100 Years of Quietude

Chewonki’s chief academic explains why the idyllic midcoast campus has attracted campers, students, and seekers for a century.

When Wiscasset’s Camp Chewonki first welcomed campers in 1915, counselors couldn’t foresee it would one day become a wilderness expedition leader, field-trip destination, and school of its own, enrolling 42 high school juniors each semester from the Northeast and beyond. Since 2011, Ann Carson has headed the latter program, recently renamed the Maine Coast Semester at Chewonki. In light of Chewonki’s centennial, she reflects on the outdoor education pioneer’s mission of community building, eco-stewardship, and personal growth. — Edgar Allen Beem

Chewonki, Maine

Photo by Brian Fitzgerald

How did Chewonki’s semester school evolve from a boys’ camp?

Our founder, Clarence Allen, came from a much more traditional education background. He ran the camp during summer and a school during the year. Tim Ellis, the foundation’s president later in the 20th century, was also an educator, and I think both felt this desire to create an educational institution. The program has evolved with this formula of really celebrating Chewonki’s mission while getting kids ready for selective colleges.

How does a semester in the woods boost college appeal?

My sense, and what I hear from admissions deans, is that the kids who do these kinds of programs are at an advantage. They show courage and independence and maturity in doing this.

At nearly $27,000, a Chewonki semester isn’t cheap.

We’re a deliberately small program, 42 students, and yet we have about 18 adults who work with those kids. That’s a pretty tiny ratio, so the cost of faculty is a pretty large portion of that. We have some loyal partners in trying to make it accessible to kids. In any given year, I’d say a third of our students are on some amount of financial aid.

In the ’70s, Chewonki was transcending summer camp to spearhead an outdoor education movement. What’s changed now that outdoor ed programs like National Outdoor Leadership School are more widespread?

We have kids who’ve never gone camping sleeping in the same cabin with kids who’ve done the NOLS course. I think it’s fantastic that kids will go on a NOLS or an Outward Bound course, because then they’re hungry for “Can’t my school be like this?” I see those programs contributing to students feeling they want something different.

Is it important Chewonki is in Maine? Could it be elsewhere?

Maine is a perfect laboratory. We have tide pools and salt marshes, streams and forests, sandy beaches and our own 400-acre private peninsula. The diversity of the ecosystem is so exciting.

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Edgar Allen Beem

Contributing editor Edgar Allen Beem has been writing for Down East since 1983.