Mainers love the outdoors. Many grew up in camping, fishing and hunting families, and have maintained a lifelong connection to those traditions. But for some combat veterans, who've experienced serious mental and physical disabilities, its much more difficult to enjoy the recreational activities that have such an important part of their lives. One Registered Maine Guide is making it his life's mission to see that all veterans, regardless of disability, can enjoy the Maine woods.
Rip Thibodeau spent his childhood exploring the outdoors.
"When I was a kid we'd take off Friday night and wouldn't come home until Sunday afternoon," says Thibodeau with a chuckle. "That was back in the good old days."
Now in his 70's, Thibodeau has not been able to hunt or fish or hike for years. He can only walk short distances with the help of metal crutches clamped round his arms, a consequence, he says, of nerve damage sustained from exposure to the defoliant, Agent Orange, during his three year stint in Vietnam, from 1969 to 1971.
But on this brisk, autumn day in Western Maine, Thibodeau is zipping over rocks and roots and fallen leaves, trying for the first time an off road wheel chair at Pine Grove Lodge in Pleasant Ridge Plantation, Somerset County. Registered Maine Master Guide Bob Howe is showing him all the bells and whistles.
Bob Howe: "Forward, backwards, left, right."
Rip Thibodeau: "Ooh yes... I like this."
BH: "Pretty neat huh?" Jennifer Mitchell: "So it's like a little tractor kind of?"
Man: "Like a little tractor type of thing...Go ahead and take right out back."
The chair is called an Action Trackchair, and as the name implies, features two spinning rotating gripper tracks in place of wheels. Bob Howe and his wife Andrea maintain a small fleet of THEM at their nonprofit Pine Grove Program for Veterans. Using these special chairs, the Howes can reconnect veterans Like Thibodeau with the great outdoors.
JM: "So has it been a while since you've been able to really get out into the woods? Into the rough?"
RT: "Ten years. Been a long time. Been a long time. And you miss it. You know, people say you don't but you do. You miss it."
While the chairs are new, the veterans' trips are not. Howe started organizing outdoor adventures for vets and first responders 40 years ago, at the age of 18, when he was faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to join the military. It was 1974, the Vietnam conflict was in its waning years, and the draft had ended the year before. But many Americans felt angry and demoralized over the war. Howe says, nobody thought that joining up was a good idea.
"And everybody said, Don't you join because these people do not respect for anything that you did- that we did over there. I said, Really? They said, Yeah, don't do it Bob, they spit on you, they holler at you. So I didn't join."
But Howe says it troubled him to know that so many had lost lives and limbs fighting overseas, when he had not. And the chilly reception returning soldiers were getting from their communities bothered him even more. That's when he decided that what he had to offer veterans was the peace of the Maine woods.
"That's how you heal people," says Howe. "Taking them back to nature, back to God."
Across the field on the weedy banks of the Pine Grove trout pond, Rip Thibodeau and another veteran, Dave Huard, are sitting side by side in the track chairs, comparing service and casting their lures into a pond teeming with rainbow trout. No one is catching much of anything but weeds, but they don't seem to mind; it's a day out. Huard's mobility has been seriously hampered by Parkinson's Disease. Like Thibodeau, he's living with post traumatic stress disorder, and seeks solace far from the madding crowd. But Huard says it's hard to go fishing when you're confined to a wheelchair.
"I have to go to where's there's a dock," says Huard. "So there's only like three or four spots I can go. What this does for me, it calms me right down, because my anxiety is way up."
Huard says he looked into buying one of the track chairs himself so he wouldn't feel so confined at home, but with a price tag of not much less than that of a small car, he says there aren't a lot of veterans anywhere who would be able to afford one.
And that is where Pine Grove comes in. The Howes say the nonprofit currently pays for all its activities through its snowshoe making business as well as funds from private guests who book Bob Howe's guide service, and some charitable donations. Andrea Howe says the eventual goal is to run the lodge as a full time, no-cost retreat for veterans and first responders, but that dream she admits is several years- and several hundred thousand dollars away.
In the meantime, Bob Howe says he'll see to it that any veteran in the country, regardless of ability or disability, can go hunting and fishing in Maine, for free.