At the base of Ragged Mountain, a group of fifth and sixth graders shuffled into a circle, balancing on cross-country skis by stabbing their poles into the snow. Following their guide, they then flopped to the ground, rolled over and lifted their skis in the air “like ladybugs” caught on their backs.
The maneuver was a way to prevent skis and poles from tangling after a fall, the guide explained. The children giggled as they rolled to their sides, set their skis parallel and righted themselves. For many of them, it was their first experience on cross-country skis. There would be plenty of falling and opportunities to do “the ladybug.”
Cross-country skiing is just one of several outdoor activities on the docket for the new after-school program offered by Sundog Outdoor Expeditions, established in 2017 by the new Midcoast Outdoor Leadership Initiative. The program launched this past fall, and so far has attracted participants from 16 towns in Knox and Waldo counties.
“I’ve been kind of overwhelmed by the support of the whole community and how much we’re impacting the kids who’ve come to participate,” said Rockport resident Lynne Kaplinsky Brown, president of Maine Outdoor Leadership Initiative.
A mother of four, Kaplinsky Brown partnered with local experts in outdoor recreation and education — including Tim Barker, director of outdoor programs at Maine Sport Outfitters, and Eric Denny, executive director of Hurricane Island Outward Bound School — to establish the nonprofit Maine Outdoor Leadership Initiative, a collaborative with a mission to provide outdoor experiences for youth by working with existing outdoor-oriented organizations in the midcoast area.
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Kaplinsky Brown said. “Collaboration is at the heart of what we do.”
Erin Jackson, the program manager for Sundog Outdoor Expeditions, drew upon her experience and resources working for Outward Bound to develop the after-school program for grades 5 through 8.
“I feel like this is kind of the age group where you can really start to make a difference,” Kaplinsky Brown said. “They’re ready to learn and open to learn new things, and it’s right before they want to go out and experiment with more dangerous things.”
Kaplinsky Brown had been thinking of creating an after school outdoor program for children in her area for several years before pursuing it in earnest about a year ago. The idea arose from watching her son, Kienan Brown, benefit from attending two outdoor adventure programs during his high school years, one program in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia and another in Montana.
“I just saw how much the wilderness can teach somebody, how much they can learn about themselves and learn about the group and I wanted my other kids to have an experience like that,” said Kaplinsky Brown, “and I wanted other kids in this area to learn to love nature and being outside.”
The Sundog Outdoor Expeditions afterschool program is broken up into three sessions — spring, winter and fall — and each focuses on different types of outdoor activities.
For the fall session, participants learned to either canoe or rock climb. Divided into two age groups, with the fifth and sixth graders in one group and the seventh and eighth graders in the other, the participants meet two times a week for six weeks and taught different outdoor skills by two professional Maine guides.
“The guides are a huge part of our program,” Kaplinsky Brown said. “They’re handpicked.”
Kaplinsky Brown’s youngest child, Cameron Brown, a sixth grader, was one of about a dozen participants in the fall, as was Sophie Ryan, a seventh grader who decided to try rock climbing to confront her fear of heights.
“It helped me realize I could do something I was afraid of and it was really fun,” Sophie said. “It made me braver, I think, and able to handle more.”
“I feel so grateful to this program,” said Sophie’s mother, Kate Ryan. “The kids learned a sense of confidence and resiliency, a sense of place and having a reverence for the social and natural communities in which we live. It’s so much more than an outdoors skills program.”
Tigerlily Curtis, 11, of Belfast, participated in the canoeing “expedition track” this past fall.
“There are so many fun things about this,” said Tigerlily, who is also participating in the winter session. “My favorite part about [canoeing] was when we did the rescuing, when somebody flipped out and we rescued them.”
The winter session includes lessons in fat tire biking, cross country skiing and snowshoeing.
“I saw the page online and I thought it’d be fun — the fat biking and the cross-country skiing and all the activities because I love being outside, especially in the winter,” said Piper Urey, 10, of Rockport, who admitted that she was nervous to attend the program at first, not knowing many people, but her dad convinced her it would be a good experience — and he was right.
“I’ve learned a lot and I’ve gotten to know a lot of people,” she said. “I would definitely do another program.”
One aspect of the program is learning and participating in some form of community service. For the winter session, the children constructed 26 window frames for a house being constructed by Habitat for Humanity. For the fall session, the cleared area trails of invasive plants.
“I think that’s really nice that we did community service,” Tigerlily said. “And we don’t just sit around and talk about this stuff, we actually do this stuff.”
Each six-week program culminates with an overnight expedition, which allows the students to practice many of the skills they’ve learned. For the winter session, that expedition is at Hidden Valley Nature Center, where they’ll sleep in cabins, cook over an open fire and explore the center’s vast trail network on cross-country skis.
“Everyone’s just so excited about it,” Jackson said. “These kids are truly motivated to be here.”
Tuition is $250 for the winter session and $200 for the fall or spring session, however, financial aid is available for families who need assistance. For more information, visit sundogoe.com or all the Maine Outdoor Leadership Initiative office at 207-200-1071.
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