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The Junior Maine Guide Program: Confidence Beyond the Woods

Confidence.

Junior Maine Guides  – those certified decades ago, as well as more recent candidates –  agree that the outdoor living program, which culminates in a rigorous five-day outdoor test encampment, gave them confidence. And not just in the woods.

During the program’s nearly 80-year history, more than 2600 youngsters aged 14 to 18 have been certified as JMGs. Co-sponsored by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Maine Summer Camps (a non-profit organization with 125 Maine camp members), the program builds that confidence by teaching participants outdoor living skills across the board: canoeing, wielding an axe, building shelter and fire, using a compass, and many others.  But certification goes beyond that, JMGs say.

“It shaped me,” says Carrie Curtis, who earned certification in 2000 and has gone on to become a JMG tester.  “It helped me become a more confident person.”

Carrie and her older sister, Katie, grew up enjoying Maine’s outdoors. Their father, John “Moose” Curtis, earned his own JMG certification in 1964 and has for nearly 40 years been director of the JMG program.

“My parents were able to instill in me their love of the outdoors,”  Carrie says. When she is outdoors, she says, “It is the time when I’m most calm and relaxed.”

Carrie, a social worker at Fryeburg Academy, earned her JMG with a group from Hebron Academy, where Moose Curtis taught chemistry and led outdoor activities for 40 years.  Katie, a 1998 JMG, and currently a math teacher at the Dublin School in Dublin, NH, was her instructor. But most JMGs earn their certification by training at a Maine summer camp. About 10 camps throughout Maine teach JMG. Each summer, as many as 75 youngsters gather at the Stephen Phillips Memorial Reserve in Oquossoc  for the culminating five-day test camp. But what a JMG learns and achieves, Carrie says, “you carry on with you for many, many, years to come.”

Katie Curtis, who says her father “had been training me my whole life,” says there was no doubt she would pursue JMG certification.  For youngsters who participate, she says, the program teaches “how to handle failure and grow from that.”

“They can say, ‘okay why didn’t this fire start? What can I do differently next time?’ So often in our culture, students are very uncomfortable when things don’t go right. This provides a solid support network for them. It’s actually a safe space to fail,” Katie says.

And when they ultimately succeed, through practice and instruction, they develop independence and confidence, Katie says.

Katie, who in addition to being a JMG tester has served on the staff of Bryant Pond 4-H Camp’s full-immersion JMG program – where campers train for JMG full-time – calls other camps’ programs “great and amazing.”

One camp that has offered JMG instruction for decades is Camp O-AT-KA, a boys’ camp in Sebago.  Unlike Bryant Pond, O-AT-KA offers JMG training as one element of camp, enabling campers to participate in a broad range of other interests.  Like the Curtis family, there are O-AT-KA  JMGs who are intergenerational.

Take David Carlson, a 1981 JMG. Carlson says he enjoyed campcraft and tripping aspects of O-AT-KA, so pursuing JMG was a natural choice.

“It’s a really neat way to show kids the ability to feel confident in the woods,” Carlson says.  “To this day, I still go camping and still use those basic skills that I learned from JMG.”

And Carlson says the confidence “definitely carries over.”

Like Moose Curtis, Carlson handed down his JMG passion.  His daughter, Victoria, 16, became a JMG two summers ago while a camper at Camp Arcadia in Otisfield.

Another O-AT-KA JMG is Bill Southwick. Southwick also earned his JMG certificate in the 1980s, and for three decades has served as a JMG tester. His daughter Caitlin, a Camp Arcadia camper, is a JMG, as is his son, Will, a long-time O-AT-KA camper.

“What I think it does is give kids an independence and confidence that is hard to come by today,” Bill says.  “We spend so much energy protecting kids. At JMG they have to be a lot more independent.”

Bill also points out that JMG has benefits even for candidates who don’t pass the test their first year and choose not to return for a second try.  “It has bigger effects than we sometimes know,” he says.

“You have to put in work” to achieve certification, Will Southwick says. “There is no one who just comes in and doesn’t have to do the work.”

And, perhaps, that is where the confidence comes.

“II believe it is one of the best programs for kids’ growth,” say K Bolduc, a 1977 JMG from Camp Pondicherry, who today continues her involvement as a JMG tester.  Bolduc, who teaches a JMG class at Lake Region High School, where she is a physical sciences teacher, says JMG skills are lifelong.  That is one reason why for the past 25 summers she has taught JMG at Camp Runoia, in Belgrade Lakes.

“I’ve watched young women grow and change and become more confident,” she says.

“It really will shape your future,” says Carrie Curtis. “Be ready for the experience of a lifetime.”