Picking up winter guiding skills in Maine

Jeff Butler just told us that it was another bullshit myth that you are dehydrating yourself when you drink coffee. I’m in the right place.

Jeff is co-leader of the four-day Winter Skills Maine Guide course that I am attending at Mahoosuk Guide Service (MGS), here in northwestern Maine.  photo Jeff runs Northwoods Survival, a bushcraft/dog-sledding business over the border in New Brunswick, Canada.

I am very pumped to finally experience Master Maine Guide Kevin Slater in action. Kevin and his partner Polly Mahoney are MGS.

Original signage at MGS
Original signage at MGS

Kevin’s been a Maine Guide for forty years. In his early years as a climber, Kevin guided trips up Denali. MGS is now known throughout the world for guiding dog-sledding trips in Maine and in Northern Canada. Part of the mission is carrying on the bloodlines of the Athabascan sled dogs from the Yukon Territories.  There are 42 dogs here.

One of the dog yards
One of the dog yards

It got noisy, really fast, when I pulled up in the pitch black dark here last night.  The deep howls were truly wilding.

Tonight, Kevin kicked off the teaching with a slide show that conveyed winter knowledge, featuring Inuit and Innu Natives in scenes from northern Quebec, all the way up to Baffin Island, above the Arctic Circle. It was a show and tell that focused on acclimatizing to the cold.   We also went deep into dressing appropriately for winter conditions.

As in backpacking, the name of the game in surviving and even thriving in the deep cold is moisture management. I learned a lot tonight, and especially appreciated the winter footwear segment, where a half dozen different types of winter boots were laid out in front of the group (there are four “paid sports”, and three apprentices attending) and discussed in detail, pro and con.  I was impressed with the insulating layers exposed in a cross-section of a “ mouse boot”,  a thick, off-white, rubber survival boot that is generally available through army surplus outfits.  They have a few of them out here.

Scott Oeth, from Wisconsin, is attending. I enjoyed hanging out with Scott when I was presenting at the Winter Skills Symposium  in Wisconsin this past October.  Scott is also a Maine Guide, gets outdoors a lot and maintains Bull Moose Patrol, one of the better outdoor adventure blogs.

You’d think that the “wet-is-here” cut point would be 32 degrees. Winter moisture all about preserving body heat- via insulating and wicking off moisture, however, that critical decision point comes in around 25 degrees.  At that point there’s a clear line where things are going to get wet- where sweating from exertion and wicking from snow makes it’s presence. This is where we discussed whether wool/ down or synthetics like fleece and pile.

It’s a top notch facility here. We are spending night one on the third floor of The Lodge, a relatively new building in the MGS compound. We have got a big radiant Defiant wood stove, braided rugs, and exposed post and beam rafters all around us.

Common room upstairs at The Lodge
Common room upstairs at The Lodge

There are separate bunk rooms with showers for men and women and all our meals are cooked right here in the main room.

Here’s the view out the window looking north toward Grafton Notch.  That’s where we’re going to be heading for a couple of nights in the deep woods.

Yup, it's winter.
Yup, it’s winter.


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