This part of the Mattawamkeag River is often visited by students of the Maine Guide training courses at Maine Outdoor Learning Center in Mattawamkeag. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

The sunbaked surface of a boulder warmed the palms of my hands as I leaned back and watched the flowing water of the Mattawamkeag River. For four days, the river’s soothing roar would serve as a soundtrack for Maine Guide training at Maine’s Outdoor Learning Center.

During breaks in study, the river would beckon students down to its edge, tempting us to swim or cast a fishing line. A dozen people of all ages and walks of life gathered with a common goal: to become registered Maine Guides, to earn that green-and-red patch that means so much to the state’s outdoor community.

Becoming a registered Maine Guide is a process that includes passing a two-part exam.  

There’s the oral exam in which you demonstrate knowledge and skills in front of members of the testing board, and there’s the written exam.

Not everyone takes the same exam. Registered Maine Guides specialize in different activities. There’s hunting, fishing and recreation (which includes things like inland boating, camping and hiking). There’s also a test for sea kayaking and tidewater fishing.

Once you pass the exam, you receive a license, which permits you to accept remuneration for guiding people in certain outdoor activities.

People study for the exam in a variety of ways, including attending Maine Guide training courses like the one offered by Maine’s Outdoor Learning Center.

Aislinn Sarnacki joins a fellow student students of the Maine Guide training courses at Maine Outdoor Learning Center in Mattawamkeag. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

In many ways, I’ve been studying for this exam since I was a little girl wandering my home’s backyard forest in Winterport, and fishing on frozen ponds with my dad. More recently, my job as an outdoor writer has taught me a great deal about the state’s vast wilderness. And the thousands of miles I hiked for my Bangor Daily News “1-Minute Hike” series and hiking guidebooks also taught me a thing or two about staying safe and comfortable outdoors.

Nevertheless, when I officially decided to pursue a Maine Guide patch, I knew I had a lot of studying to do.

I started by poring over books suggested for prospective guides by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, including “River Rescue: A Manual for Whitewater Safety” by Les Bechdel and Slim Ray.

When I got tired of reading, I stared at duck photos in the booklet “Waterfowl Identification: The LeMaster Method” by Richard LeMaster.

But a highlighter and notecards can only get you so far.

When learning outdoor skills, it’s crucial to be hands-on. And it’s especially valuable to learn directly from experts. So I took courses in wilderness medicine and navigation, and I signed up for Maine’s Outdoor Learning Center’s Maine Guide training course, where I hoped I’d uncover — and start to fill — any gaps in my knowledge. It’s been instructing people in outdoor skills for about 25 years, so it really has it down to a fine art.

Scheduled for early June, our course was located at Maine’s Outdoor Learning Center’s base on the Mattawamkeag River just outside of Lincoln. Wanting the full experience, I opted to stay the night (rather than commute) and enjoy all of the center’s home-cooked meals. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised when I was shown to a beautiful off-the-grid cabin with a screened in porch and gas-fueled lamp. Just a few buildings away was a lovely shower house, run by a generator at specific times, and the cleanest, nicest-smelling outhouse I’ve ever encountered.

I’m not kidding. I’m actually puzzled by it.

My classmates included a carpenter, kindergarten teacher, engineer, military veteran and father-son team. One student’s goal was to guide bird hunts with his dogs, while another wished to share his love of fishing with clients. In four days, that particular student, Brent, managed to catch about 70 fish from the river between our lessons and meals.

Aislinn Sarnacki stands with her fellow students and instructors at the Maine Guide training course at Maine Outdoor Learning Center in Mattawamkeag. The owners of the center, John and Tami Rogers, are bottom left. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Brent was so excited about fishing on the Mattawamkeag that he was late for dinner one evening. If you’ve ever had food cooked by John and Tami Rogers, the owners of Maine’s Outdoor Learning Center, you’d understand why it’d take a very good reason to ever be late to a meal. That evening, we were eating homemade macaroni and cheese, fried shrimp, and homemade bread, with some sort of cherry-peach concoction for dessert.

Brent must really love to fish.

My goal is to acquire my Maine Guide license for recreation, with the intention to guide hikes and camping trips that focus on observing and respectfully engaging with nature. The license would also allow me to take clients in canoes or kayaks on inland waters, which really opens up some possibilities. We have thousands of lakes and ponds in Maine, not to mention some truly spectacular rivers.

The four-day course included a lot of classroom learning, but to my delight, the classroom was outdoors, under the shade of tall trees. As we reviewed boating safety laws and took bearings with our compasses, a pair of hairy woodpeckers fed their nestlings in a tree cavity nearby. A constant breeze kept the bugs away, and at the bottom of a steep embankment, the river roared.

In that handful of days, we learned a lot together. We also shared our knowledge and passion for the outdoors through stories — some of which had me in stitches. John, in particular, has a way with words, which makes him a truly entertaining teacher. Seated at the outdoor dining table or around the fire pit, we forged friendships as hunters, hikers, fishermen — outdoors-people.

Now we’re back home, continuing on our individual journeys. When ready, we’ll each take the exam. I’ll probably be weighing multiple choice answers when John’s voice will echo through my head: “RTFQ” — an acronym he uses to serve as a reminder to read the question carefully.

No matter how long it takes each of us to earn our Maine Guide patch, we’ll continue to support one another. Some of us already have plans to go canoeing and foraging together. Becoming a Maine Guide is a big personal achievement, but getting there doesn’t need to be a solo trip.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...