This summer I had the opportunity to participate in the Junior Maine Guide Program (JMG). JMG is sponsored by the Maine Summer Camps Association and Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. A Maine Guide is someone who is legally licensed by the state of Maine to be paid to lead wilderness trips within the state. This can include whitewater rafting, hunting, fishing, kayaking or the most common, recreation. Junior Maine Guide was started by Maine Summer Camps Association with approval from the DIFW. A majority of Maine summer camps offer the JMG program. It’s a four-week ordeal. For three weeks you learn about how to be a “trip leader” and then you attend a five-day testing camp in Rangely, Maine, where you are tested on skills such as axemanship, wet day fire, first aid, canoeing, and topographic maps. JMG is honestly hard to understand if you’ve never done it yourself, but I’ll try my best to explain the program through my experience.
I went into JMG with no idea how physically, emotionally and mentally taxing the program was going to be. I’ve been attending my summer camp for five years. When I was 12, I was first introduced to JMG. My summer camp offered one of the JMG programs for younger campers called Junior Maine Woodsmen. I went through that, passed and, when I was 13, I participated in Maine Woodsmen in order to have eligibility to participate in JMG. I passed MW, but then decided to wait a year and do JMG for my last summer as a camper.
JMG met two activity periods every day. There were five other girls from my camp doing the program with me. It was a lot of taking notes and studying. It was kind of like school in the summer except you were learning to take care not only for yourself in the wilderness but also for a group of younger campers. We had to learn lots of skills for written tests like First Aid and Map of Maine, but the practical tests were the most important. I learned how to swing an ax and build a fire in under 20 minutes with a wet piece of wood. This was all in preparation for a five-day testing camp.
JMG took up a lot of my summer. Every morning I would wake up at 7 am and study. I made an insane amount of flashcards and had my cabinmates quiz me. I once used my best friend as a First Aid dummy to practice. Most free swims and every rest hour, I would study. JMG took a huge physical toll on my body as well. When we first learned axemanship, I woke up the next morning feeling so sore in places I didn’t think were relative to splitting wood.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more stressed than in the days leading up to JMG. I couldn’t eat or sleep very much. One of the most hyped-up tests for JMG is “Wet Day Fire.” With a wet day, a billet of wood gets soaked in water for 5 minutes. In order to pass the test, you need to split the billet to get to the dry wood, build a fire with it, and get a small can of water to boil over in under 20 minutes. It’s extremely challenging, and its only a minor. What’s scary about Wet Day Fire is it’s the only test where you know whether you passed or failed right on the spot. If you don’t pass, it can shake your confidence for the rest of the testing camp. The day before we left for testing camp, I still hadn’t completed a successful wet day. I went to try one more time before we left. To my surprise, I did it in 13:06, the fastest time out of anyone in my JMG group. This gave me so much more confidence going into what would be the most stressful but rewarding week of my life.
Onto the fun part! Testing camp. The testing camp is “5 days” but in reality, it’s really only three days of testing. Three days to take 22 tests. We arrived on Monday and set up our camp. We were assigned a campsite, and from then on, you need to set up your tent, chopping block, fire pit and camp kitchen area. Every day, you need to keep your encampment looking as good as it did on the first day; in fact, that’s one of the tests. You are also graded on your cooking. So the first real test is Monday night dinner. At every meal, a tester comes to eat with you. In order to pass cooking, you need to have at least one successful bake, boil, and fry. They grade you basically on whether the meal was balanced, nutritious, complex and edible. They also want you to make sure you’re making good conversation with the testers. What’s good, though, is that if you fail a meal, they notify you and you have a chance to try again on another day.
Monday is not that stressful of a day, but Tuesday is where it picks up. On Tuesday I took lots of written tests, almost every minor expect the ones I needed to study for a bit more, and a couple of written majors. I also took my ax and canoe test. Canoeing, I thought, was very up in the air. In the canoe test, you need to be able to solo a canoe and answer general canoe questions for a tester sitting in front of you while you paddle. I missed a couple of questions, but my canoeing was pretty strong. I really had no clue how it went but because I was so stressed, I thought I failed. My ax test went extremely well. I had the tester who went to my summer camp. My camp has always had a reputation to be bad at ax so my tester was really happy with my skills.
Tuesday night, we were reminded that Wet Day Fire Testing was the next day. I was so stressed, I cried myself to sleep that night. The next morning, I was a huge bundle of nerves. I barely got through my topographic maps test. The practical part of that test went well, the written did not. There were more tears right before I took my Wet Day because I watched one of my friends not pass hers. When the time came for me to take my test, I was panicking. I took several deep breaths and told myself that I could do it. When the tester said go, I swung my ax and went to town. Wet Day can have a lot of factors that make it really difficult. For instance, if the piece of wood you’re using is riddled with knots, it can make splitting the wood very difficult. Yay for me, that’s how my wet day wood was. It took me a good five minutes to split it, and normally, I could be done with my ax by three. Because of this, I went into panic mode. I very rapidly made wood pieces with my knife but making the wood shavings to start the fire took me a while. Once I had a good fire going, the stupid wind started to put it out. I just kept adding more and more wood until I had a huge fire. By then, someone near me had finished in 18:00 minutes. I was almost about to give up, I had no more wood to put on my fire and I was almost out of time. Luckily, one of the testers came over to me and was really encouraging. He told me that I had enough wood, my water was about to boil. What I needed to do was blow on the fire. That would give it more oxygen and help the water boil over. By then, another tester was over around my fire pit. They said to keep blowing on the fire and be patient, I was still in this. My fire was so hot, I singed my eyebrow. I was blowing on my fire until I literally couldn’t breathe. I noticed the fire had gone out and I looked up, the water had boiled over. “Ahh!” one of the testers yelled. I yelled “Time!” There was a moment of panic because the tester keeping track of time didn’t respond for a second. After what seemed like forever, she said “19:23.” I burst into tears. That was honestly one of the best moments of my life. I looked over to see my counselor had made it to watch the last couple of minutes of my test. The smile on her face made me cry even harder. I had to take a second to just look at my fire because I was so in shock and so proud. One of my friends thought I didn’t pass because I was so close to time and was crying. The rest of that day, I took very few tests, but there were more tears because I was stressed about this one test I was taking, Hiking and Backpacking.
Thursday was a blur. It was a lot of crying and tests I thought I failed as well as tears of joy when it finally came time for the last campfire. One counselor told us before we left for testing camp, “if you don’t cry at least four times at testing camp, what are you doing?” I have never been so relieved to be done with anything. I was so happy testing camp was over but so sad the JMG as a whole was too.
When we got back to camp on Friday, It was so great to see everyone. We talked with one of the counselors who wasn’t able to go to the testing camp and told her all the funny things that happened while we were there. I was also so nervous though because we would know our results until Sunday.
When I woke up Sunday morning, I cried and then nearly threw up because my stomach was so tangled in a knot. I didn’t find out my results until right before I had to go visit my brother at his camp. The JMG counselor had us wait on this deck while one by one we went down and she gave us the news. When she handed me my test sheet she said, “No matter what’s on this, I’m so proud of you.” My eyes went immediately to the bottom of the page where it said, “Retest.” My heart dropped. I couldn’t even really get out tears because I was just so shaken. When the other JMGs were told by our other counselor I didn’t pass, everybody started crying, half out of sadness for me and half out of being scared they weren’t going to pass either. When I saw all of their red faces, that’s when tears came. There were lots of hugs and as I learned about whether the other girls passed or failed. I didn’t really cry more or less. I was genuinely so proud of all of my friends that I watched grow through this experience.
The rest of the day, I couldn’t function. My counselor had to take away the sheet with my test results because I kept staring at it and crying. What was so disappointing was that I came so close to passing. In order to pass, you can only fail 2 majors and I failed 3 and one minor. Two of the tests I failed, I came within 1-1.5 points of passing. It felt like passing was just beyond reach, and I almost had it.
Over time, though, the tears went away and I realized something really important: how much I grew through this program. I became such a leader and my confidence has gone up. If I hadn’t done this, there was no way I would have been able to write an article about my failures. I learned so much, not just about the wilderness but how to handle failure. Crying and being angry is okay but eventually, you have to pick yourself back up and realize what your experience taught you. No one can take away the fact that I learned how to swing an ax or solo a canoe, and I learned to be independent and responsible, and I learned how to pick myself back up, even after I failed at something that I cared so deeply about. The rest of the summer, I encouraged younger girls to do JMG the next summer. I kept my Wet Day Billets with my times written on them and my compass and name tag displayed on my shelves and I openly talked about what this program has meant to me.
JMG, pass or fail, is the most rewarding thing I have ever done. I’m so glad that I stepped outside my comfort zone and tried something new. JMG strengthened my love for the outdoors and made me so much more confident in myself. I’m so grateful that I was able to have this kind of experience that you can’t get anywhere else.