The Wilderness Canoe Expedition Semester (WCES)

Course Info
· Length: 4-Weeks
· 2024 Dates: 5/5-6/1
· Sessions: 1
· Max. Size: 8
· College Credits: 6
· GI Bill: Yes
· Americorps: Yes
· Tuition: $4200

Maine Guide Traditional Canoe Expedition Leadership 4-Week Training Course

Registered Maine Guide Training, College Credit, GI Bill Approved
Practical, Field-Based Bushcraft

Spring 2023: Our 58th Immersion Program

Course Calendar     Register Now

The 2024 Course

We are (slightly) changing the Wilderness Canoe Expedition Semester for 2024. First, we’re adding a new subtitle to reflect what the course is, the Maine Guide Traditional Canoe Expedition Leadership 4-Week Training Course. I considered changing the course name, but we’ve been running this program for a lot of years, and changing the title would entail not only changing it for us, but also changing it with the Veteran’s Administration, our academic partner universities, etc., so we’ll just change the subtitle.

In addition to the new subtitle, there will be change to how we run the course. Back in the day it consisted of two long trips. While we covered a lot of miles and had a great time doing so, with the focus on miles we didn’t cover as much skill development as I would have liked. So we’re changing things a bit for 2024. Specifically, we’re changing week 4.

The weekly breakdown for 2024 will be as such:

Week 1: Immersion. We’ll be working on poling and paddling daily at the field school. We’ve developed a nice progression of increasingly challenging local water to get people up to speed the fastest way we know how. We’ll also be covering the bushcraft essentials needed to live life out on the river. Lastly, we’ll be learning all about packing and provisioning for an expedition, making menus, learning about campfire cooking and more. To sum up week one, skill building and getting ready would suffice.

Weeks 2-3: Expedition. This is when we take to the waterways and cover some ground. Making miles every day, working on skills, practicing paddle strokes, poling maneuvers, canoe rescue, cooking over a fire, etc. The days are long and full with the timeless rhythms of life on remote waterways.

Week 4: Advanced skills and testing. In years past we took a second expedition on week 4. This emphasis on making miles precluded us from covering advanced skills in enough detail to make them stick, and didn’t allow us time for testing on those skills. This year our emphasis will be on practicing those advanced skills until they are second nature, as well as testing students on them.

Want to read more about changes for the 2024 course? Check out this blog post.

Experiential Wilderness Learning Based On The Rivers Of Northern Maine

Wilderness canoeing has changed dramatically in the modern era. While once the vehicle for long-term, long-distance exploration, the canoe has become one of many recreational crafts, indistinguishable from others based on how we use it, while it’s true strengths have slowly been forgotten. Most of modern canoeing has become driving to the headwaters and floating downstream to the takeout. It’s fun, but so much of the heritage has withered due to non-use.

We believe there is still value in doing things the hard way, with minimal infrastructure. It maintains the traditions and keeps the skills and technique – the know how – alive.

To truly know a river, it isn’t enough to just float downstream. Poling upstream, lining, carrying, drinking the water, and living with it until it is forever a part of you; that’s how to truly know a river.

Expedition learning has been a major part of the Jack Mountain experience since the beginning. There’s no substitute to getting out and doing it, learning by doing, and having a life experience you will never forget.

Engagé Cert. Info
· Optional
· No Extra Cost
· Standards-Based
· About the Engagé Cert.
· About JMBS Certs.

Engagé – Expedition Canoe Skills Certification

For current and future wilderness guides seeking professional recognition, we offer the Engagé certification. Engagé was an old term for a working canoeman, the equivalent of a modern guide. Jack Mountain Bushcraft School certifications consist of rigid documentation standards, use standards-based testing, and are physically and academically rigorous. For more information on our certifications, why we offer them, and what they entail, click on the links in the yellow box. Please note that if you want to become a Registered Maine Guide, you will have to take the state test.

How And What You Learn

Participants learn by doing. This is expedition learning where it isn’t an option to sit on the sidelines and watch. We’re living on the rivers and lakes of northern Maine, traveling day after day. By the end of the experience, they will have knowledge of and experience with:

  • Expedition planning
  • Expedition provisioning
  • Group dynamics and people management
  • Traditional canoe techniques, including poling, lining and solo paddling
  • Fire lighting (if we can’t get it going, we don’t eat!)
  • Remote campsite setup and management
  • Reading the river
  • Scouting and safely running white water
  • Safe and efficient use of the axe in remote environments
  • Ropework and knots
  • Tree and plant id
  • And much more.

We’ll be living outside for the entire month, practicing bushcraft skills on a daily basis. If you’re looking to take your skills, experience and confidence to the next level, living out for a month will do it.


This trip will require physical fitness and technical skill beyond what is required for a shorter canoe trip or any other program at Jack Mountain outside of the Boreal Snowshoe Expedition. Anyone can paddle for a day and set a camp once, but to do so day after day for over 4 weeks takes endurance, physical fitness and mental fitness that can only be achieved through training.

There are three types of prerequisites for this expedition: gear, skills/experience and fitness.

Fitness Prerequisites: This trip is very physically demanding and will require a significant amount of upper and lower body strength. Participants must be willing and able to physically train for this experience. They must be able to solo lift and carry an 84 pound canoe half a mile.

Safety And Preparation

On our expeditions safety is our utmost concern. Part of the challenge is to complete the route in the time allotted. On prior expeditions, we’ve traveled only as fast as our slowest participant. There is the real possibility that there will be people physically unprepared for the difficulty of this experience.

We will be traveling and camping together, but if participants are unable to keep up with the group, they will be asked to voluntarily drop out of the trip after the first phase as the second phase is much more physically strenuous.

College Credit

Students can earn 6 credits from Western State Colorado University that can be transferred to their home school. Credits from Western State are in the following courses:

  • Outdoor Leadership, 3 Credits
  • Environmental Ethics, 3 Credits

Other students have completed independent studies through their home institution to receive credit. For more details visit thecredit information page.

Our Educational Philosophy

Knowledge is power, but knowledge is constructed, not received. It is built incrementally, over time. If teaching were simply telling, then anyone who excelled in a field would be an effective teacher of it. But this transmission model of teaching isn’t effective for most learners. Standing in front of someone and telling them what they need to know isn’t facilitating learning. Especially when you consider the differences between visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles.

We subscribe to the learning model of teaching, where the role of the teacher is to create situations where learning takes place. Students build upon their knowledge daily, and by the end of the experience they’ve accumulated a storehouse of information and experiences. But the instructor must also make it relevant. It’s easy to scoff at friction fire since matches and lighters are so readily available. But remove them from the equation and it’s instantly relevant, and the desire to learn the subtleties of the hand drill takes on renewed importance.

Our students are actively learning, immersing themselves in the curriculum by necessity. An example of this is how we teach shelter building. You can learn something about a shelter by making one. You can learn more about it by sleeping in it. But to truly know that specific shelter, you need to spend four consecutive nights in it. In this way you’re forced to deal with the consequences of shoddy construction or not paying attention to details. Maybe the first night is rough, but it teaches you what you need to do before the second night in order to shore it up and get some sleep. The second night is spent learning some of the subtleties that would make it more comfortable. The third night is fine-tuning it to your specifications, and the fourth night is enjoying the fruits of your labor. If you were to build the same shelter again, you could eliminate the learning curve because you’d know what to do from the outset. That’s experiential education.

“Experiential education is the process of actively engaging students in an authentic experience that will have benefits and consequences. Students make discoveries and experiment with knowledge themselves instead of hearing or reading about the experiences of others. Students also reflect on their experiences, thus developing new skills, new attitudes, and new theories or ways of thinking.”  (Kraft & Sakofs, 1988)

In addition to passing on traditional skills, we focus on using them to foster critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, curiosity, and a concern with ethical issues.

Summed up in a single word, our educational philosophy is this:  CAN.

Course Prep Info     Register Now


Archive: Past Routes

The 2022 Course

The 2022 course will start with a week at the field school where we’ll learn all about canoes, paddling, poling, making fire, cooking over a fire, thermal cookers, axe safety, making rope, knots, trip planning, and a whole bunch of other pertinent skills. Participants will also be put through our standard canoe poling curriculum that incorporates several local rivers as the difficulty and intensity increases.

For weeks 2-3 we will canoe the length of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, from Chamberlain Lake to Allagash Village. We’ll explore some out of the way spots that aren’t often visited that I’ve gotten to know and love over the years. We’ll be packing heavy for this 100-mile, 2-week journey.

After taking out at Allagash Village, we’ll return to the field school for a resupply, and to pare our gear down to only the essentials before heading out for a trip down the East Branch of the Penobscot. This trip is marked by four big waterfalls, lots of carries, and technical whitewater.

We will be covering a lot of ground, both figuratively and literally. Participants will learn by doing, experience the beauty and wildness of northern Maine, and develop their personal skills to facilitate future expeditions.

The 2016 Expedition

This year the summer canoe expedition crosses the line, literally, the political line between the US and Canada en route to the salt water at the Maine coast. Sitting around the guide shack one night this past winter we fell to looking at maps and talking about historic canoe routes of the northeast and how many of them are being lost to history as the ancient waterways have been replaced by highways and canoes have been relegated to hobby craft instead of the original sport utility vehicle that once connected tribes, families and individuals to each other and to the resources that made life possible.

The route this summer reflects our commitment to reestablishing a connection to our paddling past while also creating unique new canoe routes that challenge our abilities and push our concept of a wilderness expedition. The result is a hybrid wilderness/rural expedition that will start at the Jack Mountain Field School outside of Masardis Maine and will take us all the way to Calais Maine at the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean. This trip has it all: wilderness and solitude, rural modern culture, white water, flat water, upstream, downstream, legend, lore and mystery.

The Route

We will portage all of our gear from the field school campus down to the Aroostook River where we will paddle roughly 80 miles through the cities of Presque Isle and Caribou to the confluence with the St. John River over the border in New Brunswick. This border crossing will require all participants to carry a valid passport.

Once on the St. John we will navigate the big river for around 60 miles until we reach the ancient Maliseet village of Meductic a few miles upstream from the modern day town by the same name.

Appropriately named, Meductic means “end of the trail” as it represented the end of the ancient Maliseet Trail the connected the waterways of the Penobscot and Maliseet nations via the Eel River. For us it represents the beginning of the trail as we will ascend around 30 miles of paddling, portaging, poling and pushing our fully loaded canoes up the whitewater on the Eel.

There has been much mystery and legend surrounding the Eel River, but all I will say is there may or may not be a piece of gold the size of a small cow supposedly buried along the portage trail, you can read more here:

At the end of the Eel lies two large lakes, Grand and Spednic Lakes that will lead us to Vanceboro and the beginning of our downhill run all the way to the ocean on the St. Croix about 55 miles downstream.

This trip will require solid canoe handling skills in a variety of water conditions from Class 2+ whitewater to big waves and exposed water on the St. John and Grand and Spednic Lakes. In all we will be poling, portaging and paddling over 300 miles in a little under 28 days. All participants must be competent poling a loaded canoe up and downstream in Class 2+ whitewater and paddling a fully loaded 18 foot canoe in big waves, high wind using variations of the J­ stroke and also on moving water using prys, draws, sweeps and braces. Expertise will be learned, but competence is required.

The 2015 Route

In 2015 we’ll be running the Allagash from Chamberlain bridge to Allagash Village. Then we’ll rest and resupply at the field school for 2 days before hiking with minimal gear in Baxter state park for four days, then canoeing the East Branch of the Penobscot.

  • July 12: Arrive at the field school
  • Phase 1 (July 13-14): Trip preparation, canoe skills review, meal planning, gear check and packing
  • Phase 2 (July 15-27): Allagash canoe trip from Chamberlain bridge to Allagash village
  • Phase 3 (July 28-29): Repack and provision at the field school
  • Phase 4 (July 30-August 2): Minimal gear hike in Baxter State Park
  • Phase 5 (August 3-6): Canoe upper East Branch of the Penobscot from Mattagammon to Whetstone Falls
  • August 7th: debrief at the field school

Trip Highlights – Phase 2: Allagash Canoe Trip

We’ll run the classic Allagash trip; the entire waterway from Chamberlain bridge on the southern end to Allagash Village on the northern end. The first 30 or so miles are on the beautiful headwater lakes. We’ll paddle across Chamberlain lake, carry over Lock Dam, and run the short stream down to Eagle Lake. We almost always stop and check out the tramway and locomotives before heading north into Churchill lake. Scofield Point is one of our favorite campsites on the waterway, and we usually have a layover day there under the towering pines. The most challenging section of the waterway is the beginning of the river; Chase rapids. We’ll run it in the morning when the dam is open, giving us as much water as possible, using a combination of poling and paddling. At the foot of the rapids we’ll continue north through Umsaskis and Long Lake before entering the river for the downstream run to Round Pond. Below Round Pond we take our time on the way to Allagash Falls. Below the falls the river is larger, and it’s ten miles to Allagash Village, where the river joins with the St. John.

We’ve run a lot of Allagash trips over the years. It’s a beautiful trip and a great place to learn river skills such as poling, lining and paddling. One of the benefits of traveling with us is the history we share and the secret, out of the way spots we introduce you to. In time, you’ll be able to share them with your parties.

Trip Highlights – Phase 4: Backpacking Baxter State Park

We’ll paddle up Grand Lake Mattagammon to Trout Brook, where we’ll stash the canoes and extra gear before heading into the forest by foot. We’ll walk along the trails to South Branch Pond, where we’ll camp for the night. We’ll be up early, following the trail as it rises steeply to the top of the Traveler mountains. We’ll walk the ridge, making a big loop before returning to South Branch Pond, where we’ll again spend the night. It will be a long day, as we’ll cover 15 miles with a significant atltitude gain. Then we’ll retrace our steps, heading back to Trout Brook and again get into the canoes before heading down the East Branch of the Penobscot.

Trip Highlights – Phase 5: East Branch Penobscot Canoe Trip

The East Branch offers the most spectacular scenery of any river in Maine, cutting its way through the forest at the base of the east boundary of Baxter State Park. We’ll paddle in the shadow of the Traveler Mountains, where previously we had hiked the top of the ridge.

It’s not an easy trip; there are four mandatory carries around spectacular waterfalls. In between are technical rapids, which we’ll scout before running. Scouting, managing groups and being safe around rapids is a crucial skill for guides to have, and you’ll get a lot of practice on this river.

We’ll finish the trip at Whetstone Falls, before heading north to the field school.
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