Educator in the Wilderness

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Down a bumpy, one-lane road in the woods of New Hampshire, University of North Texas graduate Tim Smith, who earned his master's degree from the university in 1999, teaches in a classroom like so many teachers with graduate degrees in education.

But it's a classroom without walls. The clouds, grass and trees make up his schoolhouse of nature, where students check the sky to learn about weather, collect berries to make dinner and gather leaves to build shelters.

Smith, the owner and founder of Jack Mountain Bushcraft and Guide Service, uses his master of education degree to teach wilderness living skills.

"It's always been a passion of mine," he says. "I just never had any idea I'd be able to make a living at it. Sometimes you get lucky."

At the heart of his business is the Earth Skills Semester Program. Smith pioneered development of this 10-week wilderness course that attracts college students seeking course credit and others looking for adventure.

"It is experiential education in a nutshell," Smith says.

Besides the semester classes, Smith offers weekend wilderness classes, canoe trips, outdoor cooking classes (where delicious beef jerky and a full stomach are promised), mammal-tracking workshops, brain-tanning buckskin classes (though he prefers using eggs and cooking oil for tanning), birch basket-making classes, soap-making classes and even lessons on making and playing the musical instrument called the didgeridoo.

A burly, good-natured man, Smith teaches with a sense of humor. Telling bad jokes helps students forget about the mosquitoes biting them and the rain pelting them, he says. Caffeine helps, too.

A registered master Maine guide and licensed master New Hampshire guide, he has appeared on Country Music Television's show "Most Shocking: Survivalists." This year, he served as a consultant for the Discovery Channel's "Ultimate Survival."

Jack Mountain Bushcraft and Guide Service sits off the beaten path on Camp School Road, just three miles from the quaint downtown of Wolfeboro, N.H., where people eating ice cream cones stroll down Main Street.

Smith's parents bought this rural land for a summer cottage in 1971, when he was a year old. He spent his summers here picking berries, hiking up to a hill nicknamed Jack Mountain (now the namesake of his business) and fishing in Rust Pond.

"It's so common in the modern world for people to have that separation between them and nature," he says. "I've never really known life without that connection. It's odd to me that people don't have it."

After earning a bachelor's degree in anthropology from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1994, Smith bought a trailer and moved to Alaska. He taught wilderness survival classes part-time and washed windows to earn money.

Hoping a teaching career would let him live and work rurally, Smith headed to UNT. When he graduated, he returned to his former summer home in New Hampshire to open Jack Mountain and create the semester-long wilderness course - which he says is the first of its kind.

"Studying education and learning all those aspects of it - that's what allowed me to design the course," he says. "Without that, there's no way."

Smith lives in his family's former summer cottage, converted into a year-round home for him; his wife, Jennifer Fliss Smith, a fellow UNT graduate and a special education teacher in a nearby town; and their 2-year-old son, Andrew.

A few feet away from the house is "home base" for the Jack Mountain camp. It's simple - a couple of student-made shelters; a tented "kitchen" filled with pots, pepper and coffee filters; stone ovens; a heated workshop; a garden of herbs; and a barn with outhouses.

Students at Jack Mountain sleep outdoors in shelters they build themselves. The classes - usually with no more than six people - operate on normal working hours, so students are free at night and on weekends. In the past, they have come from California, Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. During class, they occasionally visit a blacksmith, basket maker or canoe builder. By the end, students have created a portfolio of their work.

Smith aims to make learning fun by incorporating nature and academics - astronomy, botany, ecology, geography and more.

"You teach a kid geometry and who cares? It's all abstract. But then you say, ‘How far is it across that river?' You talk about how many steps and how deep," he says. "Maybe it's the same material, but approached a little differently, and it seems to really excite people."

Smith's classes attract mostly adults now, but he hopes to expand his offerings to younger students. On a damp summer day in New Hampshire, he settles on the ground with a block of wood and a stick in front of a group of children and adults who have come to learn more about Jack Mountain.

"Of all the skills someone can learn in the north woods, being able to light a fire under any weather conditions is No. 1," he says.

Using his sneaker to hold the block of wood in place on the ground, he rapidly twists the stick in his hands, drilling it into one spot. As smoke rises, he stops and carves a notch in the wood, then resumes twisting. A couple of minutes later, he dumps a charred spot from the wood into a small clump of hay and cattail fluff. He gently blows into it as a plume of smoke wafts behind him. A spark flares, the hay burns, and his audience claps.

"They always say with friction fire, the first thousand times are the hardest," he says.

That day, the mosquitoes are biting and the rain starts falling, but Smith doesn't mind. He says he teaches for the "A-ha!" moments - for the light on people's faces on a cold winter morning as they crawl out of a shelter they built, or for the look in someone's eyes when she lights a friction fire for the first time.

"You get that rush," he says. "The semester classes I teach are so full of moments like that, I can't imagine doing something else."

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108