Comparing Wilderness Semester And Immersion Programs

There are many outdoor education programs available these days, but there are huge differences in content, educational philosophy, and curriculum between them. When we explain what we do to people with no concept of bushcraft, they often remark, “so it’s just like (insert name of national outdoor company here)”. We reply, “No. In fact the only thing we have in common is that both of our programs emphasize the benefits of being outdoors.”

The large, national companies who advertise in the major magazines and refer to themselves as “the leader” and other self-aggrandizing terms, offer backpacking and mountaineering programs as their staple, and their ads feature plastic-wrapped hikers carrying huge packs and urging everyone to tread lightly (if you think these ideals are at odds, so do we). While these programs get people out in the natural world, the focus is on human interaction and high-tech gear, not the traditional skills of the wilderness.

There’s also a new genre of program with a focus on tracking and nature awareness that label their programs as immersion experiences, but meet just 2-4 times per week for a few hours. They’re located in urban and suburban areas, but claim that they offer a wilderness experience.

While all of these programs offer great things to their students, they’re fundamentally different than what we offer both in what they’re trying to achieve and how they go about it.

We’re located in remote northern Maine, and our field school has little in the way of modern conveniences. Simplicity and do it yourself are a lifestyle here, not just a mantra. Our curriculum is organized around intensive outdoor living experiences with an emphasis on traditional bushcraft skills, nature knowledge and the wilderness living and traveling skills of professional Maine guides. In addition to the curriculum, there are many lessons learned as a result of being outdoors that just can’t be learned any other way except by living them for an extended period. The focus is to make you better, more knowledgeable, more confident, and more at home in the forest. So while other schools see skills as an end, for us they’re the means to facilitate a powerful experience through simple self-reliance in the bush.


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  • Nice post!

    Of course, you aren’t mentioning any names here, but most of us know what you are talking about!

    I think the urban schools (or suburban) can get a lot of attention, funding and support because there is such a need for a connection to nature in communities in those areas, and they tend to focus on the awareness type curriculum. However, that approach often has flaws in it’s application, because it is often accompanied with grief over the loss of our greater contact with the natural world, and the simplification of “Nature=Good, People=Bad”.

    The greatest point of your post is that some programs are student centered and aim to give students real immersion experiences, including extended experiences in nature, rather than just a few days a week, where the program is more ‘material focused’ like you stated in your poor,marginal and good instructor posting.

    Something that is interesting about many of those programs is that they often give just enough info and skills to get people excited, but not enough skills or practice time to be proficient. Combine that with intensive lessons in being subservient/thankful/humble about everything and you have a perfect marriage of a student community who won’t question the lack of ‘meat’ in the curriculum diet.

    However, the other unstated factor in this topic is that of loyalty, and how students tend to stay loyal to the instructors/school that first opens them up to the power of nature or connection, regardless of their skills or proficiency, etc, taking classes offered with little discernment or question… That loyalty is a powerful bond that is significant!

    Keep up the good work, Tim!

  • Tim

    Thanks for your comment, Ricardo. The rural/suburban differences you point our, especially with regards to access and funding, are great points.
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