Swapping out modern methods of winter camping for a set of traditional skills perfected in the Maine wilderness, a group of COA students brave the chill of Northern Maine's woods.Swapping out modern methods of winter camping for a set of traditional skills perfected in the Maine wilderness, a group of COA students brave the chill of Northern Maine's woods. Credit: June Soo Shin ’21

The trip aimed to build character and confidence among novice winter campers, while also highlighting the pristine beauty of Maine’s northern wilderness.

The eight-student group, including two COA outdoor-leadership guides, set out in below freezing temperatures to the remote North Woods Ways wilderness center along the Willimantic River.

“A big part of thriving here at COA is embracing what's thrown at us and particularly loving the environment we're in” — <a href="/live/profiles/2187-laura-elizabeth-montanari" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Laura Montanari ’18</a>.“A big part of thriving here at COA is embracing what's thrown at us and particularly loving the environment we're in” — Laura Montanari ’18. Credit: June Soo Shin ’21“A big part of thriving here at COA is embracing what’s thrown at us and particularly loving the environment we’re in,” said trip co-leader Laura Montanari ’18. “One of the most important things is showing people that being outside in the winter doesn’t have to be scary. Being outside in the winter doesn’t mean you’re going to be cold — as long as you’re prepared, you’re wearing the right things, and eating the right things, you can be outside in the winter and be comfortable. Which is really empowering.”

Aaron Morris ’21, a first-year student from Jacksonville, Florida, said he was fascinated by the site and sheer amount of snow when the group arrived up north.

“It was beautiful! It was definitely cold, but it was so gorgeous,” he said. “Our campsite was nestled between a hill that was perfect for sledding and a frozen river perfect for hiking on.”

Students were not only in awe of the setting itself, but of all the technical subtleties that went into keeping them warm outside in frigid temperatures. For Megan Peralez ’18, a student from Texas camping for her first time during the winter, the know-how of the team leaders and the groups extensive use of traditional gear was impressive.

In addition to trekking through northern Maine in subzero temperatures and chopping their own wood, students make time to go sledding and hike up a frozen river during their winter camping trip.In addition to trekking through northern Maine in subzero temperatures and chopping their own wood, students make time to go sledding and hike up a frozen river during their winter camping trip. Credit: June Soo Shin ’21“I was surprised that there were so many things that go into it all, like clearing out the little welcome mat with pine needles or setting up the tent in a very particular way so that the snow falls off it,” she said.

Giaime Mameli ’20, a student from Italy and one of the two team leaders of the trip, was particularly passionate about the use of traditional gear and gave a detailed account of what the group used. He explained that all firewood for the stove was cut by the campers themselves, and that this was key for the experience of creating a more involved way of camping and giving students the opportunity to learn about their surroundings.

The group used mukluks, traditional shoes made of caribou or moose hide, to keep their feet warm, and mittens made with the same traditional materials to warm their hands. In a challenge to conventional, modern camping gear, the group was exposed to traditional knowledge systems that teach the real science of staying warm outdoors, Mameli said.

The two student leaders of COA's winter camping trip learned how to survive in the Maine woods in winter by taking a traditional outdoor skills <a href="/our-community/student-activities/outdoor-programs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">program</a>, also offered by COA, during the 2016-2017 academic year.The two student leaders of COA's winter camping trip learned how to survive in the Maine woods in winter by taking a traditional outdoor skills program, also offered by COA, during the 2016-2017 academic year. Credit: June Soo Shin ’21

Human ecology is learning about our connection to the landscape and the environment, so being able to extend this throughout the year and not be agonized throughout the winter is key to our educational experience here,” Mameli said.

The knowledge that Mameli and Montanari have of Maine’s outdoors is largely attributed to their passionate involvement with COA’s Traditional Skills Program. Both leaders participated in the 2016-2017 program, where they learned the skills that people native to Maine’s winters have been using to survive in the dramatic landscape for many years.

By utilizing more traditional and engaging methods of winter camping, such as cutting the firewood for the stove themselves, winter campers gain the opportunity to learn about their surroundings.By utilizing more traditional and engaging methods of winter camping, such as cutting the firewood for the stove themselves, winter campers gain the opportunity to learn about their surroundings. Credit: June Soo Shin ’21Two of the program’s instructors are North Woods Ways founders and COA alumni Alexandra Conover Bennett ’72 and Garrett Conover ’71. Their wilderness center offers both guiding and workshops and is a culmination of the 40 years of wilderness experience the pair has absorbed since graduating from COA.

In 2015, when Montanari first began the traditional skills program, Bennett visited Bar Harbor and left Montanari with words that have since inspired her to share what she learns about the outdoors with students new to COA and Maine.

“Alexandra told me,’I love taking people outside and helping them see that here, they are at home,’” Montanari said.

The tradition of shared knowledge at COA, passed down through generations of students as they matriculate and graduate, extends beyond dialogue in the classroom and is key to the experiential education valued at the school, Montanari said.

For Montanari, the winter camping trip was about exposing first year students to the reality of Maine’s harsh winters, but in a new light. And for both team leaders, the trip presented a great opportunity to expand their academics through experiential learning. Both Mameli and Montanari have been combining their passion for traditional skills and the outdoors on their intellectual journeys at COA.

COA students participating in the winter camping trip came from a number of different states and countries, including Georgia, Massachusetts, Italy, and South Korea.COA students participating in the winter camping trip came from a number of different states and countries, including Georgia, Massachusetts, Italy, and South Korea. Credit: June Soo Shin ’21

With the end of her undergraduate years in sight, Montanari is now beginning her senior project to publish a river companion mapping the history of Maine’s rivers so that visitors can experience these unique natural surroundings with an informed guide. Both Mamali and Montanari are taking the course Winter Ecology with biology professor Steve Ressel, where they plan to revisit North Woods Ways on weekend excursions with the class to observe how the environment changes with the low temperatures and ice.