The good, the bad, and the wild

ALS Team for George Smith
ALS Team George (George and his wife Linda are in the middle)

George Smith. A Maine treasure. Three years ago, George was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). From the get-go, he has tried to maintain a positive attitude, even as the disease has progressed throughout his body.

In an interview I did with him in 2018, he vowed not to let ALS define the remaining years of his life. His outlook on life is a huge reason why he is a treasure, but not the only one. George is a champion of the outdoors, especially the Maine outdoors. For 18 years, he was executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

In 2017, he was presented with the Harry Richardson Environmental Leadership Award “for writing, speaking, advocating, and inspiring all of us to protect the woods, waters, and wildlife of Maine.” His home town of Mount Vernon gave him the Spirit of America Award for his contributions to the community. In 2018, he and his wife Linda donated their 125-acre woodlot near their home to the Kennebec Land Trust to support childhood programming.

George is also a prolific writer whose topics, of course, include anything and everything to do with the outdoors, but he has also never been one to shy away from politics. George is still able to write using two fingers and a computer program called Dragon Dictation. When I asked him if he’d like to write something for Catching Health about how he has been coping with the pandemic, he said he’d love to.

This is George’s story:

As we quarantined in our homes a lot of wild animals took over our yards. Most of them, Linda and I have enjoyed. But not all of them.

One night two weeks ago, a bear tore down and busted our bird feeders, right in front of our kitchen window. That bear also visited our neighbors and tore apart two of their beehives. Linda quickly put out new bird feeders which she brings in every night. I recommend that you do that because we have a lot of bears (45,000) and they are not just in rural Maine. They’re even showing up in our cities.

We’ve enjoyed seeing a doe deer with last year’s fawn, and the turkeys that feed all over our yard. We also have a stunning array and number of birds, including a bunch of warblers, lots of orioles, woodpeckers, goldfinches, a beautiful cardinal, and more. We also have a couple of geese that parade across our lawn with their six babies. That’s quite a sight. And we have everything from loons to turkey vultures and eagles flying up and down our stream.

And then there are the critters we’re not happy to see. One is a huge porcupine, which Linda can walk right up too without worrying it. We also have two woodchucks that love to feast in Linda’s gardens. I always shot every woodchuck in our yard, but because of my illness, ALS, I can’t hold or shoot a gun anymore. And Linda won’t shoot them. She is trying to trap them, but no luck yet.

I’d love to see a moose in our yard, but sadly, I haven’t seen a moose in Mount Vernon in years. I used to have a bunch on my woodlot. I think they must have been killed by ticks, which have significantly reduced Maine’s moose population.

George Smith with late father Ezra Smith
George with his late father Ezra in 2012

Today, I’m very worried about our outdoor industry – especially guides and sporting camps – and our small businesses. A lot of sporting camps will not open this year, because they depend on out-of-staters and they won’t be coming to Maine this summer. Guides have had almost all of their trips canceled. I encourage you to book a day with a Maine guide – I’ve spent many days with Maine guides and every day was a great experience. You should also book a stay at a Maine sporting camp. They need you!

And you know that lots of small businesses have closed for good. Linda and I loved Kennebec Chocolates in Augusta and were so disappointed when they closed for good about a month ago. During the seven years that we wrote weekly travel columns for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, we got to know many wonderful owners of small restaurants and inns. And we learned that for many, 80% or more of their income came from tourists. Without those tourists this year, many will not survive.

Of course, not everything has been bad in this pandemic – and I’m not talking just about wildlife. So many great Mainers have reached out to help their family, friends, and neighbors.  Several ladies from our church are doing Linda’s grocery shopping for her, and we even had two friends cut up all the downed limbs in our yard. We are so grateful for all this help.

My illness continues to progress. A nurse, occupational therapist, and physical therapist were seeing me regularly, but because of the pandemic, all have had to stop. And because of my illness, and the expectation that the virus would kill me, we’ve kept everyone out of our house. I really miss the visits from my friends.

George Smith and Maine Gov. Janet Mills
Governor Janet Mills presents George with a proclamation in 2019 that declares “gratitude to George Smith for decades of service to Maine through his advocacy for the outdoors, natural resources, and rural economy.”

Thank goodness for Zoom. We Zoom for 90 minutes every Sunday afternoon with our kids and grandkids. That is wonderful. And we’ve even played games with our 3- and 6-year-old granddaughters in Massachusetts, using FaceTime. I’ve even Zoomed with Congressman Jared Golden and Governor Janet Mills. Yup, I’m still giving them advice!

In addition to being in a wheelchair, I am losing strength in my hands and arms, and it’s getting harder to breathe during the day. When I’m sleeping, I wear a mask and the trilogy machine blows air into my lungs. My voice is also getting softer. But I feel lucky I am still able to write my columns. And I am very lucky to have Linda as my wife because she has to do a lot for me.

We do enjoy rides around the area, and on nice days Linda gets me out to ride in my wheelchair up and down the road. And quite a few people driving up the road stop to visit. In the nice weather, I’ve also started visiting with people outside, careful to keep our distance.

Of course, the blackflies are awful, but we’ve got to have something to complain about!

George Smith

It’s that last line that says it all for me. George Smith has to deal with innumerable challenges and yet, the only thing he has to complain about is Maine’s black flies. Thank you, George, for sharing your story. You are my hero (and so is Linda).

George and Linda Smith
Linda and George Smith at Maine General Medical Center’s Cakes for a Cause fundraiser in 2015

If you’d like to learn more about George, listen to the podcast we did in 2018 George Smith: Diagnosed with ALS or read the followup blog post Staying positive with ALS. You can also read his column in the Bangor Daily News George’s Outdoor News or follow him on Facebook.

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.