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At L.L. Bean, classes that fit its rugged clothing

Kayakers from the Outdoor Discovery School embark on a tour of Casco Bay. 'The guides are first rate,' says Chip Gray , who runs the nearby Harraseeket Inn . Kayakers from the Outdoor Discovery School embark on a tour of Casco Bay. "The guides are first rate," says Chip Gray , who runs the nearby Harraseeket Inn . (Rob Bossi)
Email|Print| Text size + By Beth D'Addono
Globe Correspondent / April 25, 2007

FREEPORT, Maine -- It all started with a boot.

Leon Leonwood Bean , who was born in Greenwood in 1872, was an avid hunter, fisherman, and all-around outdoors guy. While trying to come up with ways to take the sogginess out of his own trekking, Bean came up with a design for waterproof boots that seemed to do the trick. The lightweight leather uppers and rubber bottoms kept his feet warm and dry, and being the enterprising type that he was, he figured his footwear could do the same for other hunters he knew.

That shoe, a version of which is on display in the flagship L.L. Bean store here, was the start of an outfitting empire that is more than just about rugged clothing and sporting goods. The name L.L. Bean embraces the great outdoors, a bridge between commerce and activity that was first made by Bean himself.

Since the brand has come to equate getting out with actually doing something, as opposed to just looking like you're doing something, the L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery School , founded in 1979, was a natural progression. With the help of expert guides in activities like fly-fishing, kayaking, clay shooting, fishing, and biking, the magic of the outdoors, for which Maine is renowned, is packaged into easy-to-navigate experiences.

"The guides are first rate," said Chip Gray , an outdoors lover who runs the Harraseeket Inn in town. "We work closely with the school, and our guests love the experiences." The school sometimes customizes trips for a group of inn guests, one of the services it can provide.

Unlike most schools, Discovery doesn't have any walls. And the tuition won't break the bank. Not sure of your interests? It costs only $15 to dip your toe in the water -- literally -- with one of the walk-on adventures offered in summer. Available on select weekends, or daily, depending on the month, 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-hour introductions to kayaking, fly casting, archery, and clay shooting are offered. "The idea is to demystify an activity, to make it fun for somebody trying it out for the first time, or someone who is just brushing up on their skills," said Mac McKeever , who markets both the walk-on adventures, which are available at all Bean locations, and the Freeport-based Discovery School.

Jane White, a Philadelphia-area teacher who vacations often in Maine, took two walk-on adventure courses last summer. "I was the only person who signed up for this particular fly-casting seminar, so I had an hour of private instruction. The instructor was friendly and professional. I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

The trips fall into two categories, instructional and recreational. Maine's many coastal islands offer the perfect place to hone paddling skills, from a day's trip of basics ($95) to a three-day island kayak and camping tour ($450). Those aimed at just a specific audience, like women, or families with children, or on a certain theme, like wildlife photography or wilderness first aid, are scheduled throughout the season, which runs from the end of May into October. Groups typically are small, with coaching hands-on and personalized. A four-hour course in canoeing, for instance, offers paddle instruction, along with time to practice. Groups spend the first hour or so going over the basics, then the rest of the class paddling along the shoreline of Casco Bay.

During the summer months, advanced kayakers and recreational boaters can aim for the rocky bluffs of Eagle Island, which was the summer retreat for Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary. Peary purchased the island in 1881 and retired there in 1911. His family continued to live in the island's stone house until they donated the island to the state in 1955. Wildlife sightings along the shoreline usually include seals and a rich array of waterfowl and birds, including osprey and heron.

"Maine is the kind of place that you just have to explore, to spend time in," said Gray, whose family hotel business grew out of a hunting and fishing camp his grandparents operated along the Quebec border. "The thrill of seeing a moose in the wild is something you can't explain, until you've experienced it."

Beth D'Addono, a freelance writer in Belmont Hills, Pa., can be reached at bethdaddono@comcast.net.

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