It all began innocently enough.
Prior to Presidents Day weekend in 1985, Bates College senior Dan Bliss received a call from a friend, Marshall Murphy, asking if he wanted to go ice fishing. Rob Trippe, attending the University of Maine, also got an invitation.
It didn’t take much coaxing. The group headed to the camp of Maynard Conners, a state legislator who lived in Hancock. The site was Alligator Lake off the Stud Mill Road near Great Pond, where they drilled holes in the ice and set traps.
They didn’t catch anything, but it didn’t matter. They enjoyed good food, many alcoholic beverages and lots of laughs.
“We just had a blast,” Bliss said.
Just like that, a tradition was born.
Every February, the self-described “founders club” and other core members of the fraternity have gathered for an ice fishing weekend. Sometimes, they take along friends, acquaintances and family members.
Several participants were longtime friends, having met as youth campers, counselors and employees at Camp Kieve, a summer camp in Nobleboro.
Scheduling the trip on Presidents Day weekend meant it coincided with the state’s Free Fishing Weekend, when a license is not required. Admittedly, the fishing was only an excuse to get together.
“Some years we didn’t bring bait. One year we had the auger, but not the motor,” chuckled Waterville native Jon Roy, who met Trippe as a freshman at UMaine and has been a regular attendee.
The group arrives on Friday afternoon, then heads out onto the ice on Saturday morning and sets some traps.
“Fishing is not the focus. It’s the gathering, the laughs, the reminiscing,” Roy said.
Other mainstays of the group include Tom Stewart, Mark Fowler, Tim Shenton, Tench Forbes, Jon Seamans and Todd Doolan.
After 11 or 12 years staying at Conners’ uninsulated tarpaper camp, called “Here ’Tis,” the location has changed a handful of times. They have visited Great Pond, Sebec Lake, Nicatous Lake, Damariscotta and Jo Mary Lake. The accommodations were basic, often including only an outhouse.
One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the friends’ passion for sharing the experience. Everyone can’t always attend, but that’s fine. Bliss, who lives in Colorado, wasn’t able to go this year.
“As Marshall says, as long as we’re around, the trip is going to happen,” he said. “If you can make it, you make it. If you don’t, you don’t.”
Stewart was not at the inaugural bash, but he owns the distinction as the only one to attend all 36 of the gatherings since then. Last year’s trip was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This weekend, 11 friends were together at Fowler’s place on Grand Lake in Forest City Township which, to the delight of the group, features indoor plumbing and other amenities. They came from Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
The long-awaited 2022 reunion is bittersweet for the men, most of whom are in their late 50s and early 60s. Founding member Trippe died last October, one day shy of his 57th birthday, from heart issues. A handful of the men attended Trippe’s funeral.
Roy, who shared Trippe’s Oct. 11 birthday, said the gathering continues to take on a deeper meaning with the passage of time.
“Rob’s not here to tell his story, so we’re going to tell it for him,” Roy said of plans to remember their friend.
Bliss and Trippe worked as counselors at Camp Kieve and long ago operated a wilderness guiding business with him. They also traveled cross country together.
“Telling those stories, all the stupid [stuff] that we did, is important because it keeps him alive,” he said.
Roy and Bliss said attending the retreat is a gift, something none of them can afford to take for granted.
“This is something important that we need to hold onto and tell those stories and remember the times that we had together and what we did. Life is short,” Bliss said.
Among the friends are a banker, educators, a tech guy, a furniture maker, a lighting expert, a Fortune 500 company communication specialist, a birder, an investment banker, a boat builder and a mechanical engineer.
For a couple of days each year, they can put that part of their lives on hold. Bliss said it’s like getting together with cousins you’ve known your whole life, but may not see often.
“With this group, you just pick up where you left off and it’s a pretty cool thing,” he said.
Over the years, the crew has taken along friends, brothers-in-law, nephews and even their own sons. Some have invited their adult sons along.
Bliss hopes expanding the circle of friends on the ice fishing trip can help keep the event going, even after he and the original members are gone.
“I can definitely see them continuing it on,” he said. “It’s a really special thing to have that connection to people over the course of decades.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the hometown of the late Maynard Conners