College Course
Credit: Kevin Callan

They arrived hungover, late, unprepared and ill-equipped.

I was truly pissed! Dangling from their packs were frying pans, cooking pots and oversized sleeping bags with no waterproofing. Inside, they had a hodgepodge of loose gear, including a wide assortment of food — loaves of Wonder Bread; cans of Ravioli, beans and corn; rice; and breakfast cereal in their original containers. Five of this group of 16 had no flashlight or headlamp. (Their reasons for not packing a light was that they didn’t own one. One guy’s excuse was that his night vision was good enough — he figured he didn’t need one.)

Now, this would a normal affair — if I was going on one of my regular trips with students who had limited experience in wilderness travel. This group, however, were second-year college students involved in an Outdoor Skills Program. My course was titled "Advance Wilderness Skills" and after spending a few weeks of lab time preparing them, the final exam was a seven-day backpacking trip on Algonquin Park’s Western Uplands Trail. It was mid-October and rain and cold was forecasted for the entire seven days.

Ben Teskey, the other instructor, saved the day. Before I gave them all a failing grade and cancelled the bus, he pulled me aside and suggested an alternative teaching technique... rather than just losing my temper. He had travelled in the woods with the same students before and said they were all a solid group to be with. He agreed that the majority of them were not prepared, but emphasized that seven days of wandering the woods would do wonders for them.

Ben’s philosophy was hard for me to grasp. I’m 50 years old and have taught for nearly 30 years. At times, I have become more than just a little grumpy with the youth of today, with their sense of entitlement. It drives me crazy, actually. Part of me wanted to have the bus leave at 9:00 a.m. sharp, dismissing anyone who wasn’t there. But Ben had a good point. Let nature teach them, rather than us. We both knew that by the third day, they would hate the trip. They’d curse the weather, the cold, the weight of their packs. They would also crave their addictions — phones, alcohol, maybe even drugs. Day five or six would be a turning point, however. All the negative would wash away. The students would be in solid shape, they'd realize how to pack properly, be used to the conditions, fight off their addictions. They would finally be used to being out there, and loving every minute of it.

We arrived at the trail access by noon. And in a cold downpour, we headed out. Some were miserable, complaining about the weight of their packs seconds out of the gate. Some were anxious. One even vomited a couple times. Others started singing loud and obnoxious drinking songs.

The Advanced Wilderness Skills exam had begun.

(To be continued...)

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