WINDHAM — The personalities and groups moving through and outside Windham High School last weekend were like a who’s who of Maine’s outdoor community.

And while her name is not household material, everyone at the Teens To Trails conference knew Carol Leone.

When Leone and her husband, Bob, created Teens To Trails three years ago, it started as a nonprofit intended to inspire youth. It was a tribute to their daughter, Sara, who died in a car accident in July 2005. They wanted Teens To Trails to give every high school student in Maine the chances Sara had to learn “self-confidence and humility, passion and compassion” through time spent outdoors.

As it turns out, the time for such a group couldn’t be better.

“We lost a generation of kids who appreciate the outdoors,” said Dave Conley, director of the outing class at East Grand High School in Danforth.

“When they’re paddling down a river, it’s therapeutic, it’s cleansing, it’s good for their soul,” Conley said.
Teens To Trails has helped to facilitate this kind of experience, and the biennial conference is just one way – but a big way.

The conference last Saturday brought together 375 students and advisors from 27 schools, as well as dozens of outdoors experts.

Presenters traveled from as far as the University of Maine at Presque Isle and Acadia National Park. Outdoor leaders came from

Sunday River, the Appalachian Mountain Club and Back Country Excursions mountain bike camp in Parsonsfield. There was virtually every national outdoor outfitter in Maine represented.

Students came to learn how to fly fish, cook a campfire meal, start a fire or rock climb, attending one of 70 seminars.

Amidst all this learning, Leone moved through hallways and arenas at Windham High School overseeing the project she started.

“This will be biennial. The outdoor camping rendezvous at Acadia National Park was such a success, that will be every other year, too.

There are other things we want to do,” Leone says.

In three years Leone has encouraged, funded and in some cases helped to start the 64 outing clubs that exist at Maine’s 216 high schools.

SOMETHING MORE

Last year Carly Westerfelt helped to found Yarmouth High School’s outing club with Teens To Trails grants.

Last weekend Westerfelt sat on the Windham High School lawn in the sun with a half-dozen outing club members talking about the wilderness skills they came to learn.

“You see people doing sports, and then going home. Things like this create a passion,” said Westerfelt, a junior. “We have about 15 active members now. We go on four to five trips a year.”

In other parts of Maine where outing clubs are well established, communities help support the cause – and the results are visible: students full of energy, confidence and outdoor chutzpah.

The 11 students who came from East Grand High School are outdoor leaders, competing in canoe races and staging adventure and mountain bike races.

“We paddle. We learn how to start fires. We shelter build,” Conley said. “We’ll go into the middle of nowhere and build a brush shelter or snow shelter. We go to schools in Aroostook County to teach wilderness skills.”

And these adventures are all student-run.

“He’s not there. He’s there physically, but he doesn’t say anything. He lets us run everything,” said sophomore Andrew Gilman.

But East Grand’s outdoor program is not the norm in Maine.

Boothbay Region High School science teacher Shawn Carlson, who has led three outing clubs in Maine since 1992, said interest in the outdoors among youth has declined.

“It feels like it’s more of a new concept,” Carlson said. “There used to be a lot of kids who seem like they spend a lot of time outdoors.

They had equipment and skill. Now that’s not the case.”

But Leone plans to change that. And a week ago surrounded by more than 300 students, she was not alone.

Nyalat Bilieu, a freshman at Deering High School who came with her club, said she didn’t want to go on her outing club’s snowshoe adventure in New Hampshire this winter. A native of Ethiopia, Bilieu said the cold involved in this foreign backcountry expedition was unappealing, a frustrating lesson and, as it turns out, a game changer.

“I did not now how to use them. I kept falling. I was kind of struggling. I must have fallen seven times. At the end of 20 minutes, I got used to it,” Bilieu said. “Now I want to go back.”

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]