The woods of central Maine remain a popular destination for active adventurers. Here, with Baxter State Park and Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, looming over the surrounding communities, you’d expect that outdoor knowledge is part of everyone’s upbringing. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, especially in Piscataquis County where access to the outdoors is a costly challenge.
“Our school district is extremely rural and poverty-heavy,” says Kathy Dixon-Wallace, a science teacher at Penquis Valley Middle School. “Even though we live with the wilderness right in our backyard, most [of my students] don’t have opportunities to go and enjoy it.”
One goal of AMC’s Maine Woods Initiative, which combines land conservation with outdoor recreation, resource protection, responsible forestry, and community partnerships, was to create outdoor opportunities for students in the nearby Piscataquis County schools. Since 2012, AMC and its community partners offer these opportunities for academic, recreational, and skills-based learning, and are now expanding the program under the leadership of AMC Maine Education and Program Manager Genevieve Trafelet.
“Part of the Maine Woods Initiative is to get kids out more,” says Trafelet. “There are so many benefits of being outside. It helps build relationships and helps [students] be aware of potential careers [in the outdoors].”
The popular summer program, co-organized with Piscataquis County Soil and Water Conservation District (PCSWCD), welcomes students from grades 7 to 10 to one of AMC’s three Maine lodges (alternating between Gorman Chairback, Little Lyford, and Medawisla each year). On past trips, usually held in July, students learn outdoor skills while hiking, paddling, or swimming in the Maine Woods.
“They’re also learning how to be environmental stewards,” explains Kacey Weber, PCSWCD education manager. “Kids come here and all they want to do is play video games, but when they leave they realize they like to hike or paddle, and preserving the recreation areas to do that is important.”
In-school learnings have also been a popular part of the program. In January this year, Trafelet and Steve Tatko, AMC’s director of Maine conservation and land management, started working with Fish Friends, a program of the Maine Council of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, and Penquis Valley High School to raise endangered Atlantic Salmon, with plans to release them into the Pleasant River in late May or early June. Penquis Valley Middle School has already signed up to participate in 2021.
At Greenville Elementary School, Trafelet provides students with in-classroom activities that cover topics like clouds, weather, snow, and plants, all with a local angle.
“They provide movement activities, thinking about what’s going on outside of our area. In one lesson, we covered animal tracks and animal habitats—that was something the kids could connect with in their own lives, providing a more lasting effect,” says Kathy Bishop, a first-grade teacher at Greenville Elementary.
“It’s a great program. We’re so fortunate to have them,” adds Bishop. “When you live in Greenville up here in the mountains, you have to have something to connect everyone to the area.”