September 21, 2018
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THE SURVIVOR: Deep in the Maine woods, Tim Smith teaches others to survive in the wild

By Matthew Chabe

THE ROAD TWISTS and winds through the north Maine woods, not in any pastoral sense, but in a way evocative of white knuckle chaos. It started snowing hard back in Patten. The roads are maintained, but increasingly less so the deeper I get into The County. They’re slick and rough, rutted, covered in mealy brown slush. I make a hard left onto a side road, and immediately wonder how anyone driving anything less than a truck gets around here. For most people, this is a place where Only Four Wheel Drive Will Save You. But for guys like Tim Smith and his crew out here, all it takes to survive is your bare hands.

SMITH FARM ROAD. He told me his camp was down Smith Farm Road. But when I pull up to the place the road’s supposed to be, all I find is a small turnout with an empty toboggan stuck in the bank. Faint snowshoe tracks lead down through an empty field into the forest. The snowfall I left behind a town or two ago is starting to catch up to me. I strain my eyes. I can make out a road. Sure I can. I strap on my snowshoes and start hiking.

TIM SMITH STANDS on the shore of the Aroostook River with two other guys, Sam and Dave, eyeing the frozen span. He’s explaining ice, how to tell if it’s safe and, more importantly, why. To an outsider, it could easily be three seasoned outdoorsmen shooting the bull deep in the Maine woods. But it’s not: Sam and Dave, relative strangers, paid good money and travelled a long way to spend the week with Tim.

That’s because Tim’s kind of a big deal in survivalist circles. For twenty years he’s been teaching people how to survive in the wild. Ten of it’s been in Maine, here in the sleepy town of Masardis, pop. 250-ish. He doesn’t like that word: “survivalist.” It suggests paranoia, he says, with images of guys burying guns in the yard. He says the terms change every ten years or so—in the ‘70s it was “survival”; in the ‘80s, “primitive skills”; in the ‘90s, “back to the land,” and so on.

I ask him what he prefers.

Officially, Jack Mountain Bushcraft and Guide Service, of which Tim is the owner, is a “bushcraft, guide training, and wilderness expeditions school.” And that’s what he prefers.

LIKE TIM, DAVE’S been an outdoorsman for a long time. He spends about half his time in a cabin that he owns in the Allegheny National Forest in northwest Pennsylvania. The rest of the time he’s at home, just on the outskirts. Also like Tim, Dave composts his own feces. (Later in the day, they have an in depth conversation about this which is alternately fascinating and horrifying.)

“All this time, I’ve been doing things my way,” says Dave, looking over his shoulder as we snowshoe through new snow. “I wanted to learn things Tim’s way. Your skills and beliefs get set in. I wanted Tim to challenge them.”

Up ahead Tim leads the pack, stopping every so often to point out edible alder catkins (you can mix them with your oats), the chaga fungus (makes good tea), and various animal tracks (determine animal size by measuring its stride). He’s a big guy, but he floats along the snow with the effortless grace of someone who’s been doing this for A Long Time.

Which is true. He moved his business to Masardis ten years ago when he found this 61 acres of land abutting the Aroostook River and decided it was the perfect spot to continue his growing business. At first, his scant neighbors didn’t really know what to think. Rumors swirled of hippie training grounds and assassin training schools. It’s a small town, he says. Then, when the name of the business got out, “people thought that it was topiaries, that I was gonna give them a couple of bushes shaped like Mickey Mouse or something.”

He spends six to eight months of the year here in his small cabin off the grid. Officially, he lives in New Hampshire with his wife, his six-year-old daughter, and his 13-year-old son. When he’s in the field, he gets back home to see them about once a month. Sometimes they come to visit him. Lately he’s been making YouTube videos with his son, humorous riffs on macho survivalist tropes.   

I ask him if his kids are into this lifestyle—the living off the land, surviving on know-how, even just simple nature hikes.

“No,” he says. “Not really.”

WHEN TIM WAS three or four, his father brought him to the local natural history museum. He was fascinated by an old dugout canoe on display there. As the story goes, some kids at a boy scout camp in the ‘50s found what they believed to be an old log at the bottom of a nearby lake. When they dove down to investigate, they discovered what was in fact a canoe loaded down with rocks. Tim says native americans would build dugout canoes, sink them each winter to preserve them, then release them when spring arrived. Here was one they left behind.

It stoked his imagination, and he started consuming books about mountains, adventure, and survival; stories from Alaska and beyond. He learned to camp, fish, and take care of himself in the wild. He wondered, he said, about what was around the metaphorical bend in the river, but the bend kept getting further away. He was hooked.

Years later, after living in Alaska in a 12-foot trailer for a year, he returned to the lower 48 to get a masters degree in education. He was going to teach school, he said, but instead studied with survival legend Mors Kochanski and lived among the Cree people in northern Quebec.

He started Jack Mountain Bushcraft in 1999, moving it from New Hampshire to Maine in 2008. In that time, he’s become a nationally-recognized bushcraft expert, published author, magazine writer, sought-after speaker, television consultant, and a member of MENSA, among other things.

“I was like, guys like Mors and [Maine Guide Raymond Reitze, another of his mentors] were able to make a career out of doing this,” said Tim. “And I wondered if I could. So I figured, hey, I’m unmarried, no kids, I’ll do this for a year and see what happens. It was 20 years ago and every year it gets a little bigger.”

SAM’S HAVING TROUBLE lighting his fire. The group has wrapped bundles of twigs around tufts of birch bark, and Dave and Tim have achieved flame without incident. Sam, a New Zealander whose job recently transplanted him and his pregnant wife to Rhode Island, is struggling.

“It’s wetter today than it was yesterday,” says Tim. “The only remedy for bad fuel and bad weather is a bigger, hotter fire. Let’s self diagnose.”

“I don’t think I have enough birch bark,” says Sam.

“I think he’s not holding his mouth right,” quips Dave. Everyone chuckles. We’re out here in the cold damn woods with ten feet of snow pack, and still there’s jokes.

Sam and Tim make another bundle together. The second time, the smoke turns to flame.

Sam’s never seen winter. He’s never been on snowshoes. He doesn’t have the outdoor experience that Dave has, but he has a little. He told his wife he wanted to get back outdoors, and found Jack Mountain Bushcraft online. He’s just looking for some backcountry skills in his new surroundings, really. As his wife reminded him, “You’re not going to go out there and kill a bear.”

I ask Tim what sort of student he typically gets here. Are they looking for professional training, or personal experience?

“It’s probably 50/50,” he says. “Some people just want to have that experience of living in the woods off the grid for two months. Some have a lot of outdoor experience and want to transition from the office to running their own outdoor-based business. We do most of our marketing online, so we throw a big net and sometimes you never know what you’re going to catch.”

He tells me about some students he had last fall, two women from New York. Complete strangers. One of them had been on a weeklong backpacking trip, and the other had never been camping in her life. She taught kindergarten and “she was just one of the coolest women I’ve ever met,” he said. “Her spirit was just like… she was going to go and get it and do it, no matter what. Ironically, you’ve got tough muscle-bound tattooed guys who are like, ‘Oh, this is so hard’ after a few days of bad bugs.”

Next week, he’s setting off for a two-week snowshoe expedition around Scopan Lake with eight students. They’ll be building their own shelters and learning to care for themselves in extended harsh conditions. He doesn’t know much about the students yet.

“WHEN YOU’RE IN CHARGE of people, you keep your eye on them.” It makes sense. Then Tim tells me about an article he read once. The writer of the article had gone to a Maine Guide school in the ‘70s. He thought that being a Maine Guide would be a life of adventure. Instead, he found it to be more like “Home Ec in the woods.” It involves a lot of resource management.

Tim agrees. His life is undoubtedly one of adventure, and he’s in the business of passing down that sense of adventure to others. But one of the first, most important skills you can learn, he says, is preparation. To be prepared is to succeed and to enjoy.

I ask him if there’s anything new he’d like to learn.

“So much of what we do here is soft skills, people skills, how to guide people into making better decisions in the outdoors and in life,” he said. “People skills, leadership skills, they can always be upgraded, even on a daily basis.”

He pauses and looks out the window, out to the great white field beyond. In the corner, the woodstove throws off serious heat.

“As far as hard skills, I don’t know. There are always more rivers that I want to go run. There are always more snowshoe trips I want to do.”

He pauses again.

“The downside to getting a little older is that the blank spots on the map get fewer and fewer.”

ON THE DRIVE home I stop at Debbie’s Diner in Patten, a place Tim recommended, to grab a bite. It’s small and rustic as local diners in northern Maine often are. A few locals sit at wobbly tables at the other end of the room. I’ve only spent a day in the woods with Tim and his students, but the suddenness of civilization, the pervasive background noise of convenience that we so often ignore, is jarring. I squirt ketchup from a plastic bottle onto a burger cooked the way I like it on an electric grill in a well-lit room, and I think about something Tim said. I had asked him if it was hard coming out to the woods, living off the grid with waves of students each year, after the comforts of home and family.

No, he said. The transition’s harder the other way around. The woods are comfortable. There’s nothing extraneous. There’s nothing you don’t need.

How many weeks of the year, he said, do you have to work in order to pay for something that you don’t need or want? “You think about how many things can go wrong if the heat goes off in the winter and your pipes freeze at home. You know, I spend half a year here and there’s nothing to break. When I go home for the season, I’ll just shut the door and go. I’m happier here. Mentally, there’s less to maintain, less to keep track of. Plus, I get one of my two favorite channels: the ‘fire channel.’”

Sam chimed in. “I like the ‘star channel,’ too.”

Everyone chuckles.


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