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Tim Smith doesn't think the apocalypse is coming. He's not into high-tech gadgets or high-drama, made-for-TV survival situations.

Last year, Smith journeyed to Dallas, Texas, to take part in the 2011 Survival and Preparedness Conference. Makes sense. After all, Smith is a bushcraft and survival expert, founder of the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School in Aroostook County, where he lives off-the-grid for many months of the year and teaches others to do the same.

However, in Dallas, he quickly realized that he was not among like-minded folks.

"It was much more about survivalism," Smith recalls, as opposed to his philosophy of "living a simple life with simple tools in the natural world. The products on display were much more high-tech . . . whereas my perspective is much more derived from the woods traditions of Maine and the North Woods. What I do is miles apart from paranoia-based the end of the world is going to happen and I want to be the last one standing."

He makes a sharp distinction between his field of "bushcraft" and an apocalyptic, romanticized idea of "bugging-out" after some sort of nuclear or biological "event."

And so, when I participated in Jack Mountain's Winter Wilderness Survival Weekend Course at the end of January, spending a day, a night, and a day in the woods more than five hours north of Portland, I wasn't learning how to outlast the zombie masses or endure life after an electromagnetic pulse wipes out modern civilization. Sure, what I took away from the experience could apply to a life-or-death scenario. But the knowledge I procured was deeper than that, encompassing a connection with the natural world and a sense of self-confidence that was unfamiliar.


Day One

After a night in relatively cosmopolitan Millinocket, I arrived at the field school in rural Masardis around 8:30 am on Saturday morning. I was greeted by Smith, a joke-cracking, burly guy; his apprentice Greg, who is studying to be a Registered Maine Guide; and one other student like me — 43-year-old Bob, from western Massachusetts, whose wife signed him up for the course as a birthday present. We'd be joined by one more participant: Alex, a 26-year-old English teacher at Thornton Academy in Saco who wants to develop an outdoor-education program at his school. It was me and the guys for the weekend, apparently.

Smith says the majority of his students are male, despite the fact that he "doesn't want it to turn into a macho boys club . . . I don't see that it's a man's world outdoors." He partially blames the language on his website, which he thinks may be too rugged to appeal to women-at-large. To his credit, I'll say up front that I felt perfectly comfortable all weekend; the activities were not geared more toward either sex.

The campsite, tucked within Smith's 41 acres of forest on the Aroostook River, looked like a cross between an Occupy encampment and a human-scale version of the Mackworth Island fairy village — dotted with small structures, some made only of natural resources (fir branches, hand-hewn logs, birch bark) and others combining those forest-found materials with man-made ones (sheets of canvas, tarps, cardboard). All of these had been built by students participating in Jack Mountain's longer courses — there are "intensives" (which last for one or two weeks) year-round, and one-month-long "semesters" in the spring and fall.

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