WISCASSET — With grant-funded support from Gov. Janet Mill’s Outdoor Learning Initiative, high school students from sixteen Maine towns recently returned from extensive expeditions into Maine’s forests and along the rugged coastline. These journeys, spanning three weeks, centered on ecology, sustainability, and introducing students to the unique career and study opportunities found in Maine’s forestry and marine sectors.

“We were delighted to offer these unique, no-cost programs and share our passion for ecology and the natural world with these local students,” said Nancy Kennedy, the acting president of Chewonki, a non-profit environmental education center based in Wiscasset. “I am so pleased that Chewonki played a role in ensuring these young people in Maine have access to the spectacular marine and forest resources that make this state so special”

The programs, designed for high school-aged students, offered either a three-week kayak expedition up the coast of Maine, or a three-week backpacking trip along the Maine Appalachian Trail.

According to Eli Hanschka, one of the trip leaders, the hands-on programming had a profound impact on the students who attended. “On the coastal ecology trip, we saw each participant engage wholeheartedly and passionately with the ecosystems we traveled through,” said Hanschka. “Students documented and shared naturalist observations, sought answers to questions of geology, oceanography, and species interaction, and gratefully ate food directly from the sea, all increasing their intimate connection to these environments. One participant, Chelsie, would often wake up early and we’d find her sitting in a meadow or exploring the intertidal zone, finding and describing all the species of plants and animals around her. Our group also developed a culture of picking up any trash we could find, no matter how difficult. They turned around their kayaks to grab a bottle that had floated by or used a boat hook they found to fish out lobster buoys wedged deep in the cracks of rocks. These inspired attitudes of curiosity and stewardship for the natural world will carry far beyond the shorelines we traveled and deep into the places and people that each participant will interact with through their lives.” 

The students were challenged with a true off-the-grid experience, learning essential camping and survival skills, navigation, species identification, and taking turns leading the group each day to build teamwork and leadership. 

“It was just so remarkable to see a group of Maine kids explore and learn about these ecosystems in their home state,” said Hanschka. “The participants, coming from all over Maine, each brought a unique perspective to place and community along with an openness to learn from each other. This, combined with a deep wonder and appreciation for these wild places, allowed them to form a strong family centered around generosity, caring for each other, passion for living fully engaged, and interdependence with nature as one of its members. They supported one another through challenging times on the sea, brought enthusiasm for every learning opportunity, and inspired everyone they touched to live with passion, curiosity, and love.“

“These students have not only forged a deep connection with the backcountry environment of Maine but are also taking home hands-on experience, and a new view of the diverse job and recreational opportunities that this region offers,” explains Kennedy. “We couldn’t be more proud.”

Both programs underscore Chewonki’s commitment to fostering environmental awareness, knowledge, and stewardship among the youth. By providing these experiences, Chewonki aims to inspire the next generation of environmental leaders, scientists, and advocates. 

At the behest of Mills, the Maine Outdoor Learning Initiative was developed by the Maine Department of Education using federal funding, and was designed to give middle and high school students the opportunity to participate in marine and coastal ecology learning programs, including marine research and exploration, boat building, sailing, career exploration with marine businesses, island immersion programs, and more.

The Chewonki summer programs included students from Arrowsic, Bangor, Bar Harbor, Belfast, Brunswick, Dexter, Dresden, Fort Fairfield, Freeport, Greenbush, Gorham, Phippsburg, Portland, Unity, So. Portland, and Topsham.

For more details on Chewonki and its upcoming programs, visit www.chewonki.org or contact: Cullen McGough, VP of marketing and communications, at cmcgough@chewonki.org or 207-882-7323.

Chewonki is a leading environmental education center located in Wiscasset, Maine, dedicated to promoting understanding, appreciation, and stewardship of the natural world. Through a blend of hands-on experiences, outdoor adventures, and in-depth study, Chewonki inspires transformative growth and a deep connection to the environment.