of the whitetail deer's range, the deer population has always fluctuated with winter weather conditions. Will was a keen observer of the natural scene. Some of his observations, printed in The Maine Sportsman of December 1906, sound much like those of a modern- day game biologist.

"There is no doubt at all that feed is growing very scarce for deer and moose...all around the shores of the ponds you can see where the deer have eaten the buds and leaves up as high as they can reach. Of course when deer eat up all the feed there is in one place, they've got to move or starve." "Many deer died last winter from starvation and cold. I found many of them in spring, mostly late fawns of the year before, and a few old bucks who hadn't the strength to carry them through the winter. I found lots of deer heads and jaws out on the pond where they had been carried by foxes. All these deer were winter-killed, and there will be lots more this winter if the weather is severe." "I don't think any more game laws to protect deer are necessary. They will starve to death long before they are killed off by hunters. According to my way of thinking, the deer are in good deal more danger from themselves and their appetites then they are from hunters." Now with no business obligations, Will returned to trapping, his favorite pursuit. His traplines extended throughout those parts of the Aroostook River watershed where his former clients has hunted, and west into parts of the Allagash and Penobscot watersheds. He set up a main camp and many small side camps on his traplines. The largest was part of an abandoned lumber camp located between Munsungan and Millinocket Lakes. The cracks between the logs were all chinked with moss, and the camp was comfortably furnished with such rough furniture as a trapper would need. The inside walls were neatly finished with split cedar boards. Will's outlying camps, more primitive, were once described by a friend as being "three feet wide and one man long." With no room for stove, the heat was reflected in to the open end from an outside fire. Split cedar shakes were used for a roof. Atkins was a man who kept to himself.

Even at home he seldom opened a conversation with anyone, and when he was in the woods he deliberately avoided people. One winter, his trapline snowshoe trail crossed a lumber road near an active lumber camp, but Will never stopped to visit there all winter. The following summer, the camp foreman met him and asked why he was so unsociable. Will replied, "I thought if I stopped in I'd get lonesome." A long-time employee of the Great Northern Paper Company told of a situation that has been discussed with awe for many years among lumbermen. Once a man knocked on a camp door in the dead of night during a fierce winter blizzard. The men opened the door with some apprehension, knowing no ordinary man would be out at night in such a storm and so far from civilization. The man outside would not come into the camp, but asked if he could buy some flour. The flour was freely given and the lumbermen begged the stranger to stay at least until the storm was over. The stranger, Will, politely declined the offer and disappeared into the woods. An Oxbow friend, admitting Will's preference for his own company in the woods, put forth yet another reason for the trapper's avoidance of people. Will figures that if he kept his distance from people who might have a cold or flu, he could remain healthy and self sufficient, conditions paramount to his survival in the wilderness.

The adventurous spirit that brought Will from the Rangeley and Moosehead country to the headwaters of the Aroostook River also led him on a trapping expedition into the Canadian Northwest Territories. Will Atkins displayed his taxidermist work on the side of the Oxbow Lodge prior to packing and shipping to sportsmen in the boston and New York markets. He left Oxbow in June of 1918 and went to Edmonton, Alberta, with a supply of traps and equipment. Following the Athabaska and Slave River waters, he traveled to the MacKenzie River country where he worked during the winter. He enjoyed that season on the MacKenzie River, and got along well with the Indians who lived in the area. That winter he not only accumulated a great number of fine pelts but also collected bounty on twenty two wolves from dumfounded authorities. He was even offered - and refused - an opportunity to work for the Canadian Government and to make wolves a specialty. Eleven of his twenty-two wolves were shot in a matter of minutes - perhaps seconds. He was moving from one camp to another at the time and thus had both his .35 Winchester rifle and .38 pistol with him. He heard a pack of wolves coming his way and hurried into a nearby opening in the woods, where tracks indicated that the wolves were following some caribou that had recently passed through. He had just taken off his pack and pulled out his pistol when the wolves ran into the clearing. His shouts at the animals slowed their progress towards him only momentarily. He dropped to one knee so that he could put his bullets through more than one wolf at a time, and succeeded in hitting "double" several times. The last of the wolves was shot within a range of a few feet. Altogether, a total of only seven shots were fired. "They thought they were master of their job, but i knew damn well I was master of mine," Will later commented about the wolves. A lifelong experience as a woodsman was doubtless the source of his cool-self confidence.

Will intended to return to the MacKenzie area for another season, but, strong-willed as he was, Mrs. Atkins' protested prevailed. During the thirteen months spent in Alberta, he sent only one letter home. Since he never worried about himself, it probably didn't occur to him that others might be concerned about his welfare. During the years when he trapped in the Aroostook, Penobscot and Allagash watersheds, Will transported supplies to his various camps during the summer months. Equipment for his main camp was carried by tote team, but all supplies for outlying camps had to be carried in a knapsack. When several knapsacks had to be delivered to a camp, he would carry each one a half-mile; then he would "rest" by walking back to pick up the next load. By repeating the process he got all of his supplies to a camp at about the same time. Leaving Oxbow in September, he trapped until Christmas time when he brought his furs out of the woods and spent a few days with his family. On New Year's Day he returned to his traplines until the ice left the rivers in April or May. A neighbor remembers seeing Will with knapsacks bulging with furs on his return from the woods. One of Will's catches included sixteen bear hides. All furs were kept on the third floor of his hotel until a buyer arrived in the spring to purchase them. Occasionally he would show his catches to his children, who recall seeing piles of pelts on the floor and still more hanging from cords suspended across the room. Another neighbor, a man who had spent his adult life in the Maine woods, stated, "Will was the best trapper and best woodsman that was ever in this country. There wasn't nothing he couldn't catch - on snow, bare ground or in the water."

Like most trappers of that time, he jealously guarded his vast knowledge of trapping methods. Several times he was invited to drink with people who hoped to extract some of his professional secrets, but to every question asked, Will would only reply, "I just set my traps in likely places." Several writers offered to do a book about his experiences and trapping methods, but Will, regrettably, would have no part of it. His reputation as sporting camp operator, trapper and woodsman gained him a large, unwanted following of fans. One fall, en route to Mooseluk Lake country to trap, he stopped late on night at some camps long 15 after hunters from "outside" had gone to bed. He was up and on his way before the hunters got up. The latter, learning that the legendary Will Atkins had spend the night there and was now on the Mooseluk tote road, set off after him, hoping to have at least a short talk. They did indeed overtake him and inquired if he was Mr. Atkins. Will shook his head, saying that he had noticed fresh tracks on the road, so that their " Mr. Atkins" must be just ahead. When the hunters, disappointed, later returned to their camp, the owner told them that they had seen all of Will Atkins that anyone ever saw of him in the woods. During the summer of 1927, when Will was seventy years old, he and his son Wilfred began building a trapping camp on the West Branch of Otter Brook, just north of Oxbow. Father and son took four packsacks loaded with food, building materials and tools across the Aroostook River in a canoe to the Otter Brook tote road. Just as Will had done all his life, they each carried one of the packsacks for a half-mile or so, and then "rested" as they walked back for the other pair of sacks. Since the trip was some eight or nine miles, they had perhaps a dozen and a half opportunities for Will's so-called rests. Wilfred said in later years that there was a sharp difference of opinion between him and his father concerning what constituted a rest, but he never mentioned it to his father. Of high school age at that time, he hated to admit that his father of seventy years was tougher than he. There was a nice clearing left by a lumber camp which had recently worked the area, but Will would have none of it. He built a new camp back in a nearby thick spruce and cedar swamp where, Will said, the trees would protect the camp from wind, cold and the eyes of passer-by, and would also provide a good supply of fuel wood. After a few days' work, Will and Wilfred had used up all their food except tea and salt pork. They were on the tote road walking back towards the river and their canoe when Will stopped suddenly, left the tote road, and walked to a brook. Without speaking, he pointed a finger at a tall, dead pine stub. Hastening to it, he removed a small log which had propped a large piece of bark against a hole in the hollow tree, and, reaching in, extracted a frying pan, a kettle, and soda, salt and cream of tartar. "I put this here five or six years ago and couldn't remember whether I'd picked it up or not," Will told his son on their way back to the building site. They had biscuits with their tea and salt pork, and went on to finish building the cabin. One winter Will came home from Otter Brook trapline with a swollen shoulder that was giving him great pain. Dr. Hagerthy of Ashland was called and drove twenty miles to Oxbow in a pung to examine Will's shoulder. Will explained that he had slipped on some ice and dislocated his shoulder.

Asked how he managed to get the bone of his upper arm back into the shoulder socket, Will told the doctor that he had tied the wrist of his injured arm to a tree in such a way that he could push with his good arm to pull the dislocated bone back into place. When Will asked if he had done the right thing, Dr. Hagerthy said, "Yes, but where in hell would there be another man that would have done it." During his last years, Will could not remember where he had stored or set many of his traps, but despite a failing memory, he continued to work to within a year of his death. One spring when he came home from his trapline, his mouth was twisted, his head was held slightly to one side, and he walked with a heavy, shuffling gait. He endured his last illness without complaint, satisfied that he had lived a wonderful life. "The best trapper and the best woodsman that was ever in this country" died the day before Christmas in 1930.

Author: Tom Aasbo

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