Few experiences go together as well as wilderness and adventure when kids are involved. It’s virtually a genetic, almost magnetic pull, even when most children and young adults don’t even know what ”wilderness” is on a practical level.
The Road To Wilderness
My own journey began in the mountains of upstate New York, and then through an extended apprenticeship with Tom Brown, Jr., in 1984. I was 20 years old, and the thirst for learning Native American wilderness-survival skills was voracious over the next 5 years as I learned, practiced, and lived the ”old ways.” My friends and I built natural shelters and slept in a tipi. We tanned deer hides into soft buckskin and made our own bows and arrows tipped with stone or bone points. We made fires without matches and learned about the uses of plants and trees for fibers, medicine, and food. We tracked animals for days, studying their behaviors to learn their ways of survival. Every day nature provided something more to learn, to uncover, or explore.
At that time I also realized the power that these experiences had on children. Everywhere I went, kids were drawn like moths to a flame, asking questions about what I was doing, or making, or building, and they would listen while I worked and explained it all. They would offer to help, and looked longingly at me when their schooling or parents pulled them away. I worked at a summer camp one year, and 3 years later I started my own camp called Hawk Circle Wilderness. Twenty-five years later, the camp is still going strong.
The Awakening Effect
The power and popularity of wilderness-survival skills and education are clear now more than ever. When someone discovers a deep connection to nature, an ”awakening effect” occurs that lasts through adolescence and beyond; this experience often bonds youth to a program and staff members in positive and beneficial ways. So, how do you bring this type of program to an established summer camp or enrichment program?
Effective wilderness-education programs encompass shelter-making, providing a fire without matches, wood carving, tracking, hunting skills, stone tools, plant and tree
studies, native crafts, leather work, night walks, the ”council process” (talking stick, etc.), and many other nature activities. These programs are best suited for ages 7 to 18, modified for age appropriateness, safety, and a particular group’s skill level. For those seeking to start a similar program, here is some further advice:
- Everything hinges on who leads and instructs the program. Wilderness-skills individuals run the gamut from straight-up, sporty/outward-bound, mainstream types to dreadlocked hippie types that forage for their own salad from a lawn. Much depends upon an individual’s independent practice of those skills before that person is proficient enough to teach. Some instructors are focused on nature-awareness skills, others on native crafts and plants, and others still on survival, and even earth spirituality. Find someone who fits with the camp’s philosophy and outlook; make sure the person has some certifications in safety and first aid, but understand that the camp’s procedures and structure come first. At this time, there is no wilderness-instructor certification program that is recognized nationwide, so hiring a good instructor will be the major challenge, although the payoff is worth the search. For those camps that prefer to “grow their own instructors” over a couple of summers, consider inviting an experienced instructor in for a special staff training session in wilderness skills. This approach pays off in several ways, since establishing a good relationship with local wilderness instructors is invaluable.
- Make sure the campers selected to take part can follow directions. While most survival-skills activities are not any more dangerous than football or a ropes course, ”boundary pushers” should know it is a privilege rather than a right to be in this type of program. It’s better to have someone wait a year to take part rather than to push an individual who isn’t ready, thus putting the program and the campers at risk.
- Create a program with particular campers in mind. Ensure that they can actually accomplish the planned activities with some proficiency during their stay so they can replicate them when they return home. Campers should be able to finish crafts and bring home a completed basket, leather pouch, or fire kit. In many cases, young instructors want to push the program and try to cram in as much as possible; however, a ”less-is-more” approach is better for a new program. While these skills are powerful, it’s OK to give campers free time for a game of basketball or swimming.
- Build in a local safety component so campers understand the precautions necessary with having a campfire, hiking in snake or tick country, or maneuvering around poison oak or ivy. Safety is a life skill, and creating healthy routines helps campers have a positive, enjoyable adventure, both at camp and eventually on their own. Consider adding a first-aid aspect to the program because it’s empowering for campers to know they can take care of themselves and others should the need arise.
- Make sure the program is solid enough to be effective and achieve its goals. Don’t make it so safe that it becomes ”sterile.” Look to other wilderness camps for guidance in what they offer. If time allows, visit an established camp and observe what their average day is like. Compare their activities with your own camp culture to get a sense as to how the two approaches might be blended successfully.
- Use popular themes like Survivor or other reality shows, except for the practice of ”elimination”; in a real situation, everyone’s skills are necessary to survive as a tribe. Celebrate the accomplishments and achievements of campers like any other activity, and enjoy the stories of growth and understanding that nature offers when people choose to learn and connect.
Ricardo Sierra is the creator and founder of the Hawk Circle Wilderness Camp in Cherry Valley, N.Y., and has been studying and teaching wilderness survival, awareness, and adventure on both coasts for children, youth, and adults since 1988. Reach him at (607) 264-9391, or Ricardo.J.Sierra@gmail.com.