Tim Smith of Jack Mountain Bushcraft

Tim Smith, Master Maine Guide and founder of Jack Mountain Bushcraft, is a sharp and funny guy, who takes to heart his work educating students about traditional outdoor skills.

Tim Smith, Master Maine Guide and founder of Jack Mountain Bushcraft, is a sharp and funny guy, who takes to heart his work educating students about traditional outdoor skills.

A few years ago, I attended the "Riverman Course" on expedition canoeing and guiding at Tim Smith’s Jack Mountain Bushcraft school in northern Maine. 

Tim offers a variety of courses focusing on the traditional skills of the northern woodsman:

  • Wilderness survival
  • Bushcraft
  • Winter trekking
  • Canoe travel

Jack Mountain Bushcraft places a strong emphasis on skill and craft, working with the land, and using techniques that have been around for ages, rather than using loads of modern hi-tech gear.

In addition to multi-day and week-long courses, Jack Mountain Bushcraft offers longer expeditions and semester-length courses for college credit. All of Jack Mountain's offerings are an incredible opportunity to learn valuable skills in a big wilderness region.

I'd followed Tim's writing for quite a while, and I really appreciated the traditional style of his trips and courses. So, when I saw the Riverman Course, I jumped at the opportunity. I'd never been to Maine and was eager to explore that corner of the country, and I also wanted to try my hand at canoe poling, a skill Tim teaches, but is non-existent in my home state of Minnesota. Throughout the course and learning more from and about Tim, I was inspired to earn my Registered Maine Guide's license, which I did the next year--a very rewarding endeavor.

I enjoyed Maine so much that I've made several return trips to paddle its wild rivers, snowshoe across its frozen lakes, and attempt to eat every lobster roll and whoopie pie within arm's reach! 

Bull Moose Patrol got in touch with Tim to see what he's up to and to give our readers a chance to learn a bit about Jack Mountain Bushcraft and Tim's approach to living and traveling in the wilderness.

Tim, how did you become such a competent woodsman? When did your interest in the outdoors start, and what was your learning process?

I grew up on a small lake in rural New Hampshire. We spent our Summers in the water, exploring the woods, fishing, canoeing, and camping.

When I was four, we visited a local museum, and on display was (and still is) the remains of a dug out canoe that was found a few hundred yards from where I lived. I wanted to know who made it, when, how they lived, etc. It ignited a curiosity inside me that still exists today.

I also had the good fortune to learn from amazingly skilled instructors. Ultimately, though, competence comes from experience. 2015 marks my 17th year as a full-time guide and instructor.   

My personal copy of Bushcraft that I've had since I was 8-years-old. A fantastic book by Graves, who was a Commanding Officer with the Australian Jungle Survival & Rescue Detachment.

My personal copy of Bushcraft that I've had since I was 8-years-old. A fantastic book by Graves, who was a Commanding Officer with the Australian Jungle Survival & Rescue Detachment.

Have you always had a focus on traditional and bushcraft skills, or is that something you evolved into after a period of using more modern gear and techniques? 

I received a copy of Richard Graves’s, Bushcraft, as a kid, and my friends and I tried copying many of the projects he outlined. This was before I ever heard of modern gear, so I guess I was always into the traditional stuff. I still have the book and it’s still one of my favorites. The binding is long gone, and it’s held together with tape these days, but it’s an old friend and I’ll probably keep it the rest of my life.

When looking at how we differ from NOLS, Outward Bound and college outdoor education programs, I think it’s easier to look at what we have in common: we do things outside. Beyond that, the similarities end.
— Tim Smith

What skills and experiences are offered through Jack Mountain Bushcraft? How is the Jack Mountain Bushcraft experience different from other outdoor education programs, such as NOLs, Boy Scouts, Outward Bound, or college outdoor ed?

When looking at how we differ from NOLS, Outward Bound and college outdoor education programs, I think it’s easier to look at what we have in common: we do things outside. Beyond that, the similarities end. What we’re trying to accomplish and how we go about it are worlds apart. Where those programs focus on modern gear and personal development, we’re focused on traditional hard skills that have made the difference for hunter gatherers and our forefathers from the dawn of the human era. There is very minimal overlap between what we do and how we do it. I think those programs are fantastic and do a lot of great work, they’re just different from what we do. 

People can learn a lot of individual skills from YouTube today, but putting them into practice and using those skills in a remote area under realistic conditions is becoming incredibly rare. At Jack Mountain, we offer traditional skills development to facilitate an authentic wilderness experience that’s focused on traditional skills and a few simple tools, not the latest pieces of gear.

I worked on crafting a handle for one of my old hatchet heads during Tim's course. Here, I'm shaving it down with a draw knife on a shaving horse.

I worked on crafting a handle for one of my old hatchet heads during Tim's course. Here, I'm shaving it down with a draw knife on a shaving horse.

Do you have a “typical” student?

No. Our students are all ages and backgrounds, and they come from all over the globe.

You’re specifically training students for the Registered Maine Guide exam now, correct?

Yes. But our training isn’t a test-prep type of training where we teach people how to pass the test. We’re more interested in teaching students how to do the job. When you know this, passing the test is part of it. We don’t teach to the test.

Last year, you ran a Jack Mountain Bushcraft Canoe Expedition Semester, which included a long trip on a series of rivers. What was your route? Are you planning the same type of course this year?

Canoeing in Maine | www.BullMoosePatrol.com

We’ve run that program for the last four years, and it's a fantastic experience, getting out and living life on the river for four weeks. We tweak the route a little every year, but last year we paddled the Allagash south to north, then went back to Chamberlain Bridge and paddled south down Webster Stream and the East Branch of the Penobscot. Not only do we have great times on the river and the skill level of the participants grows dramatically, but we form life-long friendships. This year, we’re doing a similar route, and if there’s water, we’ll include Allagash Lake and Stream. We always leave our route options open due to water levels.

Do you have a favorite Maine river? 

My favorite Maine river is the Aroostook. Putting in at the headwaters, coming down Munsungun stream, poling up Millinocket Stream to Millimagassett Lake, then heading down the Aroostook. We get to end at our field school in Masardis.

Where to you do take your long Winter treks? 

The last few extended Winter trips have been on Scopan Lake, but this year we’re going to head up the Aroostook River. As with canoe trips, though, weather and snow conditions can dictate where we go and don’t go.

One trip I want to do, and it will probably be a Winter trip first, is to travel from the Allagash to the Aroostook. It isn’t that long, and it's no longer open, but it used to be a canoe route (called the Osgood Carry). I’d love to open it up again.

All meals (including this chicken and carrot dish shown above) were cooked on the fire at Jack Mountain Bushcraft. I couldn't get enough of the sourdough biscuits baked in a reflector oven. Tim recently released a book on traditional outdoor cooking, The Woods Cook.

All meals (including this chicken and carrot dish shown above) were cooked on the fire at Jack Mountain Bushcraft. I couldn't get enough of the sourdough biscuits baked in a reflector oven. Tim recently released a book on traditional outdoor cooking, The Woods Cook.

What’s your favorite meal on trail?

Favorite meal on the trail is food from the trail. It’s tough to beat just-caught brook trout and just-gathered fiddleheads in the Spring,

Your students make a lot of their own traditional gear, including pack baskets, paddles, canoe poles, axe handles, and crooked knives, among other things. Is this approach better than buying modern gear, or do you primarily do this for the enjoyment of the craft and to keep the traditions alive? 

Something special happens when someone makes something with their own hands and uses it. People forget the modern consumerist culture and start to think with a much more self-reliant attitude. On our long courses, it’s always neat to watch that mental shift happen. At the beginning of the course, people talk about where can you get a certain piece of gear, but by the midpoint of the trip, they’re talking about how to make it. We also make gear for the enjoyment of it and to keep the traditions alive, but if it weren’t functional, we’d probably stop.

You lead long wilderness trips using the gear students make. It appears to me that many bushcrafters rarely hit the trail, and their gear and techniques that work in a basecamp situation may be lacking when covering terrain with time constraints under human power. What are your thoughts on this? What could bushcrafters learn from taking longer, self-supported canoe, backpack, or sled treks? Perhaps more importantly, what experiences are they missing if they continually sit in basecamp working on feather sticks, rather than trying to cover 50 miles afoot or afloat?

We’re focused on traditional hard skills that have made the difference for hunter gatherers and our forefathers from the dawn of the human era.
— Tim Smith

I can’t speak for others, and I’m pretty out of touch from being off the grid so much so I don’t really know much about what others do. I will say that there are a lot of crazy ideas that people have when sitting in camp, and getting out on an expedition is where the good ideas get separated from the bad. Being in a remote location where it’s been raining for days and you know that you need to get a fire going to cook your food can be a great motivator with regard to carving feather sticks.

You teach survival and bushcraft skills. Many people interested in this area obsess over knives, but unless you’ve changed your M.O., you use a standard $10 Mora knife. Any thoughts on knife lust and gear obsession?

In our modern consumerist culture, people lose sight of the fact that it’s 95% the user, 5% the tool. I try to reinforce this on courses, but Mother Nature usually does it for me. We all have things we spend too much time and money on; in the long run, it’s probably better for your checking account if you obsess over knives, rather than sports cars.

You’re one of the few people I know who makes a living as a guide and outdoor instructor. I’m sure to many people, your work seems like a dream career. What advice do you have for someone who’d like to do the same?

While it looks idyllic from the outside, it’s still work, and a lot of it takes place in an office or in front of a computer. You need the hard skills to do the job, but it’s the soft skills--the people skills--that will make you successful. I think this is true of every job.

Tim taught me how to make a crooked knife out of an old file. You can see the file heating up in the fire above. First, I annealed the file in the coals to remove the temper, which allowed sharpening; then, heated the file again to bend the blade into shape; then, heat treated and quenched the blade to reharden the edge.

Tim taught me how to make a crooked knife out of an old file. You can see the file heating up in the fire above. First, I annealed the file in the coals to remove the temper, which allowed sharpening; then, heated the file again to bend the blade into shape; then, heat treated and quenched the blade to reharden the edge.

I know you are serious about sustainability and passionate about the land; yet, I imagine if many modern outdoor educators stumbled across your camp and witnessed axes swinging, poles being cut for campcraft, and meals being cooked over an open fire, they’d cringe. What are your thoughts on bushcraft and conservation? How about the Leave No Trace (LNT) concept?

Using an axe is like poling a canoe; the object is to use it as little as possible and be effective when you do. That means leaving it in its sheath most of the time. People today have a skewed view of leave no trace. I refer to it as displaced impact, not minimum impact. Using a camp stove has a huge impact, it’s just not visible where people are using it to recreate. Getting fossil fuels from the Middle East, using rare earth metals to make stoves, etc., all have a big impact on the planet. Using wood, a renewable resource, to cook, if done with the ecology of the area in mind, has almost no impact. Obviously wood cook fires in sensitive ecological areas aren't a good idea. I’m not advocating open fires to cook at high alpine sites or high-use areas, but in the woods where few people travel, I can’t think of something that leaves as small of a trace. 

When I was at Jack Mountain doing the Riverman Canoe Guide training class with you, we had an incredible amount of rain and the rivers rose quickly. Given the risk of  being on the flooded rivers, you made the call to keep us off the rivers and moved us to working on the lakes and teaching other camp skills. Risk management is a big topic in mainstream outdoor education programs. Do you teach risk management specifically? 

We read about it and discuss it, especially when there is some risk. It would be dangerous not to address the topic. I like the idea of a teachable moment with regard to risk. I don’t like creating hypothetical situations when there are real, actual risks to discuss. 

You use a lot of methods that many outdoor instructors shy away from (e.g., standing up in canoes in rapids, without helmets, swinging axes, and carving with fixed blade knives (oh my!), and cooking with fires). Have you ever had a serious accident or wilderness emergency? 

We haven’t had any serious accidents or medical situations. When viewed from the outside, there appears to be a lot of perceived risk, but what the outsider doesn’t see is the hours leading up to those situations where people are learning the skills and practicing in a safe manner. One of my jobs is to design situations where learning takes place and doing so in a way to minimize as much risk as possible. However, our river trips take place on a river, not in a pool with river scenes playing on a screen. In our programs, we walk before we run, but it’s impossible to eliminate 100% of the risks.  

I was excited to watch you on "Dude, You’re Screwed!" You didn’t seem to have any problems, other than sleep deprivation, which I thought was ironic since you studied with Mors Kochanski, one of the few survival instructors who emphasizes sleep, and you teach the importance of sleep at Jack Mountain Bushcraft. Any thoughts on the show? Key learnings or things you’d do differently?

It’s been more than a year since we filmed the show. I had a great time doing it; fun and professional people and a beautiful location. The biggest eye opener for me was how seriously viewers took it. The show crew filmed a lot of material that didn't make the final edit. What does make the final edit is used to create a narrative that has some drama in it. If there was no drama, the show wouldn’t be interesting to watch, but it’s still a tv show. Without getting into specifics, I found it interesting how people think the dramatic narrative of the show represents actual events as they transpired.  

Tim, can we chat again later, maybe to talk about specifically about Winter camping and survival techniques?

You bet!