Scenes in Adventure Learning (Part II): Reconnaissance

Juan de Fuca Recon w/ DSIt is the second day of spring, earlier the same year, and a colleague and I are shivering in soaking clothes in a damp ring of protective salal and cedar above Chin Beach. We are conducting reconnaissance on the Juan de Fuca Trail, assessing its relative difficulty, subjective and objective risks and hazards, and gauging the potential for the route to serve as a challenging option for the annual TALONS Adventure Trip.

Despite arriving on Vancouver Island in full sunshine yesterday, and beginning our hike under clear skies, the rain moved in on us last night and has yet to let up through the day’s first ten kilometres. We left Bear Beach at just before ten this morning and arrived at the emergency shelter above Chin Beach on the afternoon high tide, cutting us off from where the trail resumes at the western end. With an hour of slack tide to wait out we’ve hung our wet shirts on the lines in the front of the shelter to drip dry in the spring humidity and make warm lunches of hummus, bagels, and multiple cups of tea. We laugh at the accumulated years of graffiti adorning the walls.

Eventually we shudder back into our shirts and make our way down to the beach, where we’re waiting now for the tide to recede enough that we might gain the rocky bluff back up into the woods where the trail continues. Mist hangs in the air between the trees and gusts up the beach as the waves crash and rinse between the rocks. A group of five or six sea lions slithers toward the horizon beyond the breakers, and we wait, jogging on the spot, stepping up and down from a log by a sodden fire circle, and wandering through the prospective campsite.

When the tide falls we head back into the woods, tackling the second 10K section of steep, muddy, and root-laden walking between Chin and Sombrio Beach. The trail climbs, then descends, crosses swollen creeks that soak our boots and gaiters, then climbs again. All throughout the afternoon the rain continues to fall, but we don’t wear our rain gear because with our exertion the insides would be as wet as the outside; besides, we will surely need them come the evening.

The lightheartedness of our adventure yesterday has evapourated, or perhaps more appropriately been washed away, and we hike in relative silence: grunting, breathing heavily, laughing incredulously at the ferocity of the weather and the roughness of the trail. We are out here two months before the hiking season has properly begun, and many of the winter’s deadfall sitka spruces, calamitous landslides, and broken boardwalks have yet to be cleared or repaired. Later in the day we are ankle deep in muddy bogs on the ridgeline above Sombrio Point and the forest canopy blocks out the five o’clock light, making it horror-movie dark as the rain increases above our heads. In the next moment it is hailing angrily down through the cedar boughs and we are resigned to digging through our packs for jackets as the pellets sting our shoulders and frigid forearms.

Juan de Fuca Recon w/ DS

On Sombrio we fight back the first effects of hypothermia while we attempt to set the tarp and pitch our tent. My sleeping bag is soggy and our fingers ache working with the lightweight tarpline. We are on pace to complete the trail in three days – two days faster than our prospective trip with the teens later in the spring – and we are each unbelievably spent.

Tomorrow we will shuffle off the western terminus of the trail in Port Renfrew and ravenously inhale chicken wings and two beers before hitchhiking back to our car at China Beach before dark. I am almost thirty five and no stranger to challenging adventures in the woods, nor is Dave: even with our aching feet and blistering toe-nail beds, soaked gear and thousand-yard stares as we sit over ferry burgers on our way home, we are giddy and proud of our adventure.

But tonight, shivering in my sleeping bag while the rain blasts at the salal and sitka shelter beyond our tent, and throughout our encounters with knee-deep bogs, hundred metre cliffs above the Pacific, and the perilously slick log bridges and creek beds (one of which claims my sunglasses on the second morning of our adventure), I am struck with the magnitude of the trip seen through the eyes of my grade nine students. The thought that the trip may be beyond the capabilities of our group – or for one reason or another one or more of our student group will not complete the trail – becomes a focal point of the preparations to come.

“Let’s think about it,” Dave says sometime the next day while we take water and a break deep in the woods west of Sombrio Beach. “What are the snags, injuries or anxieties – reasons you’d need to stop or evacuate someone – and where are they going to happen out here?”

“If and when they walk off the end of this trail,” he adds. “They are going to be hardened warriors.”

We climb through the soaking rainforest, sweating in our rotten, muddy clothes, brainstorming various emergencies and evacuation procedures, as well as how to minimize our risks.

“Exactly,” I tell him, and set about making plans for the coming months and making that potential a reality.

Scenes in Adventure Learning (Part I): Over, Under, Through

Arch

Aligning our departure from Chin Beach to the 8am low tide, our group of seventeen grade nine and ten students and four adult leaders set out around the rocky bluff at the western edge of the beach, walking in the shadow of towering sandstone cliffs. Groundwater drips down mossy walls and splatters on the slick boulders we navigate to the tune of clattering hiking poles and the gasps of narrowly avoided falls. To the west the bright blue sea is visible through the window of a dramatic granite arch extending from the forest.

One of our volunteer leaders and one of the grade tens ventures under the arch to assess the possibility of avoiding the abrupt headland interrupting our beach route, to no avail. Even with the low tide, the route under the arch runs out into shallow seawater and the threat of being surprised by rogue waves on the exposed point; we will have to go over.

It is the second morning we’ve woken up on the beach, having set out just after lunch from the China Beach parking lot at the eastern end of the Juan de Fuca Trail Saturday afternoon. We have hiked more than twenty kilometres with tents and food and water purification tablets, and as we set out onto the third day of the five-day trek, the most difficult sections of trail are behind us. Having surmounted the endless switchbacks and headlands of the merciless stretch between Bear Beach and Chin, the group is strong and confident, and sets about scaling the rocky archway without a break in collective stride. 

Arch BypassThe first few who make it up onto the bluff deposit their packs and hiking poles on the far side, and return to help others gain the ledge with encouraging words, outstretched hands, and assurances that what looms on the other side is “no worse than we’ve done so far.”

On the other side, the route descends sharply to the boulder-strewn beach over a five foot ledge that offers only an awkward bum-shuffle as a way down. Here, too, bags are shuttled briskly through helping hands; a guide line is set to balance reluctant shufflers;  encouragement and spotters collect on the beach to catch us as we resume the trail on the other side. A waist-height waterfall pours out of the sandstone onto the beach where we wet our faces and cool ourselves before continuing into the morning. A hundred other challenges will arise before the day is out, but no matter. The group is operating with a heightened focus on the goal at hand: to safely reach the end of the trail together.

Less than a kilometre down the rocky beach, we meet the buoys hanging in a tree that signal the trail ‘s shift inland, and clamour in a rough single file up and over the twisted roots of a sitka spruce hanging over the edge of a creek. For the next three days we will continue in this manner, immersed in the boundary between forest and sea, with everything we need to survive stowed away in brightly coloured packs and the awestruck glances of our teammates.

With Hemingway

Ambos Mundos

Italy, Spain, Cuba – half the world is filled with the places that he appropriated simply by mentioning them. In Cojimar, a little village near Havana where the solitary fisherman of ”The Old Man and the Sea” lived, there is a plaque commemorating his heroic exploits, with a gilded bust of Hemingway. In Finca de la Vigia, his Cuban refuge, where he lived until shortly before his death, the house remains intact amid the shady trees, with his diverse collection of books, his hunting trophies, his writing lectern, his enormous dead man’s shoes, the countless trinkets of life from all over the world that were his until his death, and that go on living without him, with the soul he gave them by the mere magic of his owning them.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Meets Ernest Hemingway

Last week I was fortunate once again to travel to the island of Cuba and visit the Ambos Mundos hotel and bar that once housed Ernest Hemingway before he purchased and moved to his estate Finca de la Vigia. His first Cuban home, Hemingway began writing For Whom the Bell Tolls in room 511 at the hotel in the heart of Old Havana.

Havana Daytrip

When I graduated from university, my sister and I spent the following summer working at a Boy Scout camp in the Ozark foothills, and made a pact to read nothing but Hemingway for the balance of our time at the camp and en route back to Vancouver. He and I shared a birthday (July 21), and as a creative writing student I had learned from professors with deep affections for authors I hadn’t yet digested: among them Hemingway, William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. At the outset of my life beyond school and what promised to be an adventurous summer – my sister and I would leave the summer camp after six weeks in the woods to fly north and road trip across Canada – we seemed to have been presented a fitting venue to finally set teeth to Papa’s ouvre.

I had started For Whom the Bell Tolls before M. got off the plane with her copy to To Have and to Have Notand we marched forward from there:

I finished For Whom in a tent in Molena, Georgia, at a National Certification School for the Boy Scouts.

A Farewell to Arms, and Green Hills of Africa were read mostly near the scout camp pool in Damascus, Arkansas.

I read To Have and to Have Not in the tent that was my home that summer.

Islands in the Stream went down riding the train from Montreal to Toronto.

There were others, of course: The Sun Also Rises, Old Man and the SeaA handful of short stories: “The Killers,” “Hills like White Elephants,” “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and others. And by the time we crossed the continental divide, Hemingway’s protagonists and prose had enveloped the colour and tenor of our adventure.

View from Ambos Mundos

At twenty two years old, and newly graduated with a degree in creative writing, our summer in the woods and the ensuing journey home represented the discovery of an all-too-enourmous canvas upon which to paint my sister’s and my lives. Saying goodbye to intense and short-lived friendships, taking on the struggles of life outdoors, travel, not to mention fears about what lie ahead in terms of what I would do with my college education, Hemingway’s plots and conflicts provided a matter-of-fact commitment to the rough, sad, beauty of life.

In Niagra Falls, on the first afternoon of our trip, we found just more than $117 in our shared savings account, and more than 3000 kilometers between us and home.

Outside of Thunder Bay we drove into the darkening night and creepy dirt-road northern towns looking for a place to pitch our tent.

And upon arriving home, we learned that our mother had been diagnosed with cancer (which she would eventually beat).

Each of these difficulties was embraced with Hemingway’s words ringing in our ears: “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong at the broken places.” And as we crested the rocky mountains and entered again the lush and coastal climes of British Columbia, we had come to see ourselves as characters as large in life as the continent we had just crossed. There was little need to express this grandeur in hyperbole or poetry, however; the stark terms of Hemingway’s words created a notion of quiet heorism that was somehow the least any of us could do with our minute lives.

Papa's CornerYears before I would begin teaching a high school course in philosophy, Ernest offered a view on the good life I could embrace: “So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”

In the years since I’ve been guided by other artists, and other authors: Bob Dylan, Garcia Marquez. Springsteen. But in the spirit of Dylan, “I remember every face, of every man that’s brought me here,” and to stand in Hemingway’s lobby, and turn the knob on the door that he slept behind, is to touch something intangible that has profoundly shaped my life as an adult.

Last fall, I read The Dangerous Summera disappointing visit with an aging author in which his lesser qualities run too close to the surface: his infatuation with the brutal “beauty” of bullfighting, chief among them, perfectly representative of the shortcomings in his work around his own image, as well as masculinity and misogyny. But even while acknowledging these shortcomings, the ripples that he made with his mind in the world demand to be reckoned with, if only for me personally as someone who his work  has profoundly touched and influenced.

Sipping an icy lemonade in the lobby bar surrounded by pictures of a formal idol, a depressed man (along with fellow 21st’er Robin Williams) with whom I share a birthday, what he had created in his mind’s eye and invoked in my own imagination became real once more.

I was able to breathe its air, and touch its humid surfaces. To know that it and the life I had conceived in my mind as a young man are in fact still real.

On outdoor trips and trust

DSC04975

Ripples on the Fraser

“People who hear about the types of trips we take with young people invariably have two responses,” I told the class just over a week ago. “They either say, ‘You’re crazy,’ or ‘Wow! How lucky are you to have such a job?'”

I understand each of these responses.

Maybe we are a little crazy: we leave our own lives, families and friends for days at a time to immerse ourselves in the frenetic energy of adolescence, to keep in tow the patience to teach and see our endeavors large and small through to their conclusions. All the while, we know in the back of our minds (and occasionally the front) that the calamity that can find us out of doors can range from the frivolous to the total.

It’s true that there are a million reasons to keep learning indoors, and to not take these opportunities, given the potential costs and risks. But there are ample amounts of good fortune that accompany these risks and the investment of our free-time. There are gains to be made in connecting with our environment, as well as with one another, that are sorely worth pursuing in educating today’s young people.

Gregory Bateson describes these learning opportunities as “breaches in the contextual structure,” whereby individuals gain an understanding of the process involved in implementing “corrective change in the system of sets of alternatives from which choice is made.”

This sort of “third order” thinking is driven by a confrontation with “systemic contradictions in experience” (this is taken from University of Virginia prof Eric Bredo); to the outdoor educator, this double bind is represented by the necessity of learning to provide both the freedom to explore, as well as the structure and guidance that creates safe opportunities for growth.

Gardner Campbell points out that learning in this capacity puts participants – teachers and students and parents alike – to vulnerability. “It puts the self at risk,” he says. “The questions become explosive,” and “involve “the kinds of risks that learners, at their best, will be willing to take.”

In the outdoor setting, the potential for transcendant learning meets the spectre of negative possibility, that we might meet the very worst.

And so we find ourselves on the fourth morning of the Adventure Trip talking about trust, and the fact that our parent community trusts us to take their children into these experiences, onto the Fraser River in Voyageur canoes, into the woods, and onto the local highways on our bicycles because there is value in going out there. The value that we see as educators in providing students the freedom to learn and apply their skills in authentic outdoor settings is accompanied by the risks and vulnerability we assume in relying on no small amount of trust that the students who are in our care will behave responsibly while engaged in these events.

However, in this setting, as Gardner Campbell again points out, “All the bets are off. Even the bets about the bets being off.” And so it came to be that on Monday morning we were having the following conversation:

“There has been a breakdown in the trust between you and us,” we told the class just before breakfast. “And between yourselves and one another.”

“We have to go home.”

The first of the parent drivers were arriving and waited in their cars while the initial shockwave unfurled among their children. Tears were shed and Individuals sat with pancakes on camp plates in their laps while others paced or leaned against their parents’ cars and picnic tables. Where traditionally the Adventure Trip ends in similar tears and shuddering embraces – a mix of celebration and mourning at the passing of the precious cultivating in TALONS’ two-year cycles, here the class parted shocked at the sudden passing of the next two days’ potential.

Paul Tosey talkeds about Bateson’s systemic change as a confrontation with “the significance of metaphor at the root of perception, and the profound potential for learning should such metaphors change.” In a certain light, the crisis and the opportunity presented here each revolve around individual connections to (and interpretations of) the group’s collective mythology, and the growing need for current and future participants to renovate and write a new narrative.

“The group feels broken,” a student told me Monday morning before leaving, to which I said that the events and actions expressed on the trip were “the symptoms, not the break. Whatever has been broken was that way before we came on the trip.”

In the coming days and weeks we will begin to undertake the processes of seeking out the root causes of these breaks, and do what can be done to move forward in creating new symbols and understandings of just what it is our shared experience has meant, and will mean into the future.

It is after all, like everything else, an opportunity for learning.

A few thoughts on the return of Chris Hadfield to Earth

It’s over, already?

This glorious stretch of time when everyone and everything “anyone ever knew” was being photographed, watched over, and sung to sleep by a Canadian hurtling around the planet a dozen times every day, has come to a close. But then, it seems a beginning, too.

Alan Levine marks the occasion by wondering:

How sadly strange and unique does it seem to find a public figure who inspires, yet is humble, has fun, and lights that spirit of optimism. It doe snot happen in politics, our sports figures and pop culture celebrities ring more as ego focused money chasers. Why are there so few who humbly inspire by example?

Countless times in the past few months, I’ve been moved to goosebumps, lumps in my throat, or the overwhelmed sensation that brings the unexplained tear to the eye by Twitpics, – you can see my house from here! – Soundcloud recordings, and of course, the Youtubes. And I don’t know if it’s necessarily that the idea of ‘space’ itself is so awe inspiring, or that this opportunity to behold the life and times of an astronaut has been transformative in some way that interviews and newscasts and Discovery Channel documentaries offered in the past weren’t.

Rather, an article shared by my Twitter friend Sava posits that our collective wonder at the glimpses Commander Hadfield offered us might be the result of our gathering familiarity with the near cosmos, and what this might portend for the future:

“Communications tools don’t get socially interesting,” Clay Shirky has argued, “until they get technologically boring.” The same may be said of space. As a destination — as a place, as a dream — space may be, ever so slightly, losing its former mantle of foreignness, its old patina of awe. Instead, the final frontier may now be experiencing the fate that befalls any frontier: It stops being a frontier. Its settlers come to think of it, more and more, as an extension of what they know … until it becomes, simply, all that they know. Until it becomes the most basic thing in the world: home.

Space is becoming ordinary. And that means it’s about to get really interesting.

Whatever the reason though, it has been a marvelous ride to share in, Commander Hadfield. You showed us our home planet and took us with you into space, showed us pieces of the future, and broadened the boundaries of our imaginations.

Thank you for all of that, and that which lies ahead.