WILLIMANTIC — College of the Atlantic is adding a northern Maine wilderness center to its operations and in the process the life’s work of two of the college’s graduates is gaining permanence for future generations.
North Woods Ways is the 40-year project of Alexandra Conover Bennett and Garrett Conover, both registered Maine guides. After leading countless expeditions and educational adventures by canoe and snowshoe, the pair are retiring from guiding and have sold the property to COA, which plans to continue its use as a traditional skills wilderness center while developing place-based programs that enhance the college’s curriculum in human ecology.
“For me, it’s really a dream come true,” Conover Bennett said. “North Woods Ways was like our baby. We created it; it emerged from our passion. We didn’t sit down and develop a business plan, we just followed what our passion dictated and developed it that way. Now, it is recreating itself under the stewardship of College of the Atlantic.”
The purchase of the property was made possible by a donation from the Cornelia Cogswell Rossi Foundation, an organization dedicated to community needs such as healthcare, education and environmental conservation. The main structure at the property will be renamed the Rossi Lodge in honor of the gift.
Anne Green, a Rossi Foundation board member, said she was inspired by the potential that the property has for COA and others.
“We loved the concept of a winter academic basecamp, and the year-round education component and platform for engaging surrounding schools,” Green said. “The collection of wilderness equipment, tools and books represent a rich cultural history of the North Woods that will provide additional knowledge and learning opportunities for students.”
Conover Bennett and Conover founded North Woods Ways together in 1980, and, over the ensuing decades, became internationally recognized for their traditional methods of traveling through untrammeled wild places. They specialize in using wood/canvas canoes and handmade wooden paddles for summer travel, and they have mastered the use of traditional ash/rawhide snowshoes, handmade toboggans and wood-heated canvas tents for the winter. Often traveling hundreds of miles in the span of a few weeks, their expeditions have attracted people from all around the world, while their techniques have garnered widespread attention.
Over the course of their guiding career, Conover, Conover Bennett and North Woods Ways were featured in over 45 regional, national and international magazines. They appeared in a number of television broadcasts, four film productions and were profiled in several books. Conover has presented hundreds of slide shows, and both have presented traditional skills workshops at symposiums in the United States, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and Sweden.
“We just kind of followed what our passion dictated… and we realized that our style and choices were unique in current Maine guiding, so all the journalists came flocking to us. We didn’t ask for the attention,” said Conovor Bennett, laughing.
The college has been using the North Woods Ways property for educational purposes for decades, both through class field trips and as a resource for their outdoor leadership program. These uses will continue, and COA is working on plans to expand its educational offerings there in the sciences, arts, humanities and economics, said Shawn Keeley, COA dean of institutional advancement. The college also plans to include the broader Willimantic community in the educational benefits offered by the property, he said.
“We intend to develop programs that engage the community around Willimantic, which could include the local school system, the Appalachian Trail community and programs run by other organizations,” Keeley said.
As part of the property transfer, Conover and Conover Bennett are donating a considerable amount of outdoor gear, including tents, axes, snowshoes, toboggans, canoes and other assorted camping gear.
“We’ve had so many completely generous mentors, donors and friends who contributed in all sorts of ways, and it’s just the fabric of the tradition that we are happy to contribute to,” Conover said about the donation.
Conover, Conover Bennett and College of the Atlantic all stand to gain from this deal, Conover said.
“The most remarkable thing to me is how reciprocal this all is, because COA thinks we’re the legacy people, but we’re saying, ‘No, no, no… COA is the legacy.’ And we each think the other is the better entity of the bunch. To me, that just speaks well of all of us,” he said.