Six weeks (or, Christopher gets his head on straight)

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Hey everyone. We’ve got about three weeks left in the course, so I sat down with Tim Smith again to chat about it so far, but mostly because he offered me coffee.
There will be a podcast of our discussion in the future, but for now I’d like to just compile my own thoughts on the semester so far. The truth is, I can’t begin to explain how grateful I am to Tim and his wife, Jennifer for awarding me the semester scholarship. I have not only found an industry I have a passion about working in during my time here. The truth is, I’ve found the first modicum of peace I’ve had inside myself since I can remember. Not only has that come about simply by being outdoors for an extended period, but also from talking with Paul and Tim about their philosophical stances on life. They have turned me on to books and trains of thought that solidified a mess of internal inklings into a solid foundation of values for me to use moving forward. While all of the skills learned here have been incredible, the most shattering experience I had was reading a pair books recommended by Tim and Paul. These are “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn, and “the Chalice and the Blade” by Raine Eisler. If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend it. They have affected how I see the world around me in a way I can’t quite bring into words  as of yet. I’ll be sure to once I’ve unjammed the thoughts in my mind.

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We’ve come a long way in the six weeks we’ve been here. Everyone comes with different goals for the course, and that takes a while to homogenize into a workable group dynamic. It’s feasible that a group could be entirely independent of each other on a course like this, and to an extent each of us need to be if we plan on going forward in this industry. We aren’t training as people who join a group and contribute. We’re training to be the person those groups turn to when they run into roadblocks, or have no knowledge of a situation out on an expedition or trip.

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(Paul’s teaching style is unorthodox at the very least)

However, camp life is simply easier when all of us are on the same page. By the third week, we’d sort of hit that stride. Everyone had their particular chores, and did them. We helped each other out where we could when people struggled with a certain task. Once that synchronization happened, is when we (or at least myself) started to get the most out of the experience.
And really, what I’m garnering from it is something I’ve always known about myself in some sense. I need to be near or on the water. Going forward in this industry I plan on gravitating towards river or ocean based guiding. It was already in my head, and then during my conversation with Tim he asked what I’d gotten out of the course, or what skill I’d enjoyed learning most. In that instant my mind connected the joy I’d felt canoeing with that ache I’d felt all those years trapped in the Midwest. I’ve been away from water too long. I’ve got a lot of catch up to do.
That’s sort of the incredible part about this course. What seemed like an overwhelming and slapdash mix of content that Paul and Tim threw at us isn’t just an attempt to make us well rounded. It’s a way of letting us find the aspects of this industry and lifestyle that appeal to something in each of us individually. As well as giving us a solid base of skills that allow us to take care of a group we’ve taken out in our chosen environment for guiding. I look forward to paddling out with people, showing them the rivers , lakes and oceans that have always called me towards them and being able to talk to them knowledgeably about the experience while I make them Bannock over a fire.

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(Tim also has a teaching style that is hard to put a clear definition on)

I realize that I’m romanticizing the experience, and that’s even more true when it comes to the idea of canoe trips. There’s nothing sleeping under a canoe and tarp provides that you can’t get from setting up a simple “a-frame” with the tarp. I’m well aware of this , but there’s something I can’t quite put into words about the sense of simplicity that I got from pulling out my canoe at the end of a long day of paddling, flipping her over and sleeping underneath. It brings to mind the idea of only owning what you can carry on your back, but with a lean towards a coastal lifestyle. Everything you have helps you in multiple ways, and nothing is superfluous.

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As I said, it’s a romantic idea, but I have no problem with living that sense of romance. Especially when it means waking up to a view of the water that you traveled on the day before, from under the bilge of the craft that carried you down it.
I thought my Jeep gave me freedom, and it did to an extent. However, it couldn’t compare to the smell of pine and water I woke to under that canoe. I woke up with a reminder of the days purpose from each of my senses. If you find a job that does that for you, pursue it until your body breaks from the effort. It won’t be a monetary goldmine, but it will give you a sense of purpose I haven’t experienced before.
I’ll be sure to post the interview with Tim, as well as a brief summary of it as soon as it’s available. For today, this needed to be put to the page while it’s still fresh in my brain, and the rivers and lakes I plan on being on wash it out and leave it behind me.

So thank you. Thank you Tim and Jennifer for helping me experience this. Thank you Paul for your patience as we all learn these skills. Thank you to my fellow students for being such a wonderfully wild bunch of pine tarbarians and of course, thank all of you for reading my scribblings.

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Aroostook River Trip Part Two. (Or as I call it “my hands hurt”)

Last week I covered our canoe trip up to the last stretch. Now I’m going to write about our last day. Buckle in.

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On our seventh day we woke up to relatively warm weather, and packed up camp as fast as possible. Everyone, including myself, was in a rush to get paddling and let some of the cabin fever that’d built up flow off into the river as we left the miles behind us. Our initial plan was to do an eight day trip, but Tim looked at the weather, saw a strong tail wind and really pushed us through to the first place we stopped.. I’d like to write about something we saw along the way (if only to stretch out the suspense more) but the truth is, we became so tunnel visioned on getting back, I can’t remember anything other than paddling

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(My paddle. Also the only woman I’ve ever loved. I may need to figure this attraction out at a later date)

Let me explain something before we really get into the day. Running a canoe trip, or any outdoors expedition isn’t just going out and enjoying things lackadaisically. You need to be constantly gauging the weather, the mood of the group you’re guiding, and keeping tabs on any potential problems and trying to nip them in the bud if you can. For us? Our problem was, in retrospect, somewhat funny. At the time though, it was a genuine issue that needed to be addressed
There are a few of us that are smokers. The few days stuck at camp impacted how quickly people went through snacks, packs of cigarettes etc. It’s not that they had planned poorly, they simply hadn’t accounted for the extra time spent sitting around the fire waiting for the weather to break.
This, in my opinion greatly affected how out final day went. Not in the sense of negative or positive. We burned though the miles, not because  we had a deadline set, but because we set it for ourselves collectively based on the needs of our group. As I said, a person running out of cigarettes and paddling madly to get more is funny, but it was also a good stand in for a real emergency. We all had to make a decision, and commit to it entirely in order to not be caught on the river after dark.

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All in all we paddled thirty-five miles that day. Understand that some of us were still mastering paddling, and most of us had a basic grasp (at best) on poling. We really pushed ourselves, while keeping an eye on those of us who were falling behind and adjusting our pace to give them a break. Even getting to the point of switching out tandem paddlers to take over for people who had been paddling all day. (Including myself. Stupid boxer hands decided to lock up about ten miles out from the pull out site)

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You’ll notice I don’t have any pictures from the last day. I’d like to share pictures of the sights, or list off experiences we had with the world around us, but the truth is we didn’t pay much attention. (Ok fine. We saw a family of otters, and it was adorable. Don’t let that take away from my tale of man against weather, wind and wild though alright?)
It was really impressive to see how much fuel we could pull from the bottom of our tanks when we needed to. Tim spent the whole time repeating the mantra “fatigue is a great teacher” and he’s absolutely right. As we got tired, we reassessed our paddle strokes, made adjustments and made them as efficient as we could. It wasn’t about brute strength, it was about endurance, and making every motion you have count. That’s all well and good when someone tells you. It’s something entirely different when your hands are blistering and cracked, your shoulders are crying for relief, and all you can do is minimize the movement and hope it’s enough of a break to get something more out of yourself.
This is the first time I felt the skills we’ve been learning all fall into place as parts of the machine that is guiding. The day to day work of cooking, keeping up with camp duties happened naturally on the trail, and allowed us to focus on the actual skills of canoeing for long stretches, and making decisions as a group. All while taking into account the fatigue and other factors that make a group continue to not only function, but function in a way that takes stock of everyone’s needs and addresses them while still meeting the overall goals of the group.

I wish I had a better way to end this, but
We paddled thirty-five bleeding, incredible miles in one goddamned day!

Ok. Back to my inside voice. Sorry, Im still excited. Don’t tell Tim or Paul though. They might make us do it again.

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(Captain Maryland. Now with removable canoe paddle)

If you have any questions about the river we paddled, or getting into this kind of course, please don’t hesitate to email me.
Now excuse me. The blisters on my hands need attending to.

“This Is My Church” Derek Maclearn; licensed Maine guide.

If you had never heard the term “outdoor guide” before, and then passed by someone on the street as they uttered the term I’m pretty sure Derek Maclearn would be the image that appeared in your imagination.
Derek is the only native Mainer in our course this semester, and he’s been living this lifestyle as long as he can remember.

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      Derek Fishing on munsungan lake

He’s worked as a mechanic both in and out of the military, but throughout all of that time has spent any extra time he has fishing, hunting or simply being outdoors. After getting his guide license, he made a decision to be the most well rounded guide he could be.

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          Happiest man in all the land

“Anything people want to do, I’ll take ’em.” Derek has already gotten his fishing and hunting guide certifications, but plans on getting his recreation and sea kayak licenses in order to really make that statement true. He goes onto say that his idea of guiding isn’t just staying at a lodge or going out for a day. It’s a lifestyle that he wants to share with clients. “I want to bring people out into the wilderness and have them live the actual experience.”. It says something about Derek’s passion for the outdoors that this is the style of guiding he’d like to share with his clients. It isn’t  about going out for a day, and bringing along all your gadgets and gear that keep you updated on the world the whole time.

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Derek is ,simply put, an all around solid person. When asked about the “soft skills” that a good guide should have in order to best lead clients, as well as deal with interpersonal tension that’s bound to show up on trail and at camp when the weather/fishing etc is bad, Derek has a simple answer. He explains that most days he views each of the other students as potential clients. “I try to help. If I see someone’s lacking, or not getting something I just try to help, and I’m hoping that if something comes up where I’m lacking, someone else helps me.” That’s sort of how things have to work around here, or around any long-term camp. If someone’s struggling, jump in and help out. The work needs to get done anyway, so at the very least you’re saving yourself a headache down the road. At best, you’re helping someone wrap their brains around a skill they’ll need  in our field.
We’re all here to learn, but we’ve all also brought certain things we’re already good at. For Derek, it’s fishing. On our canoe trip, he felt so bad for being the only one catching fish that he told me he wasn’t putting another line in until someone else got one. (We all know how superstitious avid anglers are about fishing.) The mark of a real fisherman though is devotion. This was exemplified by the fact that about two minutes after making his statement about refraining from fishing, it started to rain. Derek got “that feeling” and I saw him forgo his oath and head down to cast a few lures. He came back up with a small chub and a sheepish grin on his face. Like I said, he’s good at what he does, and between the fish he shared with us, and his famous “high pour coffee” he helped keep everyone fat and happy.

He doesn’t just apply the “actual experience” mindset to his clients, but to his personal life as well. As the only native “maineiac” in the course, he invited us down to his homestead for a long weekend. I use the term homestead in a completely honest sense of the word. When I pulled in I was greeted by the sounds of his hound dogs baying, the pitter patter of chickens racing away from the driveway, and the laughter of Derek and his children. Derek and his wife, Sarah truly live every aspect of this lifestyle they can. They’ve had almost every animal you can think of at some point, are building a green house to go along with the gardens they already have.  I have to say, sleeping in a hammock in their back yard and waking up to their rooster made for some of the most comfortable nights of “roughing it” so far.

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When I ask about his experience so far at Jack Mountain, and how his enthusiasm has changed since day one, Derek responds quickly, and without hesitation. “Its growing every day. Every day we’re out here I feel more human.” As we continue to talk about this aspect of our experience, the side I’ve come to admire most about Derek shows through. “This really is an almost spiritual experience for me. This is my church.” He’s voicing something a lot of us have felt up here I think, and that many people who feel they need the wild to remain sane have tried to put down in ink, paint and song. (The fifth day here I was turned on the the poem “the men that don’t fit it” by Robert Service, and couldn’t help but think about it while talking to Derek and about this.) If days in the woods, count as time spent in prayer at church, Derek’s a regular alter boy.

Derek’s respect for the outdoors, and the life in them isn’t just shown by his drive to be in it, but also in his devotion to utilize anything he takes out of it to the fullest. While we were visiting with his family, Sarah and Derek joked back and forth constantly about rendering bear fat, all the permaculture projects he’s always working on, and cleaning out beaver pelts. They both seem fully committed to making every bit of the natural world count, and not wasting anything if they can help it.  I’ve never hunted in my life, but have met a lot of hunters, and I can’t say I know many who devote as much respect and even compassion to the animals they harvest. Hunting can get a bad rap, and I think a large part of that has to do with the “trophy” mentality that can seem to go along with it. If more of them had the mindset Derek has, I think wed all be better off.

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The most beautiful sight you can wake up to in the woods.

In the month we’ve been here I’ve learned something from all the other students, but Derek has hands down taught me the most. Not just about the hands-on aspect’s (lighting fires was decidedly NOT my strong point) but also just about how to interact with the wild and the people you’re in it with. Derek makes sure everyone is taken care of, without hesitation, and that’s what being a guide is about. Having the knowledge to do what needs to get done, and passing it on in ways that make others experience in the outdoors more meaningful by leaps and bounds. If you’re  looking for any kind of outdoor experience in Maine (and as Derek said, ANY KIND) Derek Maclearn is your man. Hell, he’s even your man if all you want is a kind person, pouring you the best damned cup of coffee you’ve ever had. I look forward to you showing me more of the state you call home for years my friend.

If you’re in Maine, and would like to hire somebody who knows the state to take you out and show you this beautiful place, you can email Derek at Wolf33.derek@outlook.com

Any other questions? Jus comment below or email me at primitiveaddictions@gmail

Canoe trip down the Aroostick River (Part One)

After a month of training, we went off on our first expedition. Fifty-two miles is nothing to someone who drives everywhere they go. An hour or so at most. I kept thinking about Shackleton and other’s trips in the days before we pushed off to start the trip, and feeling that fifty-two miles weren’t much in comparison. That’s the problem with basing a trip on how far you go, it doesn’t take into account the minutiae of daily life on the trail.

We set off from Chase lake and the night before I was shown by Paul how to set up a quick and simple shelter using a canoe. I was sold on the idea before I’d even tried it. There’s a sort of romance to the concept. Paddling all day, pulling your canoe out of the water and sleeping under it until it’s light out again, and then flipping over your home away from home and taking it with you to the next spot.

The first day we paddled out into Chase lake to the sound of the Loons that call it home. Some of us were still getting our heads around the strokes required to keep our vessels moving forward in a straight line. It can be tempting to put all your strength into each stroke, hoping that it will propel you forward faster, but canoeing isn’t as simple as that. Each “stroke” is a culmination of strength and calculation as you adjust the angle of the paddle blade to correct your course. The goal isn’t speed so much as it is the efficiency of motion. We only paddled about seven miles or so the first day, but it took us about two hours. Chase lake is deep, and the water hasn’t warmed up much, so our priority was staying close to each other in case someone flipped their canoe.

Once we reached our next site on munsungan lake, we set up camp and split off to pursue what interested us. A lot of people fished, some continued to practice paddling and poling a canoe, knowing that once we hit the river we’d be encountering rapids that required a bit of tact to handle in a safe manner. Poling a canoe is an old art, and one not many people practice anymore. It requires you to break the old adage of “don’t stand up in a canoe” and quickly factor in the angles you’re pushing off of, as well as keep an eye on any upcoming obstacles or turns. I’ll admit, that first day I allowed myself to get frustrated over it. Poling downstream can be done without a good understanding of the actions. It can become a controlled crash, because the current is propelling you forward, and all you have to do is turn so as to not hit any rocks or downed trees. Once Dylan and I turned around to head back to camp however, we encountered a completely different beast. Poling upstream takes a lot of forward thinking as you ferry between eddies slowly working yourself back up the stream. We also encountered a fairly strong Western head wind, which helped when we paddled across the lake, but became a challenge when combined with poling upstream. It took us about fifteen minutes to get downstream across the lake, and about an hour to get back to camp.

Camp life can become monotonous quickly and with boredom comes interpersonal tension. After leaving the munsungan lake campsite, we paddled another seven miles down stream. We set up, continued practicing and when some people were still struggling, decided to stay another night at the campsite. This was perhaps not the best idea. We woke up the next day to a cold, wind-driven rain that was too dangerous to paddle in. Most of us kept ourselves occupied by fishing or working on small projects for a while, but there’s only so much of that you can do before gathering around a fire becomes more appealing.

The thing about idleness being the devil’s plaything is magnified by camp life. If you don’t have anything to do, and people are on top of each other twenty-four hours a day, it’s easy to get under each other’s skin. While it never boiled over into outright conflict, tension fogged around us. It wasn’t helped by waking up to snow the next morning. All of were ready to get back on the river, and while we weren’t on any sort of real schedule, we knew we’d not even covered half the distance needed to get back to camp yet, and we’d been out for five days out of the eight we’d planned for. People were starting to get low on food, and since we all planned our own meals for the trip, there wasn’t any sort of easy fix on the students part if someone ran out.

We made the most of the snow, however, hiking and exploring the area around camp. Personally, I’m glad it snowed. We learned a lot about the soft skills of guiding. How to ease tensions, manage risk as it arose and the art of, as Tim Smith calls it “holing up”. Sometimes in the field, all you can do is wait, and that’s counter-intuitive to some of us.

The best part of our snow day though? Hiking into a spruce bog. We spent a good two hours walking through the woods, identifying plants, and learning to simply be quiet in the woods. It was an incredibly beautiful setting, and I took the opportunity to practice photography. Taking care to focus on little moments framed by the larger surroundings. Below is my favorite of that session. A spruce sapling frosted with snow, and backdropped by its larger kin.

After that, everyone crawled into their shelters and holed up for the night. We hoped for a warm day and got one. That day was so integral to my experience on this expedition that part two of this article will be devoted entirely to it.

“Don’t try to eat six large ice creams.” A chat with Raifebowmanbushcraft247.

Raife Bowman is an asshole.

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Those are his words, although not his exclusively. The first interaction I had with Raife involved him labeling me camp hippie. He’s outspoken, and doesn’t suffer other people’s willful ignorance well. He’s also got a mischievous streak, which when mixed with his seeming invulnerability, and size (he jokes on a regular basis about being able to throw me like a “hippie javelin”, and I honestly believe he could) make for some almost unbelievable hijinks. At a local all you can eat wing night, he put twenty dollars into the juke box and played and sang nothing but eighties love anthems, replacing “love” with “Doug” ,his dog’s name. You don’t know joy until you see a giant man belt out “what about Doug? “ at the top of his lungs. Needles to say a few of the locals were thrown off by the forty five minutes of Heart and Meatloaf that replaced the country music they had been listening to. Raife revels in it though. A person who “started smoking just to be an asshole to someone” and subsequently quit for the same reason.
He doesn’t sound like the sort of person you’d like to spend day after day with, and I felt the same after meeting him. The first three days consisted of Raife mocking everything from my pants, to my penchant for reading. I’d almost written him off as something I’d simply have to deal with for the semester. Then I started paying attention to the actions he took when interacting with the other students. Raife is always the first person to offer help if someone’s struggling. On top of that the mocking and joking around instantly disappears during those interactions. He doesn’t force the help, or make fun of the way you’re going about whatever task or skill you’re having trouble with. It’s almost a guarantee that if, for example a bowdrill fire isn’t lighting after ten minutes of trying, you’ll hear “would you like to know how to do that better/easier/another way?”. Raife may be a self proclaimed asshole, but if you let his jibes and verbal barbs convince you that’s all there is to him, you’d miss out.
Raife hails from. Anchorage Alaska, and attributes his common statement “Bowman ain’t no bitch” to that environment and his inherent stubbornness. For example, Jack Mountain has a challenge called the “iron spoon”.

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There’s  local ice cream shop in Ashland Maine, that’s about a fifteen minute drive from camp. Every year people try to beat the record for most large ice creams eaten.  Each large is three softball sized scoops, and previous record holders include Paul, another instructor here who ate four. When Raife heard about the challenge during his time here on the winter course, he not only said he would beat it, but carved a wooden spoon to beat it with. The reason he did it? Just so the term “iron spoon “ would be inaccurate. “That’s the only thing that kept me eating” he explains, “just so the iron spoon would be made of wood”. There’s a touch of the gadfly in Bowman, but the difference is that he backs up any talking he does. A week ago, we all finished canoeing and went to witness Raife attempt the challenge. After four larges, it was obvious he wasn’t feeling well, but the man does not lack the courage to back up his convictions. Not only did he beat the record of five larges set last year, but he did it in an hour and a half. The student who set the record originally? He took seven hours.

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(Raife and I doing caber tossing in kilts. I wasn’t kidding when I said he could toss me)

Raife found Jack Mountain the way most of us did. Google. “its pretty much the only way to look at a lot of options and compare them. Except those other things. You know, pages? Books. Yeah. Those.” He says, still busting my chops as only Bowman can. After he finishes with the rest of the courses here he’s attending an outdoor leadership program in Valdez Alaska. “I hate college, and I hate school “ he sighs, shifting from side to side to calm his stomach. (I recorded this interview an hour after he’d beaten the ice cream record) “ but I’ll put up with it for a little bit to do stuff like this.”
When I ask what advice he has for incoming or prospective students, he immediately says that everyone should take a course like this, even if they aren’t interested in getting into the industry. He explains that these skills that most people used to need to know to get through life are still worth learning, and pokes fun at some of the “survival” shows that have become rampant lately. Survival is sort of a dirty word around here, and the onslaught of YouTube “experts” is a constant source of satire, exemplified by Raife’s alter ego “Raifebowmanbushcraft247”. The truth is the skills we’re learning are simple, but necessary for anyone who enjoys the outdoors. There’s no product or piece of gear that will save you or your clients on its own. Having knowledge of the world you’re showing them, and an understanding of necessary human requirements and how to meet them is much more important than buying Raifebowmanbushcraft247’s latest piece of gear.
He goes on to say that his advice for preparing for the course is simple. Don’t. “everyone knows it’s a lot harder to unlearn a bad habit you picked up watching a stupid youtube video, than to learn a new skill. Come ready to work, and they’ll teach you what you need to know.” It’s solid advice, especially for someone with no experience, but the drive to invest time in the outdoors.
As we finish our conversation, I ask him if there’s any final thoughts bouncing around his brain. Without missing a beat he responds “yeah, don’t try to eat six large ice creams from the quick stop II “

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That’ll do you god of lactose consumption, that’ll do.
As always, if there are questions, or comments feel free to email me. Or just comment below and I’ll be happy to answer them.

“So there I was”; a sit-down with Dylan Robinson

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That header image says it all, and if it doesn’t, Dylan’s version of introducing himself when I recorded this interview does. “So there I was, I left her under the bridge”.
Meet Dylan (pronounced Die-laan around camp) Robinson. Dylan’s a bit of a character, but has a genuine passion for doing things to the fullest of his abilities. Sometimes those things are a bit odd. When asked to carve an “aroostick”, which is basically a simple hook for moving hot objects around or off the fire, Dylan turned his into a small Neolithic-esque effigy (seen in his hand above.) This would seem to be his modus operandi for any task given to him. Do it, and do it as completely as he can, even if that means doing it in his own particular fashion.
Dylan has moved around a lot in his life, and seems to have an anecdote about each place mentioned. The only one he didn’t like is Ohio. That’s actually a bit of an understatement. Dylan really hates Ohio. I’d have to do a separate article to explain how much he hates Ohio.

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(Dylan practicing canoe lifts with some help.)

After serving in the army infantry, Dylan  found Jack Mountain through a friend while working at a zipline. After doing as much research and pestering Tim and Paul about every detail he could, attended the winter course earlier this year.  He clearly enjoyed it otherwise I wouldn’t be interviewing him here. He explains that the only qualm he has about the spring course is that, as someone who’s already done the winter course ( which is essentially a literal trial by fire. Not in the sense of getting burned, but in learning to make a fire efficiently, and under the pressure of temperatures that are occasionally below freezing. “That’s not to say you WON’T get burned when you roll over towards the fire in your sleep” he says.) The first week of everyone catching up is “kind of a drag”. He goes on to say that “I do recommend that people do come to the winter course first. It makes things a whole lot easier “.
His impression of the course now that we’re a few weeks in? Much better. Now that we’re in the swing of things, and past the “get to know each other “ phase, he’s having opportuniies to do new things. “the canoeing’s great, now that we’re actually out on the water “ he says, before explaining that he’s enjoying himself much more now that we’re done with all the little things that come along with a big group of strangers living basically on top of each other twenty four seven.

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When asked about any difficulty he’s had, he immediately responds by explaining that he wasn’t expecting as much academic work. We have a bunch of different log books we have to upkeep daily, plant species to press samples of and research, as well as studying the stars and how to navigate by them. “its definitely been difficult, I haven’t been in school since 2006, so I’ve been getting back into the swing of it.” It’s something to think about for anyone considering a course at Jack Mountain, or any course like it that’s worth its salt. It’s not just a camping trip, it’s a full on immersion experience. That includes learning as much as you can about everything around you in the natural world, and being able to implement it in your every day life. Especially if you’re planning on working as a guide.
On that note though, Dylan has jumped into this industry with both feet. (What’d I tell you, whatever he does, he does wholeheartedly) after this course he’ll be taking the canoe course with Jack Mountain, and rather than go back to Wisconsin for the month in between he and some of the other students will be camping in the North Maine woods. He’s also planning on working as a guide and camp hand with an organization in Montana that oversees long hunting trips using pack mules.
He’d also like to keep trying out other schools around the country. Working on the realm of outdoor education or guiding seems to encourage that. Which is a refreshing thing to me. So often people go to school, get a diploma and never even consider going back. It’s simply a prerequisite to the next “step” in life, rather than an opportunity to improve your understanding of a subject, or the world around you. Time and money can be a big factor of course, but as Dylan so aptly puts it while explaining that this course and a few others he’s looking into are covered by the GI Bill, “why wouldn’t I just go camping for free?”. So to anyone who’s a former member of the military, and looking to get into something like this, the GI Bill covers certain courses, and will at the very least get you started.
He also really recomends taking Tim and Paul up on the “call if you have questions” statement. He says it was hugely helpful while he was looking for gear, making sure this was the right place for him, etc. On that note, I spoke to Paul, and while he agrees that you should call with questions, he jokes that no one should call as much as Dylan did. That however is just another testament to Dylan’s attention to detail in my opinion. If you need a spare tool, or something that wasn’t on the gear list but may be helpful, Dylan’s probably got it somewhere around camp. I’m tempted to make an “alway be prepared” boyscout joke, but I’ve a feeling Dylan’s effigy wouldn’t approve.

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All in all it seems Dylan taken a shine to this world pretty quickly, and I can’t say I blame him. It’s been an incredible experience, and it’s amazing to me how many different paths are options for people who enjoy this industry.
As always, if anyone has any questions, or comments don’t hesitate to shoot me an email, or just comment below.

But now you’ll have to excuse me, Dylan’s talking to his aroostick effigy under his breath again, and pointing in my direction.

Conversation with DJ Brand on a drive into town

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Hey everyone, hope it’s been a good week for you all.
So, rather than just writing about my own personal experience here at Jack Mountain, I’m going to be posting a few articles about the other students here. I’ll still be writing about the things we do, but I figure you’ve heard my views on the school and it couldn’t hurt to get some other opinions in if you’re thinking about doing a course at Jack Mountain or at a similar school. I’ve been slowly sitting down with each of them and conducting short interviews about how they found the school, what they’d like to do after, etc. I hope that if I can’t sway you into coming to Jack Mountain, one of the other students here can.

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I’d like to introduce you first to DJ Brand. DJ  drove the farthest to get up here to Masardis, coming all the way from Corpus Christi Texas. He’s a good guy, and has really been getting into the work up here. You’ll usually find him drinking a mountain dew, and laughing about whatever scrape his case of habitual bad luck has gotten him into last.
DJ served in the Navy after highschool, and in doing so continued the lifestyle he already knew. DJ’s father was also in the military, so he grew up bouncing around in Texas and Virginia. Once he got out of the service he took a job working at his father’s computer repair shop. I pressed him for what drew him from working on computers to coming all the way up north and leaving most of technology behind him for a few months. He explained that while he’s still fascinated by technology and modern life, he started to get tired of the day to day, and wanted to find a way to “get back to our roots”. Not in a cultural sense, but literally back to the basics of living as a human. Food, warmth and the skills required to obtain them without driving through a McDonald’s.
After talking to Tim about the course, he admits he had some trepidation. “I was sort of nervous “ he explains as we drive, taking a drag from both his ever present can of mountain dew, and his cigarette one after the other. “ I’d always wanted to be in a “survival” course, and that’s what I was looking for. After being here a few weeks, I hate that word now. Tim’s shown us that this isn’t about “surviving”, it’s about actually living outdoors “. He’s completely right, Tim Smith harps against that dreaded word “survival “ constantly, and for good reason. If you’re living an outdoor lifestyle, you aren’t needlessly putting yourself in dangerous situations. You’re trying to make yourself as comfortable as you can be without harming the natural world more than necessary.  Throughout this course we’ve learned a lot about that. How to build shelters, make fire under pressure and increase our understanding of the part of the web of the natural world that we fit into.

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When asked what he plans to do after finishing his studies at Jack Mountain, he isn’t quite sure. He knows he wants to keep going to more schools  like this. He jokes about finding one in Texas that isn’t “so damn cold”, and perhaps getting his guide license there. This is an ongoing thing with our friend from Texas. The first few weeks here the night time temperatures were in the high teens and low twenties. Texas weather, it was not. However, DJ’s says the adjustment has been a good reality check for him, and forced him to really focus on our studies on fires and shelter building, if only to keep his toes warm enough at night.
The biggest take away for him though? Cooking. We do a lot of simple, from scratch meals up here (if you haven’t had Bannock fresh out of a solar over, you aren’t living my friends) and he admits to a habit of getting fast food more often than he should. However the skills we’re learning here about the process of making good, simple food have affected him immensely. He’s looking forward to going back home, and cooking for his girlfriend and not using something he picked up.

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When I ask him for a final statement or advice for people considering Jack Mountain, he jumps on it without even thinking. Typical Texan.  “even if you’ve just been curious, or are just thinking about doing a course like this, do it. You may not end up working in this industry, but the experience is worth it.
I agree DJ, I certainly do. Now crack open another can of mountain dew and let’s get the dust off those canoe paddles.

Three Weeks In

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Well, it’s been just shy of a month since I started the semester here at Jack Mountain Bushcraft School, and I’ve got to say, it’s been pretty incredible. In these few weeks I’ve been in every environment you can think of, water, woods, snow etc. I’ve learned a metric ton of skills and met some really interesting folks. I wasn’t sure how to approach an article summing up the time here so far, so rather than regale you with all the little practical skills we’ve covered I’m going to pick a few projects and talk about them a bit.

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1. Making fire.
This one is obvious, but if I’m honest, most of us take the ability to create a heat/cooking/light source completely for granted. We started off learning how to make effective “twiggy bundles”, dense bundles of tinder that can be lit with one match and used to start a much bigger fire. Afterwards we moved on to a concept called “feather sticks”, and finally on the first rainy day we had a one match fire in the rain. The goal of all of these is to create a bunch of much smaller surface areas for the match to set fire to, and then once you’ve got a small fire going you can increase the size of the firewood step by step. Think about the last time you lit a campfire, or even one in a fireplace at home. How many matches did it take you? Or did you just use a lighter? That’s what I mean by “taken for granted”.  We went through a test with each of the methods we learned, and we’re only allowed one match. I failed both the twig  bundle and feather stick tests the first time. No matter how much I read and understood conceptually what we were aiming for, it took trail and error for me to work through all the hiccups. Windy? Better learn to cup the match in your hand better to keep it from blowing out. Wet starter fuel? Better take the extra time to increase the surface area even more. Fire has been my biggest struggle so far, and it frustrated the hell out of me, because it’s te basis for so many other necessary skills around camp. However, now that I’m in the swing of it, I MAY be too excited every time I get to start a cook fire.

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2. Canoe paddle.
If you’ve read anything I’ve written before, you know that woodcarving and woodworking in general are very personal hobbies to me. I use it to blow off steam and settle into a comfortable mind set when things in life get out of hand. I also adore boats and being out in the water for the same reasons. So when we started carving our paddles I let my experience and a bit of ego get the better of me. “Finally, something we’re doing that I already have some experience with”, I thought just before reality slapped me in the head with a canoe paddle it’d carved just for the occasion. Hand carving a canoe paddle is not like making a table, or relief carving a design. It’s a slow, methodical process that can’t be planned out entirely. You start out with an idea in your head, but things come up as you carve that force that idea to change. The grain of the plank changes, or a knot goes through it in a way you hadn’t expected. It was a really great experience, but definitely reminded me that I’m here to learn, not keep doing what I already know how to do.

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3. Cooking.
Look. I am not a great cook. I can make a few things well, but I’ve been spoiled by being around people who’re better at it than I am, and love cooking. Planning out meals for a day uo here is no mean feat. Do you want rice to go with lunch?  You should probably start a fire and get water boiling at least twenty minutes before you plan on cooking. No electricity means you have to add the time it takes to heat things up into account. We also have a lot of staple foods, that after a week can get sort of tiring. (Rice, oats,flour etc) So you start thinking of different ways to cook them, and experimenting with spices and weeds from the garden (I’ll definitely have to write an article about edible “weeds”. You haven’t lived till you’ve made soup with dock leaf and dandelion leaves you pulled out of the garden.) The whole experience has made everyone here much more cognizant of how and what we eat, even caused some interpersonal tension as people started cooking for themselves rather than waiting to make a big group meal. (There’s something in the works on the interactions of the group of men here. We’ve gone from joking for a week straight, to having a stretch of days were everyone is on each other’s raw nerves, then straight back to joking around. The “soft skills of group management are definitely an art all of us hoping to become guides will have to wrap our heads around.) I’ll be honest though, I’ve got a feeling I’ll have extra time for the first few weeks after the course because I promise I’ll forget that the oven doesn’t take half an hour to heat up.

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All in all, this is a truly life altering experience so far. I’ve woken up every day to a breeze through the pines, and the sounds of water in a stream and birds chirping. Also the little red squirrels that live in Maine? Loudest things up here. Those I could do with having tiny muzzles on. I go to bed every night with sore shoulders, torn up hands and a bigger grin on my face than I have in years. If you love being outdoors, and are interested in permaculture, extended camping expeditions, or even just a change of pace from life as you know it, come to Jack Mountain. Even if you never use the skills we’re learning again, you WILL gain an appreciation for little things in your life (like conditioned air. We’ve had a couple cold nights up here, and I haven’t forgiven mother nature for it just yet.)

Thanks for reading, and as always, if anyone has questions about the article, or the program I’m in please don’t hesitate to ask.

Slainte Maithe

A quick sit-down with Tim Smith of Jack Mountain Bushcraft School

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This past few weeks have been crazy as I settle into the swing of things up here at Jack Mountain. During a lull in activity I got to sit down with Tim Smith, the owner and lead instructor at the school and talk about how he got into this industry, as well as his approach to teaching. Tim studied anthropology during his undergrad work, and later earned a master’s in education. He’s one of the most interesting people I’ve met, and I think his studies have influenced that a lot. He has a vast amount of knowledge about his craft, and that knowledge came about simply because he is passionate in his curiosities. He has an ability to fit into any conversation he stumbles into with a quick wit, a genuine interest in teaching the things he’s learned to others and a sense of humor that seems to be aimed at himself more often as it is at others, a trait I haven’t seen in many people, let alone teachers.

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  I’ve always figured you can tell a lot about someone by the books they keep in their library, and the one Tim’s built for his school seems to be a pretty good indicator of his personality as I’m starting to get to know him. It’s packed with old books on every relevant subject. Cooking, navigation, hand tools for woodcarving etc. However he’s supplemented the strictly academic books with Walden, Whitman, Robert Service and books on the Tao, guided meditation and a slew of others. He’s also placed copies of Lance Bass and Justin Bieber’s biographies in their. Like Tim, the library is deep reservoir of experience and opportunity for learning, but always ready with a joke or some form of levity when the work gets to be too much and the mood needs lightening. Our conversation covers his journey into making “jack mountain” a reality, as well as some information on the school, and the scholarship he’s so graciously awarded me, and would like others to take advantage of in the future. Tim has been running Jack Mountain since 1999, and in our interview he explains that he didn’t really have a vision of it as it is today. He goes in to say  that he and a friend were running one day courses, and thought “what if we had students live on site, and ran this as a whole semester?” He goes on to explain that it’s been a learning experience as well as a bit of an experiment in education for him. Tim is constantly reading about education, and leans more toward the idea of “unschooling”. He explains that most of our modern school system is about wasting time, and lecturing (I’d argue that the two aren’t mutually exclusive) and that he’s more interested in hands on learning. It’s one thing to explain a concept to a young mind, but it’s better if you can “show me with a rock and a stick “. 

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I’ll post a link to our podcast as soon as it’s done being edited. It’s  good conversation, and certainly not taken too seriously at any point (at one point we talk about empty Walmart parking lots, and telling horse and buggy drivers on the roads of presque isle to go faster. I won’t give away too much, since the podcast itself goes over how he got into the industry of bushcraft/sustainable living, but I will say that even after a few weeks and some change of talking and learning with Tim, I’ve found a reservoir of experience that I wouldn’t have had I stayed on previous paths of life. I hope you guys enjoy it as much as we enjoyed recording it.
If anyone is interested in getting involved with Jack Mountain, or wants to know more about my experience here, and my experience getting the scholarship I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments, or you can check out Tim’s site at Jack Mountain

If there are any questions, let me know in the comments below!