This is the view over the Elfin Lakes with Garibaldi Mt. in the background.

Last week I had the incredible opportunity to take my Adventure Co-op on a three day hike to the Elfin Lakes in the Garibaldi Provincial Park.  We hiked eleven kilometers to a large BC Parks hut situated beside the two lakes seen in the picture above – it is surrounded by pristine alpine meadows, forest, and glaciated peaks as far as the eye can see.  We woke up on the second day to cloudless blue skies as we prepared to hike further into the park.  Half an hour from the hut the landscape changed dramatically from gentle alpine terrain to valleys scraped bare by the unrelenting power of a bygone glacier.  After rock-hopping across two glacier fed streams, we climbed up and over a steep moraine to a landscape that more closely resembled something you might expect to see on the moon than anything on earth.  Spirits and snowballs flew high as we crossed a large snowfield to get to an elevated point where we stopped to soak in the sun-drenched views before turning around and heading back to the hut.  On the third day we started the journey back home.

Yesterday my students were blogging about their experiences on this three day adventure.  At one point one of my students called me over because he was having difficulty finding a word that described the immensity of the all-encompassing views. I had the same difficulty.  If a picture is worth a thousand words and even a picture can’t come close to capturing the beauty and vastness of the landscape, it’s no wonder he was having difficulty finding the right word to use in his blog!

After debriefing with my students about the trip I had the feeling that we had inadvertently entered onto sacred ground at some point in our journey – not in some weird, mystical sense – but because each of my students left the trip with new perspectives about themselves and the world around them.  It was a very real and very deep experience – an experience that is (almost?) impossible to duplicate in the classroom.  The mountains are a poignant classroom and the lessons learned therein are not easily forgotten.

My class spent what amounted to an entire period debriefing the experience and what they had learned during the three days on the mountain.  I asked them to describe how they see hiking (the skills, knowledge, and understandings needed to hike safely and competently) connect to what they do in school.  Here’s what they came up with:

  • You have to know where you’re going
  • Attitude really matters
  • Learning happens when you reflect on your mistakes and what you would do differently next time
  • Be serious (but have fun!)
  • Understand your pace
  • Understand your limits and where you need to improve
  • Be respectful
  • Knowledge is power

Each of these points deserves to be addressed individually because the implications of each are profound – and this reflects only a quarter of what my students learned!  There were many powerful personal lessons learned about life and themselves.  I can’t help but feel that these outdoor experiences bring out the best of what school (as an idea) has to offer.  The beauty, solitude, and effort taken to enjoy the mountain environment works on the soul like a deep massage.  And the best part about it is that learning happened in spite of me.  All I did was provide an opportunity and opened up a door – the environment itself was the teacher.  Although I would like to take credit for what my students learned and give myself a couple big pats on the back, I was merely a facilitator and a participant in their journey, which was also part of my journey.

I wish all teachers and students could enjoy this type of experience.  Although the mountain environment is an unrealistic avenue for most teachers and classrooms, the idea is not.  Authentic and engaging learning environments can be found in any classroom.  The only criteria that’s needed is an authentic and engaged teacher.