Last Child in the (Maine) Woods

Andy Shepard of the newly rebooted Maine Winter Sports Center talks about keeping Maine’s outdoor heritage alive — one youth at a time.

Last winter, just days before Maine Winter Sports Center biathlon team member Russell Currier was to compete as Maine’s only winter Olympian, the group that had mentored him in the sport abruptly lost two-thirds of its funding. The Libra Foundation, which had funded MWSC since its inception, announced it was ending its support. MWSC president Andy Shepard and staff had eight weeks to raise $550,000 or watch the lights go out on their 15-year-old organization. In what Shepard calls “an all-hands-on-deck effort,” they raised almost $900,000. This winter starts a new chapter for MWSC, which has reorganized and launched a campaign to promote its efforts beyond cultivating world-class skiers and biathletes and hosting competitions. The group has offices in Yarmouth and Caribou, but hopes to place new emphasis on the 140 or so communities where MWSC administers year-round outdoor ed and leadership initiatives, plus trail-building and gear-lease programs, all aimed at fighting what the author Richard Louv has dubbed “nature-deficit disorder.” We talked with Shepard about why MWSC isn’t just about skiing anymore (and never really was).

So why the need for a MWSC relaunch?

What most people understand about MWSC is that we hold these World Cup events in Aroostook County that 140 million people watch live on TV. That tends to get people’s attention. We have athletes making the Olympics — 15 Olympians have come out of the Maine Winter Sports Center in our 15 years. But what’s just as important to us are our community development programs.

And why trumpet these programs now?

In a lot of rural communities, there just aren’t a lot of resources dedicated to getting kids outside, doing active things. So what we’re doing is providing resources for these communities to do so in a sustainable and impactful way. We have volunteers there, and we provide curriculum. We have 3,000 sets of cross-country skis and hundreds of mountain bikes, canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddle- boards — all available for lease.

Let’s say my kid lives a pretty full life — school, friends, A/V club and soccer practice after school. Why does it matter if he or she isn’t getting out in the woods?

We believe that in order to be successful in life, the key attribute is not your wealth, family background, whether you’re good looking, where you grew up — it’s the ability to face challenges and work through to a successful conclusion, knowing that here and there you’re going to fail. All of our programs focus on presenting kids with challenge. The lifestyle you described, that child could be growing up in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or Sheboygan, Wisconsin. But Maine has a somewhat unique heritage and culture. It’s a culture of being self-sufficient in the outdoors. Over the last couple of generations, Maine kids have lost that heritage. You go into a lot of communities where you would think you’d find people who are comfortable in a canoe or kayak, or hiking or camping for a couple days, or skiing. But kids today don’t have these skills, in part because they’re doing Little League baseball or basketball, or they’re on their computers or iPads all the time.

You describe these efforts as community development. But what does my kid’s outdoor savvy have to do with the larger community?

Maine is the most heavily forested state in the country and has all these remarkable outdoor resources. But when kids aren’t getting outdoors, those resources are going underappreciated, underused, and as a result, potentially undervalued. So we’re trying to reestablish that connection to our outdoor heritage, which creates generations of stewards for Maine’s outdoor resources.

But MWSC will continue to find and train potential future Olympians?

Absolutely, we’re very proud of that history. We just want people to know that it’s only a part of what we do. We all understand that athletes are going to face challenges and defeats, and we’re inspired by that as spectators, when those athletes pick themselves up, learn from their failures, and then ultimately succeed. But that can also take so many different forms in the outdoors.

Is there a pride in northern Maine for the region’s winter sports heritage?

Well, Aroostook County people aren’t exactly chest thumpers, but yeah, when you talk to people, there’s a pride in knowing their kids and grandkids are becoming some of the best cross-country skiers or biathletes in the world. There’s a pride knowing that the world knows about their ability to host these events — world championships, World Cups — better than anyone else in North America and a lot of places around the world.
Cross-country skiing was huge in Aroostook County up until World War II. They used to have these huge winter carnivals, which were popular around the country then. A lot of the roads used to be left snowy, for you to ski or drive a sleigh on, but around WWII they started plowing those roads. There used to be a four-day ski race between Bangor and Caribou, but after the war, they started plowing between the towns, and so the race went away. Snowmobiles became more of a factor, and that ski culture started to wane. Then we came along and pumped some new life into that, and now today, there are an awful lot more kids participating in skiing.