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Manning Park 180

I wrote in a post last year that planning and supervising overnight camping trips with students is a lot of work and can be quite stressful. But after taking students on camping trips for the last five years, I’m still a huge supporter of bringing students into the wild.  I see things in my students that I would never get to see if I had stayed in the classroom, and this allows me to be a better, more effective teacher.  However, despite all of the positives that come out in the overnight camping experience, I have to be prepared to deal with the negatives as well.

This year was a very different type of overnight experience.  Instead of a hiking into some remote backcountry destination, an early snowfall forced me to find camping in a fully serviced, provincial campground with all the amenities – hot showers, flush toilets – the full meal deal.  Being in a front country campsite (a campsite easily accessible by vehicle) also meant that we could make fires in the fire pits provided – a welcome reprieve from the freezing cold and wet that plagued us throughout the trip.  Instead of hiking to a peak with an amazing, high elevation view, we were on a mostly flat trails that took us past tranquil lakes and thundering waterfalls.  The amazing weather that has characterized all of my other trips was replaced by a mixture of driving rain, thick snow, hail, sunshine, and blue sky.  A four day trip turned into a three day trip because by the end of the second day we were wet, cold, and had hiked most everything we could safely access.  Despite the cold, the snow, the shoes that held more water than our water bottles, the aching bodies after 20kms of hiking, my students were overwhelming positive.  Surprisingly so.

But it is not always happy in hikerville.

Even though I saw a lot of positive things in my students over the three days, some shadows came out as well.  Negative habits, attitudes, dispositions, and personality traits pop up right along everything that’s positive.  And this is to be expected.  My guess is that any time you take students out of their comfort zone and put them in a place where they are exhausting themselves physically throughout the day and then have to eat, sleep, and live together for an extended period of time, whatever barriers and filters they’ve set up will begin to weaken. They begin to let down their guard.  Who they really are begins to shine through.  It’s this interplay between light and shadow that makes the overnight experience so valuable.

I love talking about the positive things I see in my students, but I won’t shy away from talking about the more negative things that show up either.  It’s only by acknowledging and coming to terms with the shadows that we can live more fully in the light.


Any teacher who has taken students on any form of overnight adventure – especially if it involves the outdoors – knows that it is a huge headache.  There are a myriad different permission forms that need to be sent out: medical forms, parent and student consent forms, liability forms, my-child-will-be-good-and-will-obey-all-the-rules forms, acknowledgement of the ‘dangerous’ nature of the trip forms, and waiver forms for the waiver form.  And then you have to ensure that all the students bring in their forms.  Once you think all the forms are in and completed, you realize that half the students didn’t notice there was a backside to one of the forms and you have to send it back again.  It’s enough to make your hair go grey and fall out!

This was my life for the first three weeks of September.  Then, in the final week of September when all the forms were finally collected, I took my co-op students on a three day trip to Garibaldi Provincial Park.  We hiked up to a campsite at Taylor Meadows near Garibaldi Lake.  On our second day we started towards a mountain called Panorama Ridge.  Anyone who’s been to this area knows that it is one of the most spectacularly scenic areas in all of BC.  From the campsite, you walk through lush alpine meadows, where the autumn leaves on the low bushes are a fiery display of red, orange, and yellow.  While slowly gaining elevation, you get glimpses of the impossibly turquoise blue of Garibaldi Lake and a number of glaciated ranges in the distance.  Ascending the final ridge up to the peak is like listening to a forty-five minute rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus with a ever increasing crescendo to the very top.  And then you reach the summit.

Words cannot adequately express the majesty of the landscape before you.

Garibaldi Lake is spread out in its entirety before you – surrounded by massive crevasse-gashed glaciers and mountains that demand attention.  Garibaldi Mountain stands like a sleeping giant, wrapped in a heavy blanket of snow.  The Black Tusk, the leftover remnants of a prehistoric magma chamber stands dark and silent as it keeps a watchful eye over the surrounding landscape.  Even the large, surrounding  mountains seem to pay homage to this ancient sentinel.  The summit itself is rocky and barren – gradually eroding away – a whisper of its former glory yet still glorious.  The landscape is massive and wild – it demands respect and commands awe.

Despite the awesome beauty of nature that surrounded us, I think that my greatest joy came from watching and listening to my students.  Hearing them use the words beauty and beautiful over and over again or talking about how much the students who didn’t come were missing made all the paperwork and preparation stress seem trivial.

There is something very deep that happens in the wilderness – in some way, the mountains, the cool mountain air and amazing views have a way of speaking to the soul.  This may seem somewhat sensationalistic or perhaps overly sentimental, but I don’t know of any other way to describe it.

Evidence of this inner dialogue is clear.  Students open up in ways they never do in the classroom.  Conversations and conversation topics are different – somehow more real.  On top of this, I see things in my students that I would never see or get to see teaching English in a traditional classroom.

The beauty of the natural environment in itself is not enough to initiate this deep, spiritual, conversation within people.  If we had flown up to the summit in a helicopter and spent half an hour lounging at the top, it would have been a very different experience.  The power of the wilderness to transform comes from something very different – struggle and adversity.  Getting to our campsite at Taylor Meadows required a 7.7km uphill grunt with full packs – not an easy endeavor.  It was especially difficult because it was the first time most of my students had ever attempted something like this.  It took about fifteen minutes of hiking before most of them realized that it was going to be more difficult than they expected!  By the time we reached the six kilometer mark, shoulders were aching, backs were in agony, legs were on fire, and the lively conversation had gradually become subdued.  Thankfully, everyone made it the last 1.7 km!

The beauty of the wilderness is born out of struggle.  Trees have to fight other trees and plants for soil and moisture to grow; they have to endure harsh weather conditions and a short growing season in order to survive.  Mountains are created by fire and the movement of titanic underground forces, and are demolished by persistent weather and grinding ice.  Even the animals that live in this environment have adapted to survive – though life still isn’t guaranteed.   I wonder if it is only possible to really appreciate this beauty when it involves struggle.  For my students, the personal transformations I observed on this overnight hiking trip were made possible by the long, sweaty struggle up the mountain.  It was only then that the beauty of our surroundings could begin its work of transformation.

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Finally, I hope that the skills and attitude necessary to enjoy the wilderness will transfer into the classroom.  Here are a few of the main points I hope will transfer:

  1. Having a good attitude is critical.
  2. You can accomplish much more as a team than by yourself.
  3. Know your destination – it will motivate you when you’re hiking through the trees.
  4. Wonder about everything!
  5. Encourage your peers along the way – they might not be having as easy a time as you.
  6. Push yourself – you’ll be glad you did.
  7. Learning, like hiking, requires stamina.


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