Every summer, deep in the woods of the Stephen Phillips Memorial Preserve in Oquossoc, Maine, as many as 75 teenagers gather for a five-day encampment with one goal in mind: to become certified as Junior Maine Guides. From paddling a canoe to wielding an axe to cooking over an open fire, these candidates demonstrate their skills to a panel of testers – many of whom received the JMG certification as youngsters themselves.
It’s not easy. In fact, first-time candidates generally pass the rigorous testing at a rate of about 50 percent. That’s not a deterrent, however, On the second round, most candidates achieve certification. When these youngsters pass, they join an elite group of accomplished outdoors living experts.
The JMG program was the brainchild of a group of outdoor enthusiasts more than 80 years ago; an act of the Maine State Legislature in 1937 made the program official. Since then, thanks to the ongoing collaboration between Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Maine Summer Camps (a non-profit organization serving more than 100 member camps) more than 2600 youngsters attending summer camp in Maine have been certified as JMGs.
JMG candidates train for test camp while in residence at a variety of Maine summer camps, and about a dozen additional camps offer preliminary training through the Maine Woodsman and Maine Junior Woodsman programs. JMG candidates must be youngsters aged 14 to 18, and undergo rigorous training in all aspects of outdoor living. Think licensed Maine Guide for teenagers.
That means preparing for 20 tests administered at test camp. Candidates must be accomplished in skills ranging from axe use to canoeing to cooking to maps and compasses, along with seven other major areas of expertise. Among minor tests are current Maine issues and tree identification, Leave No Trace camping, wilderness regulations, and what has become infamous for test takers, the “Wet-Day Fire,” where candidates must start a fire using a soaked billet of wood. In all, there are eleven major tests and nine minors. To pass, candidates may fail only one major and three minors, or two majors and no minors. It’s a high bar. And it can be life changing. Some JMGs go on to become licensed Maine Guides, yes, but many more build on their foundation of knowledge with new-found confidence for a broad range of endeavors. JMGs are college students and teachers and corporate executives and a vast range of other professionals. But all share the unique accomplishment that those outdoorsmen in 1936 envisioned.
John “Moose” Curtis is one member of that group. Curtis became a JMG in 1964 while a camper at Camp Winona, in Bridgton. For nearly every year since, Curtis has been involved with the program, and 2017 will mark his 40th year as JMG Program Director.
Curtis says the JMG program, and test camp, in particular, offer teenagers a unique opportunity to both be independent, and to collaborate with their fellow candidates. Test camp puts six candidates in each encampment on the banks of the Kennebago River at the Stephen Phillips Memorial Preserve. Those six candidates live and work together for five days. They cook three meals a day over their fire, they keep their campsite clean and neat, and they take the 20 tests that will determine whether they become certified. Last summer more than 60 youngsters participated in test camp.
“It helps them grow, and gain some confidence in themselves,” says Curtis. “Nowadays, with Mom and Dad babysitting their children so much, it makes them independent in a positive way.”
Ron Fournier, who is a Master Maine Guide, is also director of the Bryant Pond 4-H Camp and the camp’s JMG program director. Although approximately 10 Maine summer camps offer JMG training, Bryant Pond boasts the state’s only full immersion JMG program.
“It’s a comprehensive program,” Fournier says. “They are living at a camp site and practicing skills the entire time they are here.”
The result, perhaps not surprisingly, is often a 100 percent pass rate at test camp. But there’s more to it than that, Fournier says.
“I tell kids coming in, ‘I’m not going to make you into a leader,’” Fournier says. “We do offer a platform that allows natural leadership to show. I tell them ‘you have things like determination and self-confidence that you didn’t realize you had.’”
“They’re not only learning a skills set, they are learning about people and about themselves,” Fournier says. “To some kids, it really is a game changer.”