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
Photos by Mark Fleming
From our February 2014 issue

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.

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?

Hear the Jack Mountain students in their own words:

Karl Gordy didn’t much go in for the hippie stuff, so when his Jack Mountain solo trip led him to an epiphany about man’s place in nature, he was as surprised as anyone. Karl had been medically discharged from the army in May after seven years and three deployments. Outside Baghdad, he’d once watched an IED (improvised explosive device) made from the dead body of a child take out two medics riding with his detachment. Back at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, Karl was stationed as a military police officer when radicalized army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan went on his headline-making shooting spree.

He had some dark days after that. For a while, it was hard to distinguish between life in the U.S. and life in a war zone. He saw a therapist, but the times he felt most clear-headed were on weekend camping trips with his buddies, and the less gear he brought, the better he felt, relying instead on techniques for making fire and shelter that he’d learned watching outdoor-survival videos on YouTube. The knowledge made him feel secure. When he got out of the army, Karl decided, he wanted to immerse himself in that kind of minimalist backcountry setting.

His first impressions of Jack Mountain were mixed. The heart of the campus is a wide green meadow with just two permanent structures — a simple cabin and pavilion — plus a couple of wall tents, an outhouse, and a cooking tripod over a wide fire pit. Tim seemed friendly and approachable, a stark contrast to his army superiors, but Karl was initially taken aback by Tim’s relentless jocularity and the apparent crunchiness of Paul Sveum, Jack Mountain’s dreadlocked, bandanna-wearing senior instructor. Neither seemed to take very seriously the threat of socio-economic collapse that, for Karl, was a big factor in his motivation to study bushcraft. They quipped that Jack Mountain was a “summer camp for disenchanted hobos.” They spoke in silly nicknames — the student camping area was “Moose Vegas,” a favorite camp lunch of cheddar cheese and jelly was “Aroostook cheesecake.” Some weekends, they joined the students for debauched karaoke nights at Ashland’s only bar. They were clearly enjoying themselves out there. Bushcraft to Tim and Paul seemed less like a set of tactical survival skills and more like a perfectly pleasant alternative lifestyle.

Tim addressed the class that first week. “All those car companies,” he began, standing alongside a trailer loaded down with canoes, “they want you to look at this thing that weighs a few thousand pounds, this expensive thing you have to repair and put gas in, and they want you to equate that with freedom. But this here?” He patted the gunwale of one of the boats. “This, my friends, is real freedom.”

The class’s first poling lesson threw Karl for a loop. Paddling a canoe solo was hard enough; poling it meant standing in the rear of the boat and navigating using a long, heavy rod of black spruce with an iron shoe on one end. In Maine, the technique was used in the old-time logging drives, allowing a canoeist to hold a boat against the current or to travel upstream, pushing against the river bottom to control direction and speed. A big guy with lousy knees, Karl was more accustomed to bracing himself in a moving Humvee than balancing in a swaying canoe, and he was the first of several in the class to take a bath that afternoon.

But things got better. Over the next couple weeks, Tim and Paul taught the class how to make a bow drill set, a spindle that makes hot embers when drilled against wood with a length of cord. The students whittled knife handles, wove net bags from jute twine, and learned to make bowls by setting hot coals on a block of wood, then scraping smooth the burn cavity. Karl liked the handcrafts, and at night he sat around the campfire, polishing his axe head and folding birch bark bowls while Heath played his guitar. Lloyd Beard, who’d become a civilian contractor after his army stint, told swashbuckling stories of R-rated exploits that couldn’t possibly be true. Paul’s German shepherd Arlo roamed the perimeter, burying pieces of moose hide and occasionally allowing himself to be petted. It was a mellow scene, and Karl felt the same comfort and camaraderie he’d enjoyed while camping with his army pals.

When the week of the solo trips came, a month into the semester, Tim explained that the goal was to start feeling at home in the woods. Together, the class paddled in to a group campsite on Scopan Lake, and the next morning, Karl hiked off in search of a place to spend the next 48 hours. He picked a sheltered spot close to the water and built a domed hut using branches and tarps. He’d camped solo before, but never without some distraction, a book, or a smartphone, and without one, he felt antsy in his shelter at night. He wanted a project.

So the next morning, Karl set out to build a functional bow, which first meant felling a young tree from which he could carve the stave. The surrounding trees were mostly softwoods — not ideal, but Karl knew to split the trunk to get at the heartwood, the innermost and hardest layer. Walking with his axe, he spotted a short, arrow-straight spruce in a dense stand of balsam firs. That’s my tree, he thought, since the firs’ flat needles blocked out sunlight, leaving the small spruce too little light to thrive.

He was just making his first notch when it dawned on him: He had a relationship to this tree. He’d known it was okay to harvest because he could read the woods around him. He was part of this forest, Karl thought, not an intruder in it, and the surrounding trees weren’t meant to be hugged or heedlessly exploited, but interpreted and used wisely. He thought how sad it was that most Americans couldn’t identify the trees in their backyards, and he realized he didn’t want this for his eventual kids. He wanted them to feel a part of nature, just like the trees were.

That night, Karl felt a profound contentment as he sat in his shelter, shaping his bow and listening to the wind outside, which was starting to gust through the canopy.

Since 2012, when Jack Mountain was approved to accept military benefits from recent veterans, enrollment has boosted. Nine of 11 students in a recent semester were newly discharged vets of the Armed Forces.

The day before the solos, Tim walked through the woods with Freddie, Lloyd, and Phil Salonek, who’d joined the navy at 20 just to escape West Texas. They made a motley crew: Freddie with his buzzcut, camo, and tats; Lloyd looking Cro-Magnon behind a Sasquatch beard; Phil, a long-haired Jim Morrison type. All three clutched axes, and their sheathed knives dangled around their necks like talismans. They were looking for a few slim spruces they could cut and bring back to Moose Vegas, where the trunks would season to become next year’s canoe poles.

As they picked their way through the trees, Freddie mentioned that the next day would be his official discharge date from the Guard. No more army, no more Iraq. Camping alone in the woods, he thought, was a far cry from how he’d celebrated the end of his first deployment, when he’d thrown parties back in Worcester five nights a week, because the alternative meant sitting for hours on his couch, trying to convince himself there were no insurgents behind the bedroom door, that it was safe to get up and walk around. Tim stopped to admire a 12-foot white spruce, resting his hand on the scaly brown bark.

“Out here in the Maine woods,” he said, “it’s nice to pretend that places like Iraq don’t exist.”

“Hell yeah,” said Phil.

“Damn right,” said Lloyd.

“Hooah,” said Freddie.

The Veterans Administration has promoted therapeutic recreation as a post-traumatic stress reliever since World War II, but Tim is quick to caution that wilderness therapy isn’t what Jack Mountain is about. Sure, he says, the woods can be a safe place to decompress, and learning to use a knife or build a fire can boost confidence. But these are just indirect benefits of Jack Mountain’s real mission, which is at once much simpler and harder to sum up.

“A lot of wilderness programs use the natural world as a vehicle for personal growth,” Tim explained the next night, seated with Paul by the campfire. The students were off on their solos, and the instructors shared whiskey from the guide canteen while talking shop. “We’re not a ropes course or a team-building exercise. We’re looking at how people actually lived for hundreds of thousands of years.”

He made a sweeping gesture that took in the fire, the lake, and the stars.

“People feel alienated from all this,” he said, “and they want it back. They’re tired of feeling like an alien on their home planet.”

Re-embracing primitive knowledge, Tim admitted, is somewhat less sexy than the rugged notion of “wilderness survival.” And indeed, Jack Mountain’s enrollment has benefited from a boom in survival-themed reality TV that began in the early 2000s and hasn’t let up. Tim himself lends his talents to the genre. He’s filmed four pilots for the Discovery and Animal Planet networks, including a Survivor knock-off and another about wild-harvested foods, and he currently consults on Discovery’s mildly salacious Naked and Afraid, wherein a nude man and woman are dropped into some forbidding locale, then forced to gather food, build shelter, and tolerate one another. Tim is the first to admit that such shows can be ridiculous — a producer once asked him to shoot a moose out of season, another requested he hide a decomposing beaver carcass to “discover” and eat on-camera — but the money’s good, and even the worst of the bunch drum up interest in traditional skills.

Some recent entries in the survival TV universe, however, spin around themes of paranoia and apocalypse. Shows like National Geographic Channel’s Doomsday Preppers highlight the planning (and, often, the armament) of folks expecting the eminent downfall of civilization. This, too, attracts people to bushcraft, Tim explained, but while other schools cater to this end-of-days crowd, Jack Mountain’s message is ultimately less about preparedness than fulfillment.

“We try to plumb this middle ground,” he said, “between faux–Native American stuff and tactical survival stuff. A lot of the shamanistic mindset is based in fantasy, while a lot of that prepper mindset is based in fear.”

And yet, down around Moose Vegas, there seemed to be a general preoccupation with preparedness — although in a broader sense. The consensus among the vets at Jack Mountain was that the military not only hadn’t prepared them for wilderness survival, but it also hadn’t prepared them for any meaningful aspect of life. Sure, Robbie Ludlum had repaired reconnaissance jets in the air force, picking up some marketable mechanical skills, but the best he could say about the experience was that he’d sold his soul for six years and come out not knowing who he was. All Phil got out of the navy, he said, were recurring nightmares about swabbing the decks. Karl, meanwhile, regretted the mission-specific nature of so much of his training, how little application it had outside the military.

For Yukon, the group’s only Mainer, the promise of outdoor know-how had been part of the allure of the marines. Growing up in Harrison, he’d always thought of it “just like an extension of being a kid and playing outside.” But after enlisting as a high-school senior, Yukon found his next four years and three tours of Iraq and Afghanistan revolved mostly around urban combat. When he reenlisted in 2007, it was largely for the money, and he spent much of the next four years in a windowless building on a naval base in Maryland.“I will never do anything for the money again,” he said, matter-of-factly.

“Money was all I got out of the army,” Freddie agreed. “I excelled there, but coming out, I feel like I got nothing from it. I have no skills other than I’m good at deploying. I feel like I have nowhere to go.”

Coming to Jack Mountain, Karl said, was like starting over at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And on this point, everyone seemed to agree. When your foundations have been shaken, after all, doesn’t it make sense to return to the fundamentals — food, warmth, water, shelter — and to affirm, maybe for the first time, that these things are your groundwork? The path to self-actualization, the thinking goes, begins at the campfire and leads through the woods.

Heath echoed the idea one afternoon during a friction-fire lesson. As the students maneuvered their bow drills, their spindles squeaking against wood, Yukon’s fireboard gradually began to smoke. Gingerly, he transferred the live coal into a waiting bundle of straw and moss, then raised it to his face.

“You got it, buddy,” Heath said, his enthusiasm muted behind a slow Kentucky drawl.  Yukon blew gently into the tinder, and in seconds the straw began to crackle with orange flames. His classmates cheered.

“Goddamn,” said Heath. “This right here is what we should have been learning in third grade.”

The Aroostook River serves as a training ground for solo canoe navigation in Jack Mountain’s Wilderness Bushcraft semester.

Freddie woke on the last day of his solo to find a wildcat wind thrashing the loose edges of his tarp. It didn’t take long to pack what he’d brought: a change of clothes, his camera and fishing rod, rope and axe, some chaga mushroom shavings for tinder, a few empty stew cans, and his sleeping bag and tarp. He thought about the army, now officially behind him, and about the 75 pounds of gear and ammo he sometimes humped on a routine patrol. He set his tiny kit in the canoe and pushed off. Tim was right. This was freedom.

The National Weather Service measured 30 mph gusts that day, and Freddie set out paddling hard against them. He focused on his J-stroke to keep a straight course, blocking out the small voice reminding him that he couldn’t swim. The bow of his canoe bounced with every head-on swell, and the raindrops stung his face. Once he dropped his paddle, and when he made a panicky swipe for it, the canoe tilted in a way that made his heart turn sideways. But he kept on paddling, singing to drown out the wind, afraid that if he stopped to wait out the storm, the others would worry when he didn’t show at camp.

And besides, Freddie admitted to himself, he was desperate for human companionship.  Two days in the woods had taught him that he wasn’t quite ready to abandon society altogether.  He might not need the army anymore, Freddie thought, paddling hard away from his island, but he still needed other people.

When he wandered into camp, Freddie was thoroughly bedraggled, having bushwhacked the last quarter-mile after seeing smoke from Tim’s campfire.  Two days later — when the wind finally died down enough that the class could paddle out — Freddie’s canoe was hard to find.  Out of habit, he’d covered it with brush, like any soldier would, so as not to give away his position.

At the end of nine weeks, the group parted ways. Some stayed in Aroostook while others dispersed around the country.

At the end of nine weeks, Karl headed home to Missouri, where his wife was waiting and where he plans to start college in the spring.  Yukon went to check on some land he’d bought north of Rumford, where he hopes to open an eco-hostel in a geodesic dome. Lloyd, Phil, Lauren, and the others dispersed across the country in their trucks or on their motorcycles, toting burn bowls and nursing homesteading dreams.

Freddie went back to Worcester, where a few weeks later he decided to put his own homesteading plans on hold. Land in his price range was hard to find, and anyway, he’d heard about this opportunity to volunteer with street kids in Guatemala. Maine wasn’t going anywhere, he figured, and neither was the simple life. “I’m just happy I’m going the direction I am now,” he said.

Heath, meanwhile, didn’t go anywhere. He liked the North Woods, he decided, and wanted to stick around. He found a gig as the house musician at an organic cafe and art gallery in Presque Isle, and in his free time he kept working on the carved-wood xylophone that had been his final project at Jack Mountain. And if all this only seemed to further his hippie metamorphosis, he figured, what the hell?  There were worse things a person could become.

Back at Jack Mountain, Tim and Paul had new visitors immediately.  A British production company had flown in on the last day of class to film a pilot in which Tim helps urban techies complete survival challenges using tools they create on a 3-D printer. The morning they arrived was cold and overcast. Arlo the German shepherd was sniffing curiously at a dead raccoon that Tim had nabbed on the side of the road, thinking it’d make a good prop to rattle the city folk. The visiting techies huddled in a colorful gaggle next to the guide cabin, wearing neon parkas, looks of uncertainty, and expensive-looking rucksacks with their luggage tags still dangling.  As the film crew readied its cameras, the English director hooked a thumb through the strap of his brand-new Camelbak and cleared his throat.

“Good morning, everyone,” he began, tipping a spotless fedora.  “Our story today is that you’re going out into the wild . . . ”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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