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July 11, 2021

Wilderness medicine business that trains for difficult environments changes hands

2 people Courtesy / Johnson/Winter Family The sellers of 1 Forest Ave. in Portland were David Johnson, who earlier sold Wilderness Medical Associates International, and his wife, Dharmasuri Winter, who stepped back from Nagaloka Buddhist Center. Both operations will remain as tenants.

The recent sale of a century-old building down a side street in Portland uncovered the story of a wilderness medical training business that partially occupies the building and also recently sold.

The building

David Johnson and his wife Dharmasuri Winter sold 1 Forest Ave. to LOA Property LLC for $645,000. The buyers were not identified beyond the LLC name.

Tom Moulton and Katie Allen from NAI The Dunham Group brokered the sale.

The three-story, 5,102-square-foot office/retail building was built around 1900, renovated  in 2007 and has new HVAC units and a new roof, as well as a stable tenant base.

Allen, who represented the sellers, said the building has been well maintained but could use some updating. 

It was on the market about nine months and received interest from both out-of-state and in-state parties, who were primarily investors.

It initially went under contract to a potential buyer considering a major renovation to convert it to residential use. In the end, that project didn’t make sense due to construction costs, so the property went back on the market.

“We showed it probably 20 more times,” she said.

Courtesy / NAI The Dunham Group
The Forest Avenue building houses Wilderness Medical Associates International, a Buddhist center and other tenants.

At $645,000, the building was priced to stimulate interest.

“It was priced right, which is why we had so much interest,” she said.

The buyer plans to operate it for now as an investment property, she said.

The sellers, David Johnson and Dharmasuri Winter, bought the building in 2012 and had two operations there, the for-profit Wilderness Medical Associates International and the nonprofit Nagaloka Buddhist Center. They also leased space to other tenants — mainly single-office users and artists, who provided an additional income stream.

Many of their first tenants are still in the building, thanks in part to the personal relationships the couple cultivated.

“A lot of people were just starting out; this was the first place they rented,” said Winter. 

For a buyer, they were mainly interested in attracting an investor who would allow the tenants to stay in place or at least have some time to find another place.

“There was a limit to how we could be fussy about buyer,” said Johnson. “But we made it clear to Katie and Tom that we wanted to protect the tenants as best we could. Our preference would be someone who’s an investor, who would at least give the tenant some time to of find a spot if they wanted to change how the building was being operated.”

The business

The sale of the building was the second step in Johnson and Winter’s retirement plan.

Johnson sold his business, Wilderness Medical Associates International, last November.

Wilderness Medical was founded in 1984 by Peter Goth, a 1972 medical school graduate and outdoors enthusiast who developed an early wilderness emergency medicine training system, according to the company’s website. 

Goth established a collaborative group of professionals that included Johnson, an emergency physician at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. It was a natural fit for Johnson, whose outdoor pursuits have included wilderness canoeing in Canada, climbing and hiking in North and South America, coastal kayaking in Georgia and Maine, and sailing around the Atlantic Ocean. 

Johnson bought Wilderness Medical in 1998. 

Today, courses reach medically and non-medically trained learners who work in remote and difficult environments around the world. Courses are hosted by colleges and universities, medical schools, camps, outdoor adventure companies, rural ambulance services, private industry, government entities and licensed training companies.

Before the pandemic, the company was teaching well over 500 courses per year and reached about 11,000 students per year around the world. It employed about 125 instructors in the U.S. and Canada, and additional instructors in other countries. Rather than send North American instructors to other countries, the goal over the last decade has been to develop a cadre of local instructors and independent businesses. 

Courses are offered at a variety of levels, such as a weekend-long first aid course for someone with no medical background, courses for medical professionals, and specialty courses for bluewater sailors and journalists in conflict zones. 

Clients include colleges and summer camps, which typically request staff training for situations ranging from basic first aid to first-responder rescues. In Maine, its clients include Outward Bound and Chewonki.

An example of a specialized course is one that’s designed for journalists in conflict zones and includes a trauma module for shooting victims, as well as first aid for things like muscular-skeletal injuries, wounds, diarrhea, headache, fever and cough. The course is taught by a U.S. instructor who has traveled to Brazil, Kenya, Kosovo, Italy, Ukraine, China, Colombia and elsewhere, said Johnson.

Johnson, who is in his 70s and retired from Central Maine Medical Center five years ago, had been thinking about selling the business for quite a while and was looking for the right opportunity.

“I’m not going to live forever,” he said. “I talked with a number of people about this.”

Winter, who helped found Nagaloka Buddhist Center in 2003, has also stepped back from its operation. The center continues to operate at 1 Forest Ave.

New owner

Johnson wasn’t interested in selling to the highest bidder. 

“I wanted to make sure that, whoever took it over, would not necessarily do everything the way I would do it, but would have some sense of the history and some understanding about why we’ve done what we’ve done over the years,” he said. “We’ve had people we’ve worked with for 25, 30 years. I wanted to make sure there was some comprehension about these relationships.”

Last summer, Johnson was contacted by one of his instructors, Abby Rowe, who was interested in buying the business.

“I realized I was a bit more interested in diving into the company, if that were a possibility,” Rowe said. “I took a gamble. I contacted David in June 2020 and asked if he had a succession plan and if the company was for sale. We had a great conversation.”

At the time, Johnson was speaking with some other potential buyers. 

“A few months later, that didn’t materialize, so he called me,” she continued. 

person by water
Courtesy / Abby Rowe 

Wilderness Medical Associates International’s new owner and president Abby Rowe plans to continue operations in Portland.

Rowe, who grew up outside of Boston and in New York City, began her outdoor education career as an undergraduate instructor for Cornell Outdoor Education. She has worked as a sailing instructor, sea kayak instructor, and course director for Hurricane Island Outward Bound for eight years, built traditional wooden boats in Maine, and served as the director of outdoor education at Colgate University for 13 years. She also works as an emergency medical technician in Mount Desert; volunteers for MDI Search and Rescue, a volunteer, nonprofit that provides search and rescue assistance on Mount Desert Island and surrounding communities, including Acadia National Park; and works as a climbing and skiing guide for Acadia Mountain Guides. 

She began working with Wilderness Medical as an instructor in 2018.

She continues to live in Mount Desert while operating the business remotely and traveling periodically to its Forest Avenue location. The goal is to stay on at the location for at least a couple  more years, she said.

“We decided to keep the office in Portland because we have phenomenal staff who are working there,” she said.

The company is in excellent shape, although still rebuilding from a downturn in demand during the pandemic, she said.

However, plans are in the works to expand in several ways. The company had started developing online content just before the pandemic and Rowe now has her eye on developing a hybrid online and in-person curriculum that will provide more convenience and a more affordable price option. Her staff is reviewing course materials and instructor preparations to ensure inclusivity across affinity groups, developing high school programming, and reviewing elements of the curriculum that can be offered free of charge on the website.

Johnson is staying on as medical director. 

“He’s really quite brilliant,” said Rowe. “From what I can tell, he’s really pioneered the field of wilderness medicine as it exists in this country. I don’t think he would ever take credit for that. But when people think about wilderness medicine, they often think of him.”


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