Pete and Chris:|
Living That Family Tradition
By V. Paul Reynolds
Pete Norris, who is no spring chicken, has some good years left. He plans to spend them back in his beloved state of Maine getting re-acquainted with old friends and brokering commercial recreational properties for Maine Land Realty in Pittsfield. The Norris name is synonymous with sporting camps, and Pete has spent a better part of his life in the outdoors, either running his own camps or working for someone else. Ditto his attractive wife Chris, who, after years of sporting camp cookery, has launched a new restaurant in Pittsfield called "Blondie's."
For the previous 5 years, Pete and Chris were outdoor-loving nomads. They drifted about Alaska and the American West, Chris working as a camp cook and Pete as a wrangler/guide and camp troubleshooter. They brought back from their adventures a lot of memories and some stories. In fact, their lives - like so many couples who have chosen to operate sporting camps as a way of life and for a living - represent a story worth telling.
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Pete Norris, a big, energetic man who stays trim, grew up in Dixfield the son of Charlie and Ruth Norris. Pete's dad bought Kidney Pond Camps in 1968 and ran them for 20 years. Pete, his two brothers and a sister, cut their teeth in the sporting camp business working for Charlie and Ruth. A University of Maine graduate, Norris was an All-Conference football player. A defensive end, he played in the Tangerine Bowl and held punting distance records for a number of years.
After graduation, Pete tried his hand at teaching and coaching. It didn't agree with him. "I just didn't have the patience to be either a good teacher or a football coach," he admits. The sporting camp business beckoned. "I just couldn't get it out of my mind," he recalls. So he began shopping for a set of camps.
Early in the summer of 1972, Pete heard about a near-legendary sporting camp for sale in Aroostook County. At about the same time, romance came along. His sister Betsy brought a California friend to Maine for a visit to Kidney Pond Camps. That was all she wrote. Pete was smitten by 24 year old Christina Rodgers. Three days later he told Chris that he was about to buy Red River Camps in northern Maine and needed a mate to help run them. He asked her if she would consider it. Norris said that Chris was open to the idea, and returned to California to get her things together.
With some help from the bank, Norris closed the camps deal and moved in. Chris returned to Maine and two weeks later she and Pete were married at Red River Camps. "Chris didn't know how to boil water at first," Pete remembers, "so I hired a cook and a guide." He said that she learned fast how to find her way around a sporting camp kitchen.
The two operated Red River Camps for eight years. During that time Chris gave birth to a daughter, Laura, and a son, Chuck. Their family physician, Dr. Higgins from Presque Isle, used to make regular fly-in visits to mix business with pleasure. Black bears also had a habit of making regular house calls during the summer months. "For some reason, the bears seemed to show up when Chris was alone cooking and I was off somewhere guiding trout fishermen," Norris said.
In 1980, with their kids nearing school age, Pete and Chris decided it was time to pack it in. They sold Red River Camps to Mike and Rhonda Brophy and moved back to civilization. Pete was hired by Hal Westerman at the University of Maine to work in athletic fund raising. For four years, Pete held some other jobs as well including real estate broker and food sales representative. Chris worked as a beautician.
Then in 1984, still thinking about getting back to the woods, Pete and some fellow investors bought Nicatous Camps. Under Pete's management and with Chris's fast-spreading reputation for camp cookery, the camps did well. Nicatous Camps was their home for nearly 13 years. Pete says that on balance those were good years, "though we worked awfully hard."
He pauses for a minute, and then his voice softens."Then things went to hell. Too much social drinking. My friend Jim Beam caught up with me. It nearly wrecked my marriage. Chris and I separated."
There was a rough spell, Norris remembers, at Nicatous when he and Chris took turns working at the camps. But eventually with the help of counseling, Pete got rid of his "friend" and he and Chris found reconciliation. "That was in 1997," Norris recalls,"and the camp held some bad memories at that point in our lives. "We decided, again, to sell out and try our luck in the West," he said.
Pete was about 50 years old. Chris a little younger. They landed a job as a cook and maintenance man at Spotted Bear Ranch in Kalispel, Montana. "We headed West dragging a little 12 foot camper trailer," Remember Norris, " a sign on the back read Stop and Smell the Roses. A sign on the front read Perseverance. I'll never forget folks honking at us all across the country."
From Montana, they struck out in the fall for Arizona and talked their way into jobs as a cook and wrangler at the Kel Bar Dude Ranch in Wickenburg, Arizona. The spring of 1998 found the two at another dude ranch, this time in Powderhorn, Colorado. There followed two more winters working Arizona dude ranches and another summer (1999) at the Rimrock Ranch in Cody, Wyoming.
Next it was off to chase another dream - in Alaska. They got there by freighter and landed a job with Within the Wild Adventures. Chris cooked and Pete operated touring boats. "During that terrible day on 9/11 we were stranded at a remote camp when all airplanes were grounded," he said. "We were glued to a portable radio for four days and never saw the awful video footage until days later."
The pair of wanderers also spent part of a winter working in Alaska at Riversong Lodge on the Yenta River during the Iditarod."We had a chance to see firsthand the long, slow-moving iceout that works its way down the huge flowages. What a sight!" he exclaims.
Red River Camps weren't the only bear encounter experiences for Chris. One day in Alaska while cooking in her camp kitchen, a massive Alaskan Grizzly began ripping at the cabin door. As custom would have it, Chris had a solo faceoff with the big animal. Pete was miles away. As the bear made his entry, Chris greeted him with a stream of pepper spray in the snout. To her relief, the bear beat feet.
Pete says that it is nice to be home. His brother Steve Norris owns and operates The Pines sporting camps. His other brother, Jeff, died in a Quebec bush plane crash while on a fishing trip a few years ago. "Our family has owned seven Maine sporting camps. Our heart has always been in Maine," he says.
The former Maine football player believes that his experiences as a sporting camp operator and lifetime outdoorsman will help him serve his clients in the buying and selling of Maine sporting camps and other commercial recreational properties. In answer to the question, "what does it take to successfully run sporting camps?" he replied "It takes two people, a team. The guy (or the gal) must be willing to sweat all day for next to nothing, or have the resources to hire someone to sweat for him."
He smiles. "You wanna know how to make small fortune in the sporting camp business? Start out with a large one."
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