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Updated: August 9, 2021 Women to Watch

Women to Watch: Polly Mahoney inspires the next generation of Maine outdoor leaders

Photo / Fred Field Polly Mahoney, a Master Maine Guide and co-founder of Mahoosuc Guide Service in Newry, has a lifelong love for the outdoors.

In the 1980s, Polly Mahoney, a Maine native, spent a decade living a semi-subsistence lifestyle in the Yukon Territory in northwest Canada.

A horse wrangler and cook, her huskies were essential to survival, hauling wood and water and serving as primary winter transportation.

Back in Maine, she’s a Master Maine Guide, certified in wilderness first aid, and co-founded Mahoosuc Guide Service in Newry in 1990, offering dog sledding, canoe and fishing trips in New England and Canada. She develops eco-cultural tourism with indigenous people in Maine and Canada, mentors apprentices in guiding and animal care, and inspires young woman-leaders through community outreach at schools and colleges.

With her partner, Kevin Slater, she has introduced thousands of people to outdoor adventure.

Mainebiz: How did you become interested in the outdoors?

Polly Mahoney: A lot of my outdoor experience growing up was horseback riding. After high school, I worked at ranches. Winters, I was a ski bum. At 20, I headed to Alaska. I was very adventurous. No fear — I just went places. I got a job at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway, Alaska, then Chilkoot Trail crew, famous for the gold rush. Then my ex-husband and I worked at big game trophy hunting camps.

MB: What was subsistence living like?

PM: It was a nomadic lifestyle. At the hunting camps, we’d ride three days into the bush and stay three or four months. We’d let the horses loose at night, then go out before dawn to herd them in. Later, I’d be alone in the bush with our sled dogs. I’d take care of the dogs, get water from the creek, fill the kerosene lamps at night, get firewood in. We hunted every year and get a moose or a caribou or a sheep. I’d dry or can it. I picked a lot of berries and made jam and juice.

MB: How did Mahoosuc Guide Service unfold?

PM: When Kevin and I met, we each had a dream of having our own guide service. Kevin bought an old farmhouse and we each had sled dogs. We decided early to stay small. One of us guides on every trip. This summer is the busiest we’ve ever been because everyone wants to get outside.

With climate change, we’re really noticing winters getting short. We used to run sleds early December. Now it’s middle to late December.

MB: How did the apprenticeships get started?

PM: It was 1995. One day, I put out to the universe that there’s got to be some young person who would like to work with us because we really started getting busy. An hour later a woman called and said, ‘I saw your website and wondered if you needed help.’

We love working with young people. Often we have one to three apprentices working with us. A number have become registered Maine Guides and we hire them back.

MB: How did the collaborations with indigenous people evolve?

PM: Kevin and I have worked with Cree and Inuit people in northern Quebec for many years. More recently we work with the Penobscot in Maine. For example, we hire Penobscots to guide with us, share crafts, take us on plant walks, and teach skills.

MB: Discuss the importance of inspiring young woman-leaders.

PM: I go into schools, libraries, outing clubs to give talks, and offer women’s canoeing and dog sledding trips. Those are some of my favorites. I find they come away with renewed self-confidence. They do things they might not do in mixed groups, like saw firewood. They feel empowered.

MB: Why do you love what you do?

PM: I love the outdoors, I love meeting new people, I love seeing what the outdoors does for people.

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