The Portland Phoenix

Lessons for life: Wisdom gleaned while adventuring in Maine

A rider's moment of exhilaration during a recent Trek Across Maine. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

There’s no shortage of adventure in Maine – afternoon jaunts into the woods or on the water, via bicycle or ski, in helmet or in harness. Such exploits are simply fun; they explode our comfort zones and broaden our horizons.

Whether the adventure lasts a weekend or an hour, you’ll always have the memories, the helmet-cam video, and the minor flesh wound that heals into a minor permanent scar. You can also gain some unexpected life lessons – sage words of an adventurer’s advice that come in handy long after the crampons come off. 

To close out the year with a focus on adventures past, adventures to come, and the wisdom gleaned along the way, here are life lessons learned while doing cool stuff in Maine: 

Look where you want to go.

Learned: Mountain biking at Back Country Excursions, Parsonsfield.

A beginner mountain biking lesson last year at Backcountry Excursions in Parsonsfield. The key, it turns out, is looking between the trees, not at them. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Everything in sight becomes a hazard when you’re learning how to mountain bike – a rock on the trail, a low-hanging branch, a hill. Never mind the trees that crowd the trail like over-eager bystanders at an illegal street race. During my beginner’s lesson several years ago, I hit a couple of those trees (further deepening my appreciation for helmets and trails with wide berths).

Cliff Krolick, owner of Back Country Excursions and the expert in our pack, offered me some advice: “Wherever your eyes go, your bike will go. So don’t look at the trees, look between the trees. Look where you want to go.”

It’s a lesson that serves riders well on heavily wooded trails. But it translates to life at large, too. As in, don’t let your brain dwell on the worst-case scenario or those passing peripheral distractions (trees, a rough patch at the office, a kerfuffle with a stranger in a grocery store parking lot). Look where you want to go and the rest of you will follow.

Take it one step at a time (or 15 miles at a time, as the case may be).

Learned: Riding the Trek Across Maine.

Biking 180 miles in three days sounds wildly daunting, especially to a rider whose longest treks on two wheels generally hovered in the low double digits. But several years ago, a friend convinced me to sign up (something about “it’s a great cause … and there’s so much food everywhere”). We trained, of course, logging long rides on weekends. 

But what really made all the difference was some wisdom I got from an experienced Trekker who advised me to stop thinking about those 180 miles. There’s a rest area every 15 miles or so, she said, where riders can rest, snack, and recoup. So I should just think about doing 15 miles. Fifteen miles is so doable. 

The author during a beginners ice climbing lesson organized by Bangor-based Maine Yoga Adventures in 2017 on Mount Desert Island. The climb was led by guides from Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School, which is located in Bar Harbor. (Courtesy Holly Twining/Maine Yoga Adventures)

It was still a challenge; some of those hills were less-than-friendly to my quads. But mostly it was stunning scenery, rider camaraderie, and fluffernutters the whole way. My friend and I completed the ride with monster smiles and plenty of shouts and high fives. Turns out those 15 miles really add up.

Swing like you mean it.

Learned: Ice climbing with Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School, Bar Harbor.

Ice isn’t doughy or pillow-like or easy to hold. That’s why people who climb ice have axes. But here’s the thing about an ax: It’s only as good as your swing.

As our ice climbing guides told us during a beginner ice climb on Mount Desert Island, you can’t gently nudge an ax into the ice. You can’t be passive or meek with your swing, apologizing along the way for being a burden and promising to be out of the way as soon as you can. The ice won’t accommodate you. It won’t soften its surface to welcome your tools and it certainly won’t give you a boost, even if you’re super polite about it. You’ve got to swing like you mean it. Make your ax heard. 

It’s totally impossible. Except it isn’t.

Learned: Swimming the Peaks to Portland.

Swimmers and paddlers heading off from Peaks Island to Portland in 2018. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

I remember hearing about the annual Peaks to Portland swim for the first time and thinking, “Dang. That’s quite a feat for those insanely athletic, experienced, and buoyant people.” It wasn’t an adventure I’d ever be able to tackle. I couldn’t swim, first off, and it’s Casco Bay for wetsuit’s sake; you can’t even see the bottom.

But then I found myself in a pool alongside other novice swimmers in a swim class, each of us learning how to put our faces in the water, breathe to the side, and not drown. And then I was in a wetsuit in a lake improving my stroke, spotting my course, and staying calm even when my hand touched a piece of underwater foliage that momentarily felt like it was going to bite. And then I was standing at the Peaks to Portland finish line – big grin and dripping with saltwater – not believing what I’d just done, not because it was some impossible feat, but because it was so, so possible all along.

You will fall. Repeatedly.

Learned: Surfing with Aquaholics, Kennebunk.

I took a surfing lesson several years ago. Not surprisingly, I fell. Often (and not gracefully). Luckily I was in good company.

There were two dozen other novice wave-catchers in the water during that morning surf lesson at Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk. Sure, most of us eventually managed to stay upright on the longboard for a few seconds of triumph, the small waves breaking behind us like churned-up dust behind Greek charioteers. But on the whole, we were back-flopping and nose-diving in quick succession. 

We could have felt ridiculous if we compared ourselves to the experienced surfers catching waves with ease nearby, or if we expected perfection the first, second, or tenth time out. But we felt empowered, even as we tumbled. Our efforts might have looked like an exercise in futility to the gulls and passing beach walkers, except we were all having a blast.

Why? Falling is part of learning – if you’re falling, you’re probably smack dab in the middle of learning something wonderfully new and weird and not easy to master. And that’s downright admirable.

The point? This is Maine. Try things. Look ridiculous. Let curiosity get the best of you. Maybe you’ll become a master of toboggan racing, fly fishing, or rock climbing. Or maybe you’ll just have a good time trying.

Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.

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