September 10, 2012

Generations care for family retreat


---- — OWL’S HEAD — Angus “Gus” Gagnon retired recently as caretaker of the Matamek Preserve: the third generation of caretakers from his family to work at the private 4,000 acre property.

Matamek is a family-owned retreat outside Owl’s Head originally founded by Malone native and U.S. Congressman Ashbel P. Fitch, with a 13-acre land purchase in 1886. It has since grown to 4,000 acres, consisting of nine camps, all off the grid, circling pristine Ragged Lake. The preserve has served as a summer vacation retreat for six generations of Fitch’s descendents since.

Most of the families who use the preserve, Gus explained, are from the New York metropolitan area. They travel to the Adirondacks in July and August each year to unplug and unwind, then return to the city refreshed.

Just as Matamek has stayed in the same hands throughout the years, caretaking responsibilities have been a family tradition there as well, with both Gus’s father, Joe, and grandfather, Chester Lester, serving before him. Together, they worked at Matamek for more than half the preserve’s 126-year history. For Gus, this type of stability is its own reward.

“The land hasn’t changed in my 25 years there,” he said. “You can sit in any place, any one of the camps, and see the same views that you would have seen in the early 1900s.”


In his quarter century as caretaker, helping the lake rebound from the devastating effects of acid rain has been a priority for Gus. It has come back to the point that trout have successfully returned to the lake. He also boasts of seeing moose, pine martens, spruce grouse and even a mountain lion on the preserve. And he says the loons are so friendly that they’ll come up beside a boat paddling on the lake. Motored boats are forbidden on the lake, except for the caretaker’s.

Gus was born and raised in Owl’s Head, spending much of his youth on Matamek with his father. After a 20-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps, he returned to his roots in 1986, hoping that the North Country had not yet been touched by the scourge of drugs he saw in other places around the country he had visited.

“I was correct at that point. I wish it was the same today.”


As Gus passes the torch on to a new caretaker, from outside his family this time, his routines may not change much at all. He has been asked by the Matamek Board of Directors to stay on as a maintenance man for as long as he would like. He has also been granted lifetime use of the property he so loves.

He will turn 70 in January.

“Gus may be relaxing his schedule a bit,” said Matamek’s president, Frank Anthony, in a prepared statement. “But our extended families still share several generations of memories.”

Along with his stewardship of the land, Gus hopes he has had an equally positive effect on the lives of the people who have worked for him. They have included a number of teenagers over the years, during summer breaks from school. He has kept an eye on where they have gone in their lives, and points to several who have entered police work or corrections, Border Patrol, and others to equally successful careers.

“A lot of them have made very good on their lives,” he said. “I’d like to think I was a little pebble helping them along the way.”