Sundog Outdoor Expeditions brings adventures in nature to Maine's middle school-aged youth, allowing them to experience activities like mountain climbing and skiing while teaching them values such as mutual support, courage and a respect for the great outdoors.

From her Camden office, Sundog's Erin Jackson organizes programs in the area, finds qualified guides for each session, and promotes community awareness of the opportunities offered by the organization.

“It was a combination of a lot of things coming together,” said Jackson about finding herself in Maine and eventually working to create Sundog. “I came to the state to visit a friend who was preparing to give birth to her first child, and during this time I realized that one day I would move to Maine.”

Having studied entrepreneurship in college and worked in consulting and marketing strategy, Jackson decided to marry her love for the outdoors with her business acumen and work with an established local organization to devise a fledgling program that offered courses similar to those available at Outward Bound, where Jackson had worked as a seasonal course adviser.

While Outward Bound immerses teens and adults in nature, Sundog brings similar outdoor experiences to children 10 to 13 years old and is a program of the Midcoast Outdoor Leadership Initiative. MOLI is comprised of five board members, who founded the organization with a shared vision: to share with young people tenets of healthy outdoor activity, inquisitiveness and adventure through wilderness experiences.

Sundog's first classes were well attended this fall. These included "Path of the Paddle," which taught canoe trip essentials to fifth- and sixth-grade students, and "Exploring the Vertical World," which brought rock-climbing experiences to seventh- and eighth-graders.

Each of the programs offered by Sundog lasts six weeks. Students meet with their guides twice a week for two-hour sessions after the school day. Sundog receives the majority of its funding through in-kind and individual donations. As a result, the $200 enrollment fee for a 12-week session is significantly less than it would be if tuition were based solely on programming costs.

Each prospective student and his or her parents must complete an application process that includes the student's medical history, goals and expectations, and these are shared with program guides. Sundog subcontracts guides from throughout the state, as well as local businesses like Maine Sport Outfitters and Atlantic Climbing School.

“It's a way to teach kids how to be more comfortable outside, to meet friends from other towns, and these courses challenge them every day," Jackson said. "By the end of the class, the students have become so much closer as a team. It's been fun to watch kids develop as a unity; they help each other through each challenge, and one of the best parts for me is when a student emails me after their course has ended to get the contact information to get in touch with one of their teammates.”

The human spirit and character development are two of the things highlighted in the classes, which might on the surface feel to children as though they're just participating in an outdoor activity. Jackson said the activities provide an alternative to the traditional competitive sports offered at the middle school, and the Sundog courses also aim to teach pupils to respect the world around them through "no trace ethics" — leaving no garbage or signs of one's presence in nature behind.

“Nowadays, learning experiences seem so safe and so controlled, but many students want to be challenged, to be independent and to have the sense that they could learn skills with which to rely on themselves. They want to explore the limits of what is possible," said Jackson. "Seeing students overcome their thresholds for fear or their preconceived notions has been so rewarding."

Jackson said she drew inspiration for the name from a photograph by Rockport-based photographer Peter Ralston, which depicted a rainbow reflecting in a circle over the sky. She revealed that Native Americans refer to such a phenomenon as a "sun dog." In some Native American folklore, a person on an adventure in nature would interpret the rainbow halo as a fortunate omen.

Sudents from Camden-Rockport Middle School have attended classes at Sundog, as well as students from all over the Midcoast. Jackson said she hopes that one day Sundog will be able to have a relationship with area schools, whereby Sundog representatives can work with guidance departments to reach out to students in the community who may be interested in participating in its programs.

Sundog has also received a grant from United Midcoast Charities that will support the tuition costs for a number of students who will attend a Sundog program in 2018.

The next course Sundog will be offering is "On Snow, In Style": a six-week winter touring expedition for fifth- and sixth-grader, that will highlight snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and camping. In the event that the weather (and snowfall) doesn't cooperate, Jackson has also planned to supplement the course with a "fat bike" program, which will allow students to maneuver wide-tired bicycles on various rugged terrain (and snow), where traditional bikes would ordinarily sink.

Seventh- and eighth-graders will be able to participate in their own course, "Winter on Wheels," a six week session which focuses on fat biking and winter camping and ends in a weekend expedition on trails in western Maine.

Both courses begins Jan. 15, and the registration deadline is Jan. 5. Like all of Sundog's courses, "On Snow, In Style" and "Winter on Wheels" will highlight no-trace ethics, but will also teach students skills relating to forest ecology, route-finding and back-country cooking. Parents may register their children online via Sundog's website,