The average age of Baxter State Park users is rising, but those older folks who love the park won’t be able to take care of it forever. That is why the Maine Youth Wilderness Leadership Program hopes to attract young people who will be stewards of Maine’s outdoors into the future. The hook is a nine-day guided trek through Baxter State Park, and I met one Maine teen who went for it, hook, line and sinker.
It is hard to imagine a more perfect candidate for the program than Dustin Ramsay. He has been devoted to the outdoors for as long as he can remember, and he has a formidable inner drive to pursue every goal with tenacity. You would never suspect, looking at Dustin’s youthful face, what depth of character has already developed inside this 16-year-old. That is good news for the state of Maine.
Dustin was selected as one of 10 students to take part in this summer’s program, which took place earlier this month. I had the opportunity to meet with him and his parents both before and after the expedition. Both conversations left me more hopeful about Maine’s deep woods, not only because of the terrific program that is opening the eyes of teenagers to the wonders of the woods, but because of my encounter with one particular teenager whose intense commitment bodes so well for the future of one of Maine’s greatest resources.
About 20 years ago, Dustin’s parents, Shawn Ramsay and Melanie Spencer, built their own house “way out in the woods” in Newburgh, Maine. Dustin and his two younger sisters began life in that remote setting, which was paradise to Dustin. He spent his days in the woods, playing, exploring and building trails. For his parents, the work of maintaining the home and its mile-long access road was challenging. With three growing children and a lengthy commute to school it became untenable. A few years ago, Shawn and Melanie made the difficult decision to move closer to town, into a suburban neighborhood.
His parents said that the transition was especially tough for Dustin.
“As soon as we moved here he started cutting trails and built a shelter in the woods behind our house [with permission from the landowners],” said his father. But Dustin’s fervor for the outdoors went beyond recreation. When he was about 9, he became deeply concerned about the environmental health of our planet.
“He begged me to get a hybrid car, but I said it wasn’t in the cards right then,” Melanie said. “He was so frustrated that he threw my car keys into a stream!”
Dustin’s efforts toward environmental responsibility grew more productive over time. As a fifth-grader, with support from his mom, Dustin started an organization called “The Green Team,” a student-led environmental group.
“We had environmental film festivals, Earth Day events; we learned about solar energy and recycling,” Dustin said. “We had a litter patrol and light patrol, reminding teachers to turn out their lights when no one was in the classroom. At one point we got the school a $15,000.00 grant for solar panels.”
In subsequent years Dustin helped other kids become leaders and he continued to mentor grade school groups. He did lobbying work at the State House in Augusta and even won a leadership award from the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Dustin first went to Baxter State Park with his family when he was about 5 years old, and has been back many times since. For the last five or six years he has done a three-generation hike up Mt. Katahdin with his father and grandfather. It was after one of those trips that Dustin stopped at the Friends of Baxter State Park booth at an event in Millinocket and learned about the Maine Youth Wilderness Leadership Program.
“It looked perfect — nine days in Baxter Park with no fee except gear,” Dustin said. “Going into the application process I told myself I would make it into the program. I used all the word limits and worked really hard on all my answers.”
The same determination that earned him a spot in this year’s program extends into other aspects of Dustin’s life. He started competitive running at age 9 and loves cross-country skiing. Now he runs and roller-skis about 25 miles a week and competes in both cross-country and skiing in high school.
“That was all him,” said Dustin’s dad. “We have definitely followed Dustin’s lead on a lot of this stuff. I started running because he ran.”
Before the trip, there were four things Dustin hoped would come of his experience: a physical challenge, wilderness survival skills, meeting new people and learning more about Baxter State Park. The trip came through in all four areas. He carried the weight of many days’ worth of gear on his back; he learned about edible plants, shelter building and water and food management; he is already planning reunions with his new friends; and he experienced much more of the state park that he has cherished since he was 5 years old. He is on his way to becoming a champion of Maine’s great spaces.
I left my conversation with Dustin feeling thankful to the Friends of Baxter State Park, Chewonki Foundation and everyone who makes the Maine Youth Wilderness Leadership Program happen. I am also encouraged to have met Dustin Ramsay. If he is at all typical of his generation, then I have great hopes for the future of our planet.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions for future stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.