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.

Why Learning Outside Matters

DSC02381

Having spent already more than five days this September immersed in the outdoors with separate TALONS groups on Fall Retreats in Howe Sound and Sasquatch Provincial Park, I have been thinking lately of the importance that learning in the outdoors plays in a 21st century education. Opportunities for relevant, authentic learning experiences in the outdoors are able to powerfully combat the disconnect with the natural world that is arguably at the heart of many challenges facing future generations, and which much classroom learning is ill-fitted to provide today’s learners. Outdoor education is specifically poised to provide experiential lessons in:"What we haven't done yet, is have a dance party." - Owl

  • Realizing that we are a community.
  • Experiencing our place in the (local) natural world.
  • Learning self-reliance and accountability.
  • Living in the moment.

As one of the pillars of the TALONS Program and Betts Autonomous Learner Model, the Fall Retreat is constructed from the ground up out of opportunities for group development and community-building, self-discovery, and authentic experiences involving teamwork, problem solving and personal reflection for each member of the community. With trust that time spent establishing group and individual goals and roles in the community pay dividends in learning later in the academic semester, TALONS learners traditionally spend September forming committees to deal with the various elements of trip-planning and implementation joining the program’s new grade nines with grade ten mentors, committee chairpersons, and project managers who consult with teacher-facilitators in bringing the trip to fruition. While fulfilling the class obligation to the Ministry‘s Leadership 11 IRP, the Retreat orients TALONS learners within the ethos of the program and establishes the introductory norms of the new peer group while immersing them in relevant example of real-world goal setting that culminates through the trip’s three days.

Dinner Retreat Shopping

As with many other TALONS undertakings, a glimpse into a Retreat or Adventure Trip meal provides a window into the value of student-centered learning, as learners consult previous years’ menus and shopping lists to decide on final recipes and supplies, arrange for shopping trips to Costco, cookies parties at home and schedules for food prep & delivery once we’re in the field, all before the trip even begins. Trip food needs to be accounted for within the class’ budget (provided to parents by the student-run Finance & Forms Committee), and accompanied by a list of requisite cooking materials (facilitated by the often-sprawling Equipment Committee).

_ALB6055Once on the trip itself, involved committees are responsible for the scheduling, preparation, delivery, and cleanup of the meal, which can involve any combination of volunteer-forces the class chooses to muster up. The incentive of natural consequences (We don’t cook, we don’t eat. We don’t eat (or clean up), we don’t have a campfire.) powers the need for collaboration and communication from start to finish, and fosters relationships and trust within the class community. Bread is only broken once everyone has been served, and it is customary that a few words of wisdom or thanks are shared before the meal commences, and the din of conversation engulfs everyone and everything.

Weather

DSC02264On the west coast, the idea of rain in September is something of an inevitability to the extent that the advent of sunshine on a September Retreat is akin to winning a meteorological lottery of sorts. Survival – or at the very least, comfort – in British Columbia’s natural elements depends on an ability to prepare and share a stable shelter with one’s fellow travellers. Whether in the form of maintaining a fire in the wood-stove for the drying of constantly sodden clothing, or the 4am gusts of wind and rain that find friends arguing with half-hitch knots and headlamps in the middle of the night, the ordeal of an adventure in the woods is an omnipresent demand to see opportunity in crisis, and the glass as half-full (or, more appropriately, overflowing).

The forests of the west are green and snow-capped as a result of the winter winds that buffet our coasts with rain that allow the salmon to swim home, and to deny the necessary beauty of the rain is to deny this place we call home. There are, as my friend Andy Forgrave reminds me, “Two kinds of weather: memorable, and forgettable,” and the rain that seems to find us every year on at least one of our trips is at times of either sort.

“There is also that little-mentioned third category,” Andy adds, however. “Dry.”

DSC02100

Games

The Albatross LungeWithout the distractions of iPods and text messages, Facebook or television, it never fails to amaze me how quickly TALONS and other teens assemble into naturally occurring orbs of conversation, laughter and friendly competition that (for Dean Shareski) coalesce on beaches, in forests, and on water. With a fire roaring in the wood stove, and voices echoing in the second-growth cedar and hemlock, a group passes more than an hour dissecting the intricacies of a riddle. The same woods are freckled with games of Camouflage, and Ninja. Russian card games. Twenty-five person rings of Stella Ella Ola.

These songs and games are generally learned in elementary, or middle school, and are the stuff of our children’s learning rituals of play – they exist in every corner of the world, and in many cases (I’m sure) mimic one another. That they spring up in BC’s forests, or in hotel lobbies in Cuba, places where we might find ourselves pining for a sense of identity or home, shouldn’t surprise at all. We often think of our culture as being made up of the songs we sing, and the stories we tell; but it is startling to realize that our repertoire of games and riddles is a shared story as well.

Hiking

Looking out on the Salish SeaIn the years that I have been with TALONS, we have hiked on the west coast of Vancouver Island, in the forests of the Lower Mainland, North Shore, and Fraser Valley, as well as across peaks in the Gulf Islands. We have covered urban and rural terrain, wilderness and back countries with go-gear, water bottles and enjoyed countless hours of meandering conversations and Ninja-breaks along the trails and pathways of our provincial and regional parks in rain, sunshine, and fog, wandering for hours only to arrive in campsite we left that morning. Bonds are formed on these walks that are cyclical odes to the journey being important above the destination, and the company we keep mattering much more than what we might be doing with it.

Sometimes, it is enough just to walk.

Night Solos

_ALB6107“How much of our fear of the dark stretches back to our evolved relationship with so many years spent living in the dark?” Mr. Albright asks me during one of our hikes around Hick’s Lake this weekend. The night before, we had marched the class out into the forest surrounding the campsite to participate in a “Night Solo,” where each member of the class sought out a solitary space at a distance (from the teachers’ lantern) of their own choosing. And with lights out we sat in inky silence for more than ten minutes, listening to rain pelting the upper canopy of forest. Our hiking conversation that following day had shifted to human beings’ relationship with fire (learned relatively late in our development as the species homo sapiens sapiens, or, to interpret the Latin, the Wise One).

“If you can imagine what it would have been like to be a human, or one of our earlier ancestors who lived in a world that didn’t yet know fire,” I told the class before we went out into the woods on the evening following the hike. “What you feel as an instinctual rejection of the dark is part of that history, and our story as people. Listen to it. Be with it.”

We walked out into the woods and within minutes were greeted in our silences by the persistent hooting of an owl presiding over the camp for the duration of our solo. Scattered across the forest floor, in a blackness that enveloped all but the distant moon shining off the lake below, the owl rang its voice across the treetops, cradling us all. When I called out finally for the solo to end, seconds swelled and stretched in silence as no one wanted the moment to be gone.

Our ambition as TALONS facilitators is often to nurture these individual worlds, where everything needed for survival, or even thriving, is brought along in backpacks and the people assembled in a given place. Enjoying the peace of sitting in the woods at night alone, a serenity connected to the most basic of human fears of loneliness, made possible in the company of trusted peers. If a more apt metaphor for the autonomy that TALONS espouses exists, I’d love to hear it.

Temperature Reading

Toward the end of every evening around a TALONS campfire, once the songs have all been sung, and our solitudes have been confirmed in the surrounding forests, it is a nightly tradition that the group concludes its evening by offering each member of the class the opportunity to offer a rating for the day accompanied by a brief reflection on the day’s events. Time for laughter, learning, or the airing of grievances, I have seen and witnessed moments of the most awesome honesty and collective triumph in these circular conversations, as each day adjourns with an affirmation of the wisdom that we all might:

Look well on today, for in its brief course lie all the variation and realities of your life – the bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of beauty. For yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow a vision. But today well-lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope. 1

  1. M. Wylie Blanchet’s The Curve of Time

A Summer in Pictures

As a means of dusting off the blog after a long summer’s nap, I’ve embedded a collection of my Flickr photos from the last few months spent kayaking, concert-going, camping, hiking, and otherwise enjoying the peaks of a Pacific Coast summer. Above you’ll find the fruits of trips paddling in Port Moody’s Burrard Inlet, camping on Vancouver Island’s Sombrio Beach, Pemberton’s Blowdown Pass, and the Columbia River Valley for a Kings of Leon concert at the Gorge Amphitheatre.

West Coast Trail Pictures on Flickr

Port Renfrew

I’ve finally gotten around to uploading a few pictures from the Jackson Family’s Aborted Mission to Conquer the West Coast Trail. As our trip only lasted four days before being so rudely interrupted by the rapid expansion of volatile gasses, and was spent traversing the inland kilometers north of Port Renfrew, these are not the Greatest Hits of Coastal British Columbia, but are nevertheless record of the last few days of calm that were August.