I’ve written about the Rangeley community for over 10 years now. The one aspect of my job I never tire of is getting to know different people. The events I cover and the people I interview are not always of interest to every member of the varied readers, but they are all truly interesting to me. Statistically, this makes sense. There are very few things everyone in my immediate family can agree on, never mind everyone in Rangeley.

However, there is one thing, or rather one goal I do believe we all might actually enjoy. Getting outdoors. It’s a healthy response to the natural world.

School on the other hand is not something everyone loves/loved. I loved school and at 4 years old, I begged to go. Almost 50 years later, I still would love to go. If I could I would quit all my jobs and go back to school today. So, to me, bringing school and nature together is ideal.

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

So, years later when I went to a Quaker college where we regularly used consensus to make decisions about our classes, we often opted to go outside and sit on the lawn. Classes included music, studio art, literature, philosophy and political science. I vividly remember what I learned in those classes. What I remember from high school had more to do with watching the clock and resisting the urge (sometimes unsuccessfully) to put my head down. I don’t know if it was lack of fresh air, sleep, or focus, but I do firmly believe there are many benefits to getting outside, and as much as possible.

In any case, this is my longer than usual explanation about how and why I chose the topic of this issue’s interview with Nels Christensen and brief discussion with his mom and RLRS Special Ed., Ed. Tech, Nini Christensen. So as not to confuse the reader, I’ll be quoting by their first names as opposed to their surnames.


Nels, a timber framer and 2008 graduate from Rangeley Lakes Regional School (RLRS) has been living in Homer, Alaska for the past 6 or 7 years. However, this past winter he spent about 5 weeks here constructing the new outdoor classroom timber framing at RLRS. I became a fan of the project the more I heard about it.

Nels Christensen timberframing at the RLRS work site.

Each person I talked to had a slightly different recollection of how the project came to be, but let’s just say it was an organic team effort. On the school’s website I read the project was spearheaded by Sonja Johnson and Lily Webber and brought to fruition with Nini and Nels. When speaking with Nini she thinks it might have started because Tim Straub had written a grant years ago for an outdoor space.

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

I asked Nels what he recalled.

“I come back to Rangeley every year to see my family. Well, most years. It’s been kind of a discussion around the table at the house. Like, ‘Oh you know it would be really cool to have an outdoor classroom or someplace where you could go that’s not like this concrete prison. (Well, not that bad)” he laughed.

He then proceeded to fondly recollect several of his favorite teachers like Sonja Johnson, Maryam Emami, and Tim Straub. He stated that he still applies things that he learned from them.


After graduating from RLRS he raised some funds by working and traveled around. He visited places such as Holland, Turkey, and Nepal. He then went to college, apprenticed a bit and studied timber framing at Hawk Circle in Cherry Valley, NY as well as Heartwood, a timber framers guild school located in Washington, MA.

One highlight during those years was when his winding path pushed him in an amusing and unpredictable direction. He had been hired for a job and had to relocate. However, when he arrived 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 the framing project started- 3 months. So, the first time I ever spent the night on a boat, or spent more than 2 days on a boat, and I spent like 90 days straight. Yea. Full immersion.”

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

“Basically, the first two days you get really sick if there’s bad weather. But once you don’t get off the boat, you’re good after that.”

I was glad to hear that at the end of three months, the project brought significant returns. “It was great because in one season I paid off my entire college debt. It was like the biggest paycheck I ever got.”


Now, years later, he has a more consistent, albeit project-based schedule.  “I have a different style of working where I take on projects. I don’t have a vacation per say. Like every summer I take on three projects that take about a month or two each. And then I have small projects throughout the winter. So I’ll go into a project, go all in, work 10/12-hour days for like 40 days in a row, and then take a month off. That’s really common in Alaska because there’s such a seasonal economy that many people take the entire winter.”

Back in Alaska, we spoke over the phone, and I asked if he planned on staying there forever. He laughed, “I don’t plan on doing ANYthing forever, but I did buy land and I’m building a big shop and living in a cabin, so I’m pretty well committed.”

Regarding the outdoor classroom building project he said, “My part is done. I think they are hoping to get it up 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 started the day after Thanksgiving and the first stage of which was completed in early March was a nice project for Nels to return home for.

Nini happily recalled. “The neat thing was that, as he was working there, and recess kids came out, and he worked with a couple of 4th grade kids that were interested and let them use chisels and stuff (and he showed them the design on his computer). But he also observed the kids playing in the woods and he said, ‘Wow, we never got to play in the woods when I was here. And then, you know, the kids were sledding on the hill, and ‘Oh, we didn’t do that’. So it was neat for him to reflect on the experience of being a kid here at school. Especially elementary kids.”

With the addition of the outdoor classroom, it will be even nicer to see, hopefully by the next time he visits. Or it least his mom will tell him when that eventually happens. Hopefully soon. Nels, “I will be glad to hear people using it.”


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

I for one am one of them! This is why I still try to take the outdoor classes held at The Wilhelm Reich Museum, or offered by the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust, or Rangeley Adult Ed. Heck, I would take 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 toward the project, and Skowhegan Savings Bank donated $2500. I believe the next stages are going to require additional funds. The first thing is a roof. And after that?

Nini, “We have some picnic tables out there. I think then we’re going to have to see it in use and then see what else needs to happen but at this point we may make a few benches with the leftover pieces, and we also may make stairs on the way into the woods because the fill made kind of a slope. So those things may need to happen.”

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

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