Wendy Clark Wescott grew up in the New York suburbs, not a child who had an interest in the outdoors. But Junior Maine Guide camp changed that, so much so that Wescott, now 61, is meeting her former camp mates this summer up near Rangeley on the edge of the north Maine woods, where more than 40 years ago they learned to build fires, fix tents, and find food in the woods.
In 1967, Wescott went to the unique Maine camp where teenagers are tested on wilderness survival. Now a social worker in Rhode Island, she looks back and said that time at Junior Maine Guide camp in the Maine woods taught her how to face life straight on.
“I think JMG single-handedly gave me the confidence that I could survive pretty much anything. And I’ve carried that with me through life. I think I learned that whatever they throw at you, you can create something to survive. You just need to think outside the box, because this is how life goes. You learn as you go,” said Wescott, of Barrington, R.I.
It’s a common feeling among JMG alums.
Mark McLaughlin grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey with no interest in the woods. The Junior Maine Guide program changed his mind set and gave him a different life philosophy.
“Before that I didn’t know about camping. I didn’t care about the woods. I wasn’t really an environmentalist,” said McLaughlin, of Princeton, N.J. “And I wasn’t into absolute extreme survival. But it was a wonderful experience, to learn how to identify trees, to learn how to build different fires, to learn to bake and cook and canoe. I’ve kept those skills my whole life.”
At Junior Maine Guide, which is now run outside Oquossoc, youth have been tested for 75 years on their ability to put up a tent without a pole, to gather firewood and build a fire, as well as cook outdoors.
And this summer when the Junior Maine Guide program celebrates its 75th anniversary, Wescott and McLaughlin will be there to thank the long-term mentors who taught them.
“I’m really excited to go up there and thank them personally for what they’ve added to me as a person in my development,” said McLaughlin, who attended the camp in 1983. “I’m a neurosurgeon in New Jersey. And I really think the more well-rounded you are as a person, the better you can take care of your patients. I think that all came from the Maine wilderness program and JMG. It truly changed my life, because I became an outdoorsman. I would have never done that had I not done JMG. I really do think it changed my life.”
And in many ways, the program hasn’t changed.
Moose Curtis, the program’s director since 1977, said some parts of the test were dropped, like felling a tree and setting up camp in a wilderness area. And the first 40 years of the program, it was just for boys.
But JMG still tests young adults on outdoors skills. And the method of evaluation using a practical hands-on test is still the same.
Today, only about 50 percent pass the wilderness test. But Curtis thinks despite the drop in numbers, from 140 to about 60, he believes JMG will continue.
“It’s dropped from where it was in its heyday. The outdoors has changed so much. But there are still a group of teenagers who want to learn these skills and take the challenging test,” Curtis said.
And JMG is still changing their life view, making time outdoors a big part of it.
While neither Wescott nor McLaughlin grew up in outdoor environments, they both said today they are happiest there. And they learned that through JMG.
“My husband and I have a little camp … in Fryeburg. He goes out and fishes, and I read and stare at the mountains,” Wescott said.
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: [email protected]