Trekking across frozen lakes in the middle of the Maine Wilderness is all part of a day's work for Traditional Skills Club members at COA.Trekking across frozen lakes in the middle of the Maine Wilderness is all part of a day's work for Traditional Skills Club members at COA. Credit: Annaleena Vaher ’21.

“Can we switch?” I asked Mihir. Flies were buzzing around my head, and I wasn’t sure if that itch on the back of my arm was another mosquito or just a bead of sweat. I couldn’t swat at either, because my hands were holding the gunnel of the canoe above me. Portaging is hard on every part of the body, but this time we had made it easier for our shoulders by padding them with life vests. On past carries we had neglected this, either out of pride or sheer stupidity. It was a small relief, but it made a difference. Still, I was tiring quickly. My arms were throbbing, my back aching, and my knees threatening to give out at every step.

We made the switch, familiar with the maneuver by that point in the trip. We were on the final and longest portage of a six day trip around Northern Maine’s Debsconeag lakes. We pressed down the path, an old logger’s road. It brought us to a patch of clearcut, where the lack of Learning solid bushcraft skills like fire building and starting is an important, early component of the COA Traditional Skills Program.Learning solid bushcraft skills like fire building and starting is an important, early component of the COA Traditional Skills Program. Credit: Aliyah Zweig ’22shade meant that all the dead wood was bleached white from the sun, and we were exposed to the day’s heat. We trudged across and back into the forest, where I spotted shimmering blue water through the trees.

“I can see the lake!” I shouted. Mihir hooted in response. “Do you think you can make it to the end?”

“Yeah, I’m good,” he said.

We pushed on, our pace quickened with the promise of rest. After a few strenuous minutes, we were lakeside, on a small lawn near a cluster of cottages. We lowered the canoe and burst into cheers, sighs, and high fives, falling onto the green grass in the hot, late-morning sun.

Mihir Vikrant Kaulgud ’21 and I were exploring Debsconeag lakes as part of College of the Atlantic’s Traditional Skills Program. Along with a dozen other adventure-minded students, we’d been studying outdoor survival skills across a mix of terrains and seasons.

There is no one tradition these skills belong to. Under the guidance of legendary Registered Maine Guide Alexandra Conover Bennett ’72, COA students learn from indigenous knowledge, guide experience, and the culture of those who live on the land. The program is a collaboration between COA and Conover Bennett, and uses her rugged North Woods Ways forest center as a homebase. I spent a full academic year as a student in the program before I began leading trips. In that time, I learned much about the wilderness, and much about myself.

Beginning In the fall, we learned basic bushcraft skills: how to fell trees, chop wood and build fires. We built shelters, collected mushrooms, and made ropes out of the roots of white spruce. For many of us, the fall term was a process of getting acquainted with the outdoors, and with each other. Our small group grew together into our new home– the Maine wilderness. In the chaos of first term, these trips were a grounding experience, and the group felt like a family.

Students in College of the Atlantic's Traditional Skills Club learn how to thrive in all of Maine's seasons, from buggy summers to bone-chilling winters.Students in College of the Atlantic's Traditional Skills Club learn how to thrive in all of Maine's seasons, from buggy summers to bone-chilling winters. Credit: Annaleena Vaher ’21

During the winter, Conover Bennett taught us how to camp and be outdoors in temperatures well below freezing. Camping during the winter presents an entirely new set of challenges. You have to make sure you have enough wood to keep you warm in the evenings and mornings, that the stove in your tent is ventilated properly and is not touching anything that could catch on fire. Nothing must get wet–it will start freezing right away! A week-long trip at the end of the term put these skills to the test, and we all failed, and succeeded, many times.

We had been pulling gear-laden sleds across frozen lakes, sleeping in large canvas tents equipped with wood stoves. One morning, I left a plastic plate on top of the hot stove. In a matter of minutes, toxic smoke filled the tent, and we were forced to rush out into the snow with barely any clothes on! Later that same day, a pot of water was knocked onto my sleeping bag, and I had to make frantic, desperate efforts to dry it before it froze.

For many participants, the COA Traditional Skills Club offers their first real exposure to wilderness and outdoor skills.For many participants, the COA Traditional Skills Club offers their first real exposure to wilderness and outdoor skills. Credit: Aliyah Zweig ’22As harsh as that trip was, it was filled with some of the most beautiful moments of the year: pulling my sled in a t-shirt on a particularly warm afternoon; all thirteen of us huddled into the same tent eating dinner; standing in the snow alone to reflect and just be with the place before finishing the voyage. I’d had what felt like a long winter so far, and had not been feeling quite myself. At the end of that week, I felt fully alive again.

Spring was spent canoeing. During two weekends we learned to paddle, line, and pole; all skills required to navigate the waterways of Maine. We used lightweight plastic canoes; we knew they were convenient but thought they were kind of awful compared to traditional boats, and liked to complain about it some. But Conover Bennett wouldn’t let us get stuck on the material our canoes were made of. Focusing on that was missing the point, she said. While the canoes might not be of the best quality, we should treat them with respect and act as if they were as delicate as traditional canvas ones, she said. Everything we do in our lives, and especially what we do in nature, has a reciprocity, she said. The care and respect we show our gear, the land, and each other will return to us in one way or another. This perspective is in many ways human ecological–it acknowledges the irrevocable interconnection of people and our environments. When you approach life through this perspective, everything transforms. New responsibilities emerge, but so does new beauty. The world suddenly becomes much fuller.

During the final stretch out of the Debsconeags, I opted to solo paddle Conover Bennett’s wood and canvas canoe. I knew it would be tough to keep up with the group, but I had lots of energy, and I really wanted to work on my North Woods stroke. Through some delicate maneuvering, Vikrant Kaulgud and I swapped canoes. I paddled ahead and immediately found myself being buffeted by strong wind and being pushed right towards the rocks. I struggled desperately, trying to outmuscle the momentum the boat was building. But, while doing this, I noticed that the boat moved forward easily with the nose slightly into the wind, and if I paddled constantly on my right, I could keep that angle: I was using the boat as a sail. Suddenly, instead of constantly struggling to keep off the rocks, I was cutting through the water with ease, passing all of the tandem canoes.

For Dominique Arsenault ’21, Traditional Skills training offers many lessons for life.For Dominique Arsenault ’21, Traditional Skills training offers many lessons for life. Credit: Aliyah Zweig ’22

As I glided along, I realized that I couldn’t have done this a year ago. Not only had I lacked the paddling skills, but my mindset had been all wrong. I would have fought with the wind and the boat, and would definitely have lost. But I’d learned that being out in the wilderness isn’t a fight or a battle for survival, no matter how miserable the conditions may be. It is a relationship–a reciprocity. To be in the world, both physically and mentally, is to be in constant conversation. To thrive in the North Woods of Maine, you need to speak the languages of the rivers and lakes, of the forests, and of the mountains. You need to listen to what the land and the people who’ve been living there for generations have to say. Their lessons will help you navigate more than just rivers.Maine's abundant rivers and lakes make for incredible exploring for students at College of the Atlantic. All are welcome to join COA's Outing Club for weekly adventures.Maine's abundant rivers and lakes make for incredible exploring for students at College of the Atlantic. All are welcome to join COA's Outing Club for weekly adventures. Credit: Morgane Saint-Cyr ’22