BRIDGTON, Maine – Every summer, Wally Wilson travels from his home in Portland, Ore. to the Maine woods to teach young men to master wilderness trip skills and become stewards of the environment. Wilson is in charge of the highly challenging Junior Maine Guide (JMG) program at Winona Camps.
“What we teach in the JMG program are intensely critical life skills,” said Wilson, who has spent more than 32 summers at Winona between 1952 and the present.
The program started at Winona in 1937. It is co-sponsored by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W) and the Maine Youth Camping Association (MYCA).
The JMG program is an important stepping stone to a career as a licensed wilderness guide and other outdoor-focused professions. Youths ages 14 to 18 are eligible to participate. As part of the hands-on program, they study orienteering, precise axe skills, advanced canoeing, tool crafting, first aid, and outdoor cooking. They also learn first-hand about environmental issues.
“A lot of these kids are under tremendous stress at home to succeed, but this is a different kind of stress,” said Wilson. “Although it is hard work, it is also fun, and there is a great sense of accomplishment.”
The JMG testing process takes place over the course of five days at Swan Island, a remote land mass in the Kennebec River in Richmond, Maine. Only 40 percent of candidates are usually successful during their first year.
For the past 30 years, Winona has taken its JMG candidates on a trip along the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, a 92-mile-long corridor of rivers and lakes that stretches through Maine’s remote North Woods. There, they get a chance to hone their skills before the testing camp.
“The biggest aspect of the trip is team building,” Wilson said. “The candidates often return as staff in future years and help guide other Winona campers.”
Of all the abilities candidates are required to master, Wilson says cooking is one of the most popular. Many are surprised how well one can eat in the wilderness – if you have the right tools and ingredients. “The boys like simple good meals,” Wilson said. “The first night out, we do barbecued spareribs. The second night is steak. After that, they make quesadillas, chicken tacos and pizza from scratch. They mix up the dough early in the day, and they love the results.”
Map reading is one of the toughest requirements. JMG candidates must memorize Maine maps including 20 towns and cities, 15 lakes, 10 state parks and all seven major rivers. At the final test, they are given a blank map with only a few topographic details. They must be able to identify the map to pass. Candidates then create a “map of area” using their own map, compass readings and a protractor. Each candidate must also pass a hands-on test using a map and compass to demonstrate their competency.
Another challenging component is the wet day fire. Candidates must boil water in 20 minutes or less using wet wood. Five anti-strike matches, an axe and knife are the only tools they are given. Using paper is not permitted. “The assistant director of our JMG program holds the all-time record,” said Wilson. “He did it in seven minutes.”
Candidates must also be able to make a tarp shelter and an individual fireplace that will sustain them for an evening.
“Once they have their certification, they will be qualified to get a job working for a Registered Maine Guide as an assistant,” stated Wilson. “There’s not a Maine Guide in the state who wouldn’t want to hire one of these kids. But no matter what they choose to do with their certification, every successful candidate will leave the program with excellent outdoor skills, self-confidence and strong self-esteem.”
During the school year, Wilson teaches Spanish at the Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Ore. He grew up in West Hartford, Conn., but spent his summers on the shores of Moose Pond. Wilson became a JMG while attending Winona in 1960. As a member of the camp staff in 1997, he started working as coordinator of the JMG program. He met his wife Darryl at a Winona/Wyonegonic Dance in 1969. Wyonegonic, a girls camp just down the road in Bridgton, is the sister camp of Winona. Their son became a JMG in 2003.
Founded in 1908, Winona Camps is a traditional camp for boys in Bridgton, Maine. During the 2007 summer season, Winona will celebrate its 100 year anniversary. Located about an hour northwest of Portland, Maine, the camp offers a variety of outdoor adventure activities while encouraging curiosity and exploration. The camp aims to preserve a sense of earned accomplishment and perseverance, while celebrating milestones of success to help boys to nurture their sense of self and their self-esteem.