Perhaps the most disconcerting feeling for an outdoor enthusiast is to find yourself in a wilderness setting, in over your head. Imagine, a wonderful hike gone wrong because of a twisted ankle or misplaced map, a situation exacerbated by a setting sun and falling temperatures.
Eliot Goodwin understands that dilemma. Accidents can happen in the backcountry. But you don’t need to be miles from nowhere to learn how to deal with them. That’s why the Medford resident launched the Saugus-based Boston Outdoor School in late 2018.
“When I started the company, the guiding principles were respect for nature and respect for each other, and to create an environment where there was no judgement,” said Goodwin, a married father of two. “The primary goal is safe, accessible, and community-based classes. We’re trying to connect you to the community of like-minded folks.”
Goodwin came to the area 10 years ago to pursue his MBA at Babson College. After his fledgling marketing firm promoting solar and energy-efficiency firms fizzled, Goodwin and his dog, Banjo, took to the woods at Middlesex Fells Reservation.
“I had a lot of time on my hands, and started to spend a lot of time outdoors,” he said. “I came to two realizations. I was alone out there, and was surprised by that. There are something like 3 million people in Metro Boston, and here I was, wandering around the woods as if I’m in northern Maine.
“I also realized I was lucky as a child, spending a lot of time outdoors, going to camps and various excursions,” said Goodwin. “I thought it would be great to bring that to folks who weren’t as lucky as I was.”
That’s when the seed of an outdoor school sprouted.
Rather than having students travel far afield to attend classes, Goodwin brought the instructors to the Camp Nihan Education Center, a DCR property in Saugus, adjacent to the 650-acre Breakheart Reservation.
“There are parks like this all over the country, at all these urban places, where you can begin to learn the skills to be outdoors,” said Goodwin, 39. “The cool thing about Camp Nihan’s 60 acres is that it’s permit-use only, so not even dogs are allowed on it. So the wildlife is really robust, making the tracking really great, and the plant life is really strong.
“I really geared my classes toward folks who are already trending toward the outdoors, providing an urban location for them to learn the skills that they’d otherwise not be able to learn close to home.”
Workshops range from Wilderness Survival and First Aid to Overland and Nighttime Navigation, Wildlife Tracking, and Goodwin’s favorite — Introduction to Deep Nature Connection. The staff features local experts, including wilderness survival instructor Tim “PrimiTim” Swanson (Groton), tracking instructor Bob Metcalfe (Newburyport), First Aid instructor Nathan Duclos (Haverhill), and outdoor navigation instructor Scott Powers (Boston).
Many of the school’s students – Goodwin said participants typically range in age from 30 to 70 – are “repeat customers,” constantly refining their outdoor skill-set.
“The thing about all these skills is that they do have a shelf life,” he said. “Unless you’re practicing identifying tracks in the wilderness, you begin to lose your sense of how to do that. So it really does take a lot of practice, and a lot of time outdoors.” In the community, they call it ‘dirt time.’”
The school also offers “practice sessions,” which are an ode to “councilors in training,” or CITs, often found in youth camp programs.
“Why did CITs stop at 16? Why can’t adults be CITs?” asked Goodwin. “The practice sessions were designed to give the students an opportunity to lead, in their own environment. By creating these student leaders, we help to solidify the community, but also help groups to come together and teach each other.
“Plus, these sessions are a lot more affordable, so you can do them more often,” he said. “It’s like a yoga class. Yoga is practice, and so is spending time outdoors.”
The Boston Outdoor School also offers apprenticeship and corporate training programs.
“I want people to take these skills back to to their office,’” said Goodwin. “Nature is our greatest facilitator.”
This spring, the school is expanding, starting with a Wilderness Survival workshop at the Massachusetts Audubon’s Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon. Goodwin also expects to offer courses south of Boston, and is currently in discussions with Bass Pro Shops at Patriot Place in Foxborough. He also plans to add more classes, such as mountain biking courses with instructors from local chapters of the New England Mountain Bike Association.
“In business school, we talk about underutilized assets. I think forestland in urban areas are underutilized assets,” said Goodwin. “We don’t have an education department at the Department of Conservation and Resources . So you’ve got the land, but no resources to teach people the skills to be out there.”
For details and dates on courses offered by the Boston Outdoor School, visit BostonOutdoorSchool.com .
Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.