September 15, 2019
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Organization builds grit through Maine’s great outdoors

Robin Clifford Wood | BDN
Robin Clifford Wood | BDN
Lauren Jacobs (second from left), instructor for the Maine Winter Sports Center, checks in participants for a cross-country ski class on the Bangor Municipal Golf Course last week.

Most Mainers appreciate New England’s four-season lifestyle. Even so, I’ve heard a lot of locals crying “enough already” regarding this winter’s snowfall. Many of us have resorted to hibernating indoors, waiting for the snow to go away. As an antidote to the mid-winter doldrums, I decided to talk to several people whose enthusiasm for the great Maine outdoors remains undiminished, no matter the weather. So I contacted Mike Smith at the Maine Winter Sports Center.

Although I have been familiar with the name of the MWSC for years, I only associated them with a couple of facilities in northern Maine, where many Junior National, Senior National and World Cup winter sporting events have taken place during the last 15 years. After chatting with MWSC program director Mike Smith, I learned how little I knew about this inspiring organization dedicated to getting more Mainers outdoors, all year long, all over our state.

Mike is a native of Aroostook County who attended the University of Maine in Orono. He is a registered Maine Guide and an outdoor educator with an impressive array of experience in biking, skiing and paddle sports. His advocacy for Maine’s outdoors is infectious and far-reaching. The vision of the MWSC, which Mike shares, includes personal growth and healthy living for more people in Maine, but it takes the role of the natural world even further. The great outdoors, for them, can be a facilitator to statewide, long-term economic and cultural growth.

“There is an inherent challenge in the outdoors,” Mike said.

Whether it’s outdoor sport at the recreational level, competitive racing or an adventure experience, outdoor activities have a unique ability to take people beyond their limits. By helping participants strive harder to meet a goal, by developing their “grit,” these experiences build confidence, strength and leadership.

“We believe that the young people who will become Maine’s future leaders will need to be rooted in process, not just outcome. That’s what grit is,” Mike said.

The big misconception about the MWSC is that they are a facility. Their efforts built the 10th Mountain Center in Fort Kent and the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle, but those two facilities are operated and maintained independently.

The MWSC hosts many programs of their own. For young people, they offer racing, adventure and gap year programs. For adults, they have active education workshops and masters programs. In the next two months, they are offering a backcountry ski trip to the Adirondacks, a youth biathlon and cross-country ski camp, and a backcountry ski tour of the Gaspe Peninsula. Their racing teams will round out their competitive season regionally, nationally and internationally.

But MWSC’s vision for Maine’s engagement in outdoor activities far exceeds the capacity of a single organization.

“We want to take our best practices and encourage others to help people get outdoors,” Mike explained. “We want people to know that our organization is here to support their efforts in getting more people involved in the outdoors.”

MWSC has a leasing program for outdoor equipment, works on trail development and runs workshops and trainings in communities statewide.

“One of the best things we’ve done since I joined [in 2009] has been to support and work with the Teens to Trails organization,” Mike said.

The goal of Teens to Trails is to develop more high school outing clubs around the state. Last month, thanks to a collaboration between MWSC, Teens to Trails, and Maine Huts and Trails, 40 student leaders and their advisors skied into a hut for a weekend and got training to set up programming of their own.

MWSC’s program directors are working from Falmouth to Fort Kent, Farmington to Presque Isle, and out to Maine’s island communities. They are everywhere.

“We are so much more than people think,” Mike said. Then he rattled off locations of several upcoming programs: Fort Kent, Presque Isle, Waterville, Auburn, Farmington and Bangor.

That’s how I ended up stamping my feet in the cold parking lot of the Bangor Municipal Golf Course last Thursday night. A group of adults gathered for cross-country skiing instructed by Lauren Jacobs, a former professional ski racer and Maine native who is employed by MWSC.

While she was warming everyone up with stretches and leg swings, Lauren told a story about a recent workshop she gave to several elementary school kids in Bradford.

“One little girl knew we would be doing some cross-country skiing. We got their skis on, got started and she said, ‘Miss? Are we really going to ski all the way across the country?’”

Now that little girl had some grit.

If she was game to ski across the country, maybe I ought to drag myself out of hibernation and get out there too, at least for an hour or two.

For more information about the Maine Winter Sports Center and its programs, visit mainewsc.org.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.



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