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HomeSurvivalYoung People

Outdoor Ed Thoughts

by Rob Bicevskis


The first wisps of smoke started to rise. Each curling trail left a pleasant cedar aroma on my nose. The rhythm of the bow was steady. Back and forth. Back and forth. The light brown powder was gradually filling the notch in the hearth. The smoke was now much denser, the cedar scent more intense. I had gotten this far many times before, but this time the spindle was truer and the top bearing was the result of a more clever choice of wood. Now the smoke was so thick that the bottom of the spindle was often obscured from view. Occasionally I could monitor that the powder was now a darker auburn. I increased the pressure on the upper wood bearing and pushed harder on the bow. The whirring of the spindle now grew burdened as the wood began to transform as the temperature rose. A last few strokes with all of my strength. Then, silence, except for the pounding of my heart from the exertion of pushing and pulling the bow. I removed the spindle from the hearth and carefully blew on the pile of dark brown powder. The moment of truth, will the smoke die out, or will it build? So many times I had watched the smoke trail away to leave cold wood dust behind. Hopefully this time would be different. Each breath was answered by a greater quantity of smoke. I gently moved the hearth board from the thimble-sized pile of smoking powder. With my heart still pounding, another breath revealed a faint red glow. This was it, I had a coal! This was the tough part, but I was not done. I gently rolled the tiny glow into a nest of waiting tinder. Blowing on the tinder ball resulted in even larger quantities of smoke. The expanding red glow in the center of the tinder soon became visible. Holding the tinder ball in my hands, I could feel the radiating heat. There was now a huge quantity of smoke and my hands were almost burning. I didn’t care about scorched skin, I held on. A few more puffs of air and the whole tinder bundle burst into flames. I had made fire! This was truly a defining moment in my life. It was a major milestone in my study of the outdoors. It was also a homework assignment.

Homework? This certainly doesn’t seem to be any conventional type of homework. I was lucky. I attended Thornlea Secondary in Thornhill Ontario. Thornlea had two things going for it: an open mind to the unconventional and a great location. In the late seventies when I attended Thornlea, the area was in transition from semi-rural to urban. A 10 minute walk took one from the chairs and desks of the indoor classroom to an outdoor classroom in a forested ravine. Due to the knowledge, energy and abilities of one teacher, André Bourbeau, Thornlea offered a series of courses called Outdoor Education. As well, under André’s direction, there was an active outing club.

We boiled eggs in birch-bark pots, in burdock leaves and in paper bags. Why didn’t the birch-bark burn? Why didn’t the paper bag burn? Now there was a place to apply lessons from physics class. I made soap by creating lye from wood ashes and boiling it together with rendered lard. How the heck does that work? Lye from ashes? Soap from fat? Chemistry suddenly had a new importance. Have you ever heard a student declare that trigonometry is killing them? Without a basic understanding of trigonometry, setting anchors for rock-climbing is literally a life and death situation. Besides learning about the outdoors through primitive skills, we gained an appreciation about the ecosystem that we live in – much of it by going out to actually experience things.

André the teacher and I the student both left Thornlea around the same time. André went back to school to obtain a PhD. in outdoor education and is now teaching that subject at the University of Chicoutimi. I went on to earn a B.A.Sc. in Engineering Science and a M.A.Sc. in Electrical Engineering, from the University of Toronto and am currently working as a Chief Technology Officer for Genesis Microchip, a highly successful technology company. Our schooling took us in two different directions, but we both made sure that our education exposed us to lessons from “the other side.” André and I kept in touch and reunited on occasion to go out in the bush on survival trips. We went in all seasons and spent up to a week isolated from civilization with nothing more than the clothes on our backs. No matches, no knives, no food. All of the training during the high school years was the key to making fire, forming tools, erecting shelter and finding plenty of food among the plants, mushrooms and trees of Northern Ontario. This was probably outdoor education taken to the extreme! Conversely, there were many students in the classes that simply graduated with a deeper understanding of the world around us.

Almost anyone can be convinced that learning about the environment, nature and the outdoors is of some benefit. But at what cost? Won’t outdoor studies take precious time away from the three R’s? It seems that in today’s ultra-competitive society, children are being prepared for future success from the earliest of ages. Surely outdoor education can’t be a productive use of time. Roger von Oech, a well known creativity teacher, advocate, and author wrote:

I once asked computer entrepreneur Steve Jobs why some people are more creative than others. He replied, “Innovation is usually the result of connections of past experience. But if you have the same experiences as everyone else, you’re unlikely to look in a different direction.”(1)

Math and the hard sciences are necessary. They can be an end unto themselves, but more often, for a broad portion of society, they are tools. They are the “how,” not the “why.” Outdoor education provides context, it provides real experiences. As much as so many people want to isolate themselves from the natural world, we are intimately tied to it. Water, food and air are but a few elements of our ecosystem. To blindly use and abuse these gifts is terribly myopic. This is where science can play an important role. Too often these days people are making poor or emotional decisions because they don’t have the tools to understand the issues before them. This applies not only to issues of the environment, but in many other areas of our existence. The key is to create the right balance between science and nature. As someone who went through an intense path of engineering and science studies, my outdoor pursuits and background did not disadvantage me in any way, but rather provided many direct and indirect advantages and fulfillment.

One can intellectually argue classical education vs. adding an element of the outdoors. Another angle to this dichotomy is to look inside us to see what feels right. Personally, there is something very deep within me that drives me to find a balance between technology and nature. Canoeing the tidal flats of James Bay or deep sub-micron micro-chip development are both deeply fulfilling experiences. I can only spend so long immersed in either domain before the other calls ever more loudly.

For now anyway, mankind is sharing this earth and all of the gifts that it has to offer. We are still intimately connected to the environment and its health is directly coupled to our health. As species become extinct, land and air too polluted to be usable, and even sunlight becomes hazardous due to a depleted ozone layer, there are many who stay on and continue this destructive path. Going forward, we need to raise awareness at all levels. We need to understand the why and the how. Exposing today’s students to a balance of science and the outside world is critical. Too many kids are actually turned off by math and science because it doesn’t have context. They end up ignoring these subjects and in later life are unable to make educated decisions regarding a wide range of topics. The same is true for outdoor topics. With no opportunity to experience the outdoors first hand, environmental issues become distant and we end up causing great harm to our world, either by direct effort, or through indifference. Outdoor centres and programs had a big positive influence on my life. I hope my thoughts will help to ensure the same opportunities for others.

1. von Oech, Roger, A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative (New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1998), p. 106