The Survivors

In Aroostook County, a ragtag troop of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans converges on a wilderness school for nine weeks of camping, canoeing, and self-discovery. Can they find what they’re looking for in the Maine North Woods?

By Brian Kevin
Photographed by Mark Fleming

 

Sergeant Freddie Orcutt spent his last night as an enlisted man alone on a small island in the crook of V-shaped Scopan Lake. The first frost had come just two nights before, and as the sun sank behind the trees, the Aroostook autumn took on a chill. Freddie set two thick birch boughs on his campfire, careful to lay them parallel as he’d been taught, and he thought about his army pals, how they’d told him that he’d never make it as a civilian, how they’d said he’d be a suicide for damn sure without the military’s structure and camaraderie. Freddie poked at his fire and listened to the loons and thought of how strange it was to be on an island in Maine, really and truly by himself for the first time in his life.

Across the lake, Heath Fuqua lay with his shaved head outside the pup tent he’d strung up using his old army field tarp. He thought about practicing his bow drill, but he didn’t feel much like a fire, and anyway, he wanted to watch the slow emergence of the stars, the once-cryptic constellations that, more and more, he was able to pick out and name. It was nice just listening to the wind as it picked up over the water, and he wondered — not for the first time and not with displeasure — whether Jack Mountain Bushcraft School was slowly turning him into a hippie.

A mile down the shore, Ryan Holt knew his own transformation was well underway. In the two years since he left the marines, he’d crossed the country in a VW bus, grown a bird’s-nest beard that spilled onto his chest, and adopted the nickname “Yukon” while hiking the Appalachian Trail. The day before had been his 29th birthday, and because he wanted to meditate on his growth, he’d packed no distractions for his solo trip — no iPod and no ukulele, just a hammock and an old sculpting gouge he would use to scrape out a burn bowl. On the far shore, he saw the pinprick campfires of his classmates in the Wilderness Bushcraft semester, each of them settling in for 48 hours in the woods, alone with their wilderness skills and their thoughts.

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Recent war veterans have turned to Jack Mountain Bushcraft School in Aroostook County to learn survival skills and to embrace a more primitive lifestyle during a semester spent in the Maine North Woods.

They all gave different reasons for coming to Jack Mountain. For Heath, it was because of the low-level anxiety he’d felt indoors ever since his discharge. For Lauren Petersen, one of two non-veterans and the only woman in the course, it was to minimize her impact on the natural world. For “Karl Gordy,” who didn’t want his real name used for this article, it was to hone the skills he’d need to ride out the coming economic meltdown. And for Freddie, who’d never camped or paddled a canoe and couldn’t swim, it was to prepare to live the solitary, independent life of a homesteader, an existence that struck him as the opposite of his eight long years in the army.

For Jack Mountain’s founder, Tim Smith, just why he had suddenly found himself leading a class full of adrift young vets was a bit of a mystery. Broad and baby-faced at 43, Tim is a Master Maine Guide and one of the country’s most experienced instructors in the arcane art of bushcraft, a blanket term for a mess of outdoor skills that encompasses everything from fire making and canoe paddling to knot tying and game trapping.  In 1999, when he started leading trips and classes from his wooded home in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, it was the culmination of a childhood fascination with edible plants, a master’s program in education, and years of outdoor study with mentors like famed Canadian woodsman Mors Kochanski. From Kochanski — who’s known among Grizzly Adams types as the “father of modern bushcraft” — Tim cribbed his lifelong mantra: “The more you know, the less you carry.”

Today, Tim still leads short courses in Wolfeboro — weekend clinics on tanning hides, short foraging classes, snowshoe trips — but in 2008 he moved his field school onto 41 forested acres on the Aroostook River, just south of Ashland, a remote spread that serves as campus for Jack Mountain’s flagship program, the nine-week Wilderness Bushcraft Seminar.

Every August, a handful of students from around the world converge on Jack Mountain, each packing a tent, an axe, a sharp knife, and a good pair of boots. By the end of the course, they’ll have learned to build shelters using natural materials, solo-navigate a canoe in swift water, start a fire without matches, and make tools from wood and bone, along with a host of other skills that Tim emphasizes were endemic to every culture on the planet for 99 percent of human history. With a tuition fee approaching $7,000, the semester isn’t cheap, and it requires a significant commitment of time and physical energy. Dropouts aren’t unheard of. In 15 years, Tim has graduated only around 100 students, with a median age in their mid-20s and an average class size of just five or six.

So when Jack Mountain was approved in 2012 to accept military benefits from recent veterans, Tim wondered whether it might boost enrollment. And when last year’s Wilderness Bushcraft semester suddenly ballooned to 11 students — nine of them freshly discharged vets — the surprised instructor was left to ponder: What’s so captivating to a returning soldier about simple living in the Maine North Woods?

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I’m a writer who contributes to magazines, travel guidebooks, and the occasional website. I’m also the author of The Footloose American, forthcoming from Broadway Books in May of 2014.

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