Finding Common Ground – RLRS outdoor wood-framed classroom by Nels Christensen


I’ve been writing about the Rangeley community for over 10 years now. The one aspect of my job that I never tire of is meeting different people. The events I cover and the people I interview are not always of interest to all members of the diverse readership, but they are all genuinely interesting to me. Statistically, that makes sense. There are very few things that everyone in my immediate family, let alone everyone in Rangeley, can agree on.

However, there is one thing, or rather a destination, that I think we could all enjoy. Get out into the open. It’s a healthy response to the natural world.

School, on the other hand, is not something that everyone loves/has loved. I loved school and at the age of 4 I begged to go. Almost 50 years later I would still like to go there. If I could, I would quit all my jobs and go back to school today. That’s why I think it’s ideal to bring school and nature together.

However, when you think of school, what comes to mind is never out there. Like I said, I loved school, but even I felt like a potted plant after a certain number of hours. My head slowly tilted toward the sunlit windows.

Years later, when I went to a Quaker college where we regularly made consensus decisions about our classes, we often chose to go outside and sit on the lawn. The classes included music, studio art, literature, philosophy and political science. I vividly remember what I learned in those courses. What I remember from high school had more to do with checking the clock and resisting the urge (sometimes unsuccessfully) to bow your head. I don’t know if it was fresh air, sleep, or focus, but I firmly believe that there are many benefits to getting outside, as much as possible.

In any case, this is my longer than usual explanation of how and why I took up the subject of this issue’s interview with Nels Christensen and brief discussion with his mother and RLRS Special Ed., Ed. Tech, Nini Christensen. In order not to confuse the reader, I will quote by their first names and not their last names.

Nels, a woodworker and 2008 graduate of Rangeley Lakes Regional School (RLRS), has lived in Homer, Alaska for the past 6 or 7 years. However, last winter he spent about 5 weeks here building the new wooden frame for the outdoor classroom at the RLRS. I became a fan of the project the more I heard about it.

Nels Christensen timber frame building at the RLRS site.

Each person I spoke to had a slightly different memory of how the project came about, but let’s just say it was an organic team effort. I read on the school’s website that the project was led by Sonja Johnson and Lily Webber and realized with Nini and Nels. Talking to Nini, she thinks it might have started with Tim Straub writing a grant for an outdoor spot years ago.

Nini: “Tim Straub originally wrote a grant for an outdoor pavilion, maybe theater stuff, you know you have to do things here at school and nothing ever materialized, but we started talking about it when we realized have that Nels could come up with a design for something. So that’s where it started. And then when Covid hit and we pitched a tent that kept getting blown down, we realized we really needed it. It would be nice to have a more permanent structure that didn’t have this potential and then we shifted our focus from Tim’s vision to an outdoor learning space. It was definitely a lot of Sonja, but before that it was Tim too. I think that was kind of a spark.”

I asked Nels what he remembered.

“I come back to Rangeley every year to see my family. Well, most years. It was a kind of discussion at the table in the house. For example, “Oh, you know, it would be really cool to have an outdoor classroom or a place to go that wasn’t like this concrete prison. (Well, not so bad)” he laughed.

He then fondly remembered some of his favorite teachers like Sonja Johnson, Maryam Emami and Tim Straub. He explained that he’s still applying things he learned from them.

After graduating from the RLRS, he raised some funds through work and travelling. He visited places like Holland, Turkey and Nepal. He then went to college, did a small apprenticeship and studied timber frame building at Hawk Circle in Cherry Valley, NY and at Heartwood, a timber frame building guild school in Washington, MA.

A high point of those years was when his tortuous path propelled him in an amusing and unpredictable direction. He was hired for a job and had to move. When he arrived, however, the project had to be put on hold for several months.

“I came up here — had no money, no job, I was like ‘man, alright,’ so I went fishing. Commercial fishing in Kodiak until framework project started – 3 months. So, first time I’ve spent the night on a boat or spent more than 2 days on a boat and I’ve spent about 90 days straight. Yes. Full immersion.”

Just the thought of it made me a little uneasy, but he insisted it wasn’t as bad as you might have imagined.

“Basically, bad weather makes you really nauseous on the first two days. But as long as you don’t get off the boat, you’ll be fine afterwards.”

I was happy to hear that after three months the project was yielding significant returns. “It was great because I paid off all my college debt in one season. It was like the biggest paycheck I’ve ever received.”

Now, years later, he has a more consistent, albeit project-based, schedule. “I have a different working style when I take on projects. I have no vacation per say. Like every summer, I take on three projects, each lasting about one to two months. And then I have small projects throughout the winter. So I go into a project, go all out, work 10/12 hour days for about 40 days straight and then take a month off. It’s really common in Alaska because they have such a seasonal economy that many people spend the entire winter.”

Back in Alaska we spoke on the phone and I asked him if he was planning to stay there forever. He laughed, “I don’t plan on doing anything forever, but I’ve bought land and I’m building a big shop and I’m living in a cabin, so I’m pretty committed.”

Referring to the outdoor classroom building project, he said: “My part is done. I think they hope to get it this summer. I wish it was there when I was young. I would have hung out there more. It’s pretty nice.”

The project, which began the day after Thanksgiving and the first phase of which was completed in early March, was a nice project for Nels to get back home with.

Nini remembered happily. “The great thing was that when he was working there and break kids came out and he was working with a couple of 4’sth kids in the class who were interested and let them use chisels and other stuff (and he showed them the design on his computer). But he also watched the kids playing in the woods and said, ‘Wow, when I was here we never played in the woods. And then, you know, the kids went sledding up the hill and, ‘Oh, we didn’t do that.’ So it was good for him to reflect on the experience of being a kid here at school. Especially elementary school children.”

With the addition of the outdoor classroom, it will be even more beautiful to see, hopefully next time he visits. Or at least his mother will tell him if that ever happens. Hopefully soon. Nels: “I’m happy when people use it.”

Nini also hoped that it would be ready this summer. “The sooner the better in my opinion. It’s an outdoor space that allows kids to connect their learning to the natural world.” Adding, “I saw through Special Ed. that some children learn better that way.”

I for one am one of them! For this reason I still try to take part in the outdoor courses offered at the Wilhelm Reich Museum or by the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust or Rangeley Adult Ed. Damn I would do archery with Rangeley Region Guides and Sportsmen if they offered it to adults! But I digress.

So here’s the thing. The Class of 2020 generously donated $7500 to the project and the Skowhegan Savings Bank donated $2500. I believe that the next phases will require additional funds. The first is a roof. And then?

Nini: “We have a couple of picnic tables out there. I guess then we’ll have to see it in use and then see what else has to happen, but at this point we can build some benches from the leftover pieces, and we can also build stairs on the way into the forest because The filling made a kind of slope. So maybe these things need to happen.”

Let’s hope it happens soon! If you would like to donate to this cause please contact Jeff LaRochelle at 207-864-3311 ext. 108. Thanks for reading! (If the article was a bit blurry, it’s because I had to write the whole thing inside….)

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