Northern Exposure

Discovering the Great Outdoors With L.L. Bean

Slowly maneuvering through the azure waters of Maine’s Casco Bay on a flawless day in late June, seven sea kayakers paddle away from the shore. Soon, the trepidation of balancing a watercraft only a few feet longer than the human body gives way to trust in new skills, in the kayak’s surprising ease of movement, in the calm quiet of the bay.

It was at that moment that one of the seven people in the class, a 60ish woman with a big southern smile who had just begun to get acquainted with her bright yellow kayak, suddenly disappeared. Moments later, she resurfaced—outside of the kayak. Getting back into the slim vessel took much longer than falling out: Kayaks are made for stepping into, not climbing into from below. Finally, she was back in control, saturated but still smiling.

Welcome to the L.L. Bean Paddling School where, in the course of a few hours, wavering water-Weebles can become rock-steady masters of the deep—after a capsize or two, perhaps. Once you’ve learned some basic kayak moves, and become accustomed to sitting at sea level, you almost start to believe the Discovery School brochure’s dreamy assurance that “sea kayaks can take you anywhere there’s a shoreline.”

The kayaking program is just one of many offerings of the L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery School. There’s the canoe trip down the Allagash River, during which you can follow in the paddle-strokes of Henry David Thoreau (who made the voyage in 1857); introductory and advanced fly-fishing; wing shooting; and outdoor photography (including the popular “Moose Getaway” and “Fall Foliage” weekend courses). Serious and amateur mountain bikers alike learn bike maintenance and trail-riding techniques in the Bicycle School. The wilderness skills program offers practical advice on how to literally get your bearings in the vast Maine woods (as the guides will remind you, “The best compass in the world is no good if you don’t know how to use it”). Most programs are open to all ages, but kids get special attention in the Explorers’ Camp (day-long lessons in kayaking, fishing, canoeing and mountain-biking for children ages 12 to 15) and the Adventurers’ Camp (similar courses for children ages eight to 11). Parent-child trips—either day or overnight—are available as well.

Big Fun—With a Purpose

All of L.L. Bean’s Outdoor School programs have a common goal: big fun in the Maine sun. Unlike some outdoor schools, “The emphasis is on enjoying the outdoors, not survival,” says Mike Verville, director of merchandising and branding at L.L. Bean’s world headquarters in Freeport, Maine. (The wilderness skills course is, of course, an exception to that rule.) The Outdoor Discovery School offers winter excursions as well: Snow enthusiasts can try cross-country skiiing, snow shoeing and other programs.

Founded in 1979, the Outdoor Discovery School attracts from 8,000 to 10,000 men, women and children every year, from all parts of the country. Verville sees the program as a central part of the company’s operation, not just a side endeavor. “We consider Outdoor Discovery a huge part of what we do,” he says, adding that one of the company’s guiding principles has always been to get people involved in outside activities. After all, the company was started by one of Maine’s most dedicated outdoorsmen, Leon Leonwood Bean, whose long treks in the northern woods inspired him to create the first L.L. Bean product, the Maine Hunting Boot, in 1912.

Leon would undoubtedly appreciate the elemental challenge of the School’s programs. As the School will remind you, preparedness is key. The famous unpredictability of Maine’s weather is implicit in the “what to bring” list sent out to all Outdoor Discovery School students before they leave home: quick-dry shorts; sunglasses with strap (L.L. Bean’s emphasis); hat with clip (“to keep it from blowing away”); rain gear, polar fleece jacket, sunblock, towel. “Education and preparation make the difference between fun and not fun,” says Bob Myron, a canoe and kayak instructor at the School.
Fees vary from about the cost of a ski lift ticket (for short, beginner courses) to the price of a cross-country plane ticket (for longer workshops). Private instruction is also available, for about $50 an hour. Whatever course you choose, you can be sure you’re putting your money where your values are: L.L. Bean donates a portion of its profits to support local, regional and national conservation organizations.

APRIL REESE is an environmental studies graduate student at Yale University.