Wilderness and Kids
Credit: Creative Commons

In June of 1978, 12 boys and one leader from Saint John’s School of Ontario drowned after their canoes capsized on Lake Timiskaming. It was a horrific tragedy.

The only good that came out of it were the drastic changes made to educate leaders on paddling safety. Canoe programs across Canada were re-examined and standards for canoe tripping were made official.

However, accidents are still happening out there. So, the question is—should we stop taking kids outdoors?

Lately, CTV News reported an event on Lake Simcoe that frighteningly paralleled the Timiskaming disaster. A high school group, heading out on their annual canoe trip, found themselves in trouble when a massive windstorm forced four of the 16 students to capsize and be rescued by helicopter.

One of the lead teachers and the school’s principal stated on-camera that they were unaware of the poor weather conditions approaching. Chat forums, Facebook and Twitter were littered with negative comments about their poor leadership. Weather networks had announced the storm prior to the event. It seemed everyone knew about the approaching storm but them.

Thankfully, all the students were wearing PFDs and all had passed a swim test before embarking on the trip. Only four students were treated for mild hypothermia—unlike the Timiskaming tragedy where close to half the group died.

This event, and the drowning of a student last year in Algonquin who had failed his swim test but was still able to go on the school canoe trip, has many people worried about the safety of youth while travelling in wild areas.

I wasn’t there to witness the details that led to these accidents. So I don’t have right to judge anyone involved. I do, however, feel the need to make people aware of the further consequences of such accidents. 

School administrators across North America are now cancelling canoe-tripping for students. Ontario’s Durham school board just announced that no outdoor club can head out on their annual canoe trips.

Penn State University stated a few weeks back that a risk-assessment has determined that activities such as hiking, running, backpacking and canoe tripping are too risky. Their 169-member outdoors club, founded in 1920, isn’t allowed to go outside anymore.

I’ve seen similar reactions at the college where I teach part-time. My students now have to wear lifejackets while doing a pond study or gather water at the campsite. I understand that it’s better to be safe than sorry—but it just seems to me that things are getting a little out-of-hand. 

We have administrators protecting their careers; parents who continue to bubble-wrap their kids; and passionate, well trained, well certified, well-seasoned instructors who are just getting fed up with it all. Far too many are retiring early or simply walking away and going back to teaching the basic boring studies in a confined classroom, rambling like Charlie Brown’s teacher while the kids play with their iPhones under their desks.

I have also started to question taking students outdoors. Not due to conflicts with more rules and regulations. I’m definitely frustrated about it all, but so far the desire to keep taking kids into the woods overpowers this vexation.

I’m more concerned about the students I’m taking out. In my entire 30-plus years of guiding youth out in the wilderness, I’ve done three evacuations. This past year, however, I’ve done a total of seven—the majority which were due to anxiety attacks; mental breakdowns that forced them to be taken off trip.

Mental injury is the same as physical injury. I’m not knocking the students who had such issues. It’s just concerning there were more rescues due to the stress of being out in the wilderness, than from sprained ankles or cuts.

So, what do we do about it? Do instructors gather in groups, get organized, try to keep passionate and attempt to calm the administrators and parents by making positive change?

And more importantly, do the leaders keep getting more certifications, gather sage advice from past instructors, get more bush time and gain more practical experience?

Or do we all just give up?

Let me know what you think.

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