Love of outdoors proves lasting for longtime Junior Maine Guide

By JIM PEAK Advertising Department Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram


At 88, Nicholas “Nick” Smith may not look the part of a rugged Maine outdoorsman any longer. But the Brunswick resident still remembers how to start a › re from a wet piece of wood and what it takes for a weeklong canoe trip in the wilderness.

Smith learned these outdoors survival skills and more in the early 1940s as part of the Junior Maine Guide program, which was created by the state Legislature in 1937 “in an effort to promote the use of Maine wilderness for recreation as well as to train new generations of youth to

adopt practices that conserve the environment,” said Ron Hall, director of Maine Summer Camps.

Now, more than 70 years later, Smith is one of the oldest living Junior Maine Guides and remembers well the time spent at Camp-O-AT-KA on Sebago Lake gaining a deeper understanding of nature and the outdoors.

“It was a very formative part of my life, and it gave me more confidence in myself. One of the things that still amazes me – a city kid at the time not knowing anything countrywise – was that we (he and two other boys) would be going on a canoe trip and had to plan everything. So, we planned a trip around Lake Sebago and up the Crooked River on our own. There were no counselors with us. Golly, that was something,” he said.

Smith entered the Junior Maine Guide program while attending the summer boys camp on Sebago Lake.

“I was interested in the outdoors at the time and had been given a copy of ‘Deep-river Jim’s Wilderness Trail Book’ for Christmas one year. When I heard about the program, I had to get in it,” he said.

Not only did he learn about the great outdoors, he learned

how to become independent, to do the things he didn’t think he could do and how to cooperate with others.

“You’d be outdoors in the good ol’ air, and that made you feel good. You became part of the outdoors, part of a world that was much bigger than you, and learned how these things existed because of one another or other parts of the natural world,” Smith said.

What began as a program exclusively for boys and stayed that way for 40 years is now coed and offered at up to 10 camps in the state. The program is divided into three age-appropriate levels: Junior Maine Woodsman (ages 9-12), Maine Woodsman (ages 12-14) and Junior Maine Guide (ages 14-18).

The Junior Maine Guide level requires a candidate to have completed the Junior Maine Woodsman and Maine Woodsman levels (or equivalent), and to successfully complete a five-day testing encampment, according to information provided by Maine Summer Camps, which plans it along with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. It’s held at the Stephen Phillips Memorial Preserve on Mooselookmeguntic Lake in Oquossoc.

Smith has fond memories of his time in the Junior Maine Guide program at camp in Maine. “You couldn’t have a better place to do it than at Camp O-AT-KA in the forties,” he said. “It was much more rural then than it is today.”

His instructor at the time knew the woods and canoeing, and he had worked at a lumber camp, possibly as a cook, Smith recalled.

“He was a good teacher, a great teacher, and was called ‘Smitty.’ He respected everybody. He didn’t belittle you. He was well-liked. how to cook outdoors,” joking that he never learned how to cook indoors, however.

“It was a very rugged course, very rigorous. There were two other guys at the camp in this with me, and we had to gain canoe skills. One of the top things we had to learn was how to canoe backwards in a river.

“We camped out for a weekend and had to work out who was going to make the meals. Inspectors would come in and check our skills, our map orientation. One of the things we had to do was soak a log, a chunk of wood, in the water for 20 minutes, and then we had 8 to 10 minutes to get a fire started with it,” Smith said, adding that the secret to getting the fire started was to split the wood, to get to the center part where the wood was dry, and to use the small chips of wood as a kindling of sorts.

Chopping wood also was a skill Smith and the other two boys with him had to master. “We had to learn how to chop wood and hit the same place twice. That’s another thing we were tested on, chopping wood and keeping a wood supply.”

Smith and the other boys were told it often took two summer seasons to pass the Junior Maine Guide course and earn their certification. Smith and one of the other boys did it in just one summer.

The course would serve Smith well in the years to come as he went on to serve in the Air Force in World War II, earn a degree in history from the University of Maine, explore far afield in a canoe and even research and write a book about the Cree Indians of Quebec.

“The Junior Maine Guide program gave me a permanent love of the wilderness, Indian lore and relations.”