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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Perils of Over Inspiration: The Dilemma of Modern Wilderness Skills Instructors

Heading into the wild for the Hawk Circle
winter survival trek.
 I saw this article recently and I was both saddened for the man who succumbed to hypothermia, his family and for the instructors and wilderness school who taught him some of his initial skills, and for our wilderness education field in general.   It made me take stock yet again about the power and responsibility that we, as instructors of wilderness living skills, have, and for the ultimate impact our teachings can have on our students.

I have to add that there were many things missing in this article, including details about the types of gear he was carrying, his mental status, his family or relationship quality and other things that can come into play, like the weather at the time, and food choices or availability.   It doesn't go into whether he had practiced and trained for this outing, or what his level of experience was and many more questions we all could think of to ask about this person and the specific circumstances of this tragedy.

In the short of it, that stuff doesn't matter.   He died.  He died trying to live off the land, and practice the same skills that many of teach and share every day.   And that should sober us, and make us think long and hard about how we teach, how we practice, and how we prepare our students, who might someday try a similar sort of walkabout.
The Cherry Valley Creek: 
So Peaceful and Tranquil,
Yet Great Perils Lie for the Unwary!

It's easy to dodge our responsibility, if we choose.   "Hey, it's not one of my students.   My students would never do that."  I think it is natural for the first response to be one of defensiveness, to protect ourselves from any part of blame for this avoidable tragedy.   I know that some of that was running through my head at first.

However, it leads me to thinking about how we inspire our students.  I thought about how I was inspired, long ago, by my teachers, like Tom Brown, Jr, and John Stokes, and Jake Swamp.   I thought about the ways they inspired me, and, at the same time, balanced that with appropriate cautions and warnings in the right amounts too.   Tom used to say (and probably still does) that "the Earth will never hurt you, as long as you move and flow with it".   I believed this statement, and still do, to a degree.   But I also know that there are people who could take that statement and walk out the back door into the wilderness fully believing in it, and die a few hours later because they didn't really know what it meant, and they took that one statement out of context of a larger perspective and body of knowledge.

In other words, Tom spoke those words to us, as adults, and in the context of a full week of immersed learning and focused teachings.  He knew we weren't going out the door at the end of the day, or couple of days, and he had time to share the full spectrum.   I know, because while 20 percent of his teachings had this same type of beautiful, inspiring harmony, there was another 20-30 percent that lay in vivid stories and teaching that scared the crap out of me.   It balanced out.   It made it complete, and left me with days and nights lying in bed and going back and forth, always thinking things like:  "Am I ready to go into the woods yet on my own, to live this philosophy?"   "Have I practiced enough, to where it is reliable and a part of me?"   and "what the heck does that mean, 'the Earth will never hurt me as long as I move and flow with it?'  What is 'flow' anyway?"
Brian Sullivan heads into the wild 
for a spring survival test.

You can see, this topic is complex.   It has a lot of threads, and has few easy answers.   It is something I think about while working in our barn, mentally preparing for summer camp, or on the long drives through the rural New York countryside, heading to a meeting or after school program.   In the past few weeks, I have come up with a couple of ideas so I thought I would lay them on you and see what you think.

First, and easiest, is to Balance Inspiration with Hazard Awareness.  Give equal time to each area of your program, and tell stories on both ends.   Yes, it is great to share the wonder of seeing an early sunrise on the banks of a river, or hike in the moonlight, or whatever.   Those things are amazing and can help us feel like we are walking in the footsteps of the ancients.   But it is important to also share stories of hypothermia, of adequate nutrition and caloric intake on a wilderness trek, especially for teens and young adults.   You don't have to do it all at once, but make sure you do it.  Seriously.

Second, make sure You are Modeling Safe Behavior.   This means bringing a first aid kit on your treks and outings, and know how to use it.  Get certified for CPR and all that, so you are trained up and professional.   Wear warm clothing and gear when appropriate, and don't cut corners with safety in your programs.   Bring flashlights and headlamps, and make sure all staff carry them as well, even on short day hikes, just in case.   Bring warm clothes even on warm days, in case someone gets cold or immersed in cold water in an accident.   Don't model behavior that could be dangerous in front of kids that could easily begin mimicking your actions in unsafe ways.  

Hawk Circle Assistant Director Randy Charles 
teaches students about respect for the bush.
Third, Teach from Your Own Mistakes.   In other words, share your failures, your times where you forgot your rain coat, or got lost, or built your shelter poorly, etc.   If you don't have a lot of those, then you have to use other people's misfortunes or learning stories, changing the names if necessary so as to not embarrass anyone.   Doing this will help your students see that it is possible to make mistakes, and to fail, and to have to work at these skills, and that they don't come easy.   It helps to hear stories about how much practice it really takes to make a fire in the rain with one match, or skin a deer at -3ºF or whatever.

Fourth, Emphasize that there is Nothing Wrong with Using Back Up Gear while you are Learning.   I think this is pretty self explanatory, but hey, I have to say it.   And an addendum to this one is Watch out for The Crazy, Passionate, Over-Inspired Student!  This is where your mentoring really has to kick in.   You have to be willing to make sure that students are also modeling smart, safe behavior, and if they don't, then let them know they might not be able to stay in your program.   Not as punishment for being inspired, but as a safety issue for other students.   And for the safety issues for themselves.  

In  those situations, you have to find ways to get through to that person, not in front of the group where they might be embarrassed or feel self conscious, but at another time, discreetly, and have many as many conversations as necessary to help them value their own life, and others nearby.   What will help is if you have developed a bond of trust, and if you communicate through that trust, and really listen to what they are saying, and hearing whether or not you are getting through.   It takes time, and it isn't easy, but this is what we do.  This is what makes us good and real and awesome.

Ryan Smith cooks over an open fire on
his wilderness skills intensive.
It's all great to share about how the native people didn't have this or that, and could do these amazing things, but all of your great teaching will amount to nothing if you have a student get over-inspired and head out in bad weather and die.  Or fall off a cliff.  Or cut themselves with a hatchet or a knife doing something stupid.  So trust me on this, and tone it down a little.   Just be real.

Fifth, Be Sure to Praise Good Examples of Positive, Safe, Smart Behavior.   Give credit to your staff.   Give credit to the parents.   Give awards to kids who don't get cut, or forget their rain coats, or whatever.  I guess you can figure out what will work in your school or class, or camp or program.   But it is true that what we focus on will get attention and lead to positive change.

I do think that over inspiration can be a real problem in some learning cultures in various wilderness schools, and the problem sometimes comes about because we, as instructors, like to share what got us into these skills, or way of life, and we share the same stories because it worked for us.   However, we just sometimes forget about all of the other stories that were also shared at the same time as we were learning, or maybe our teachers never gave those to us in the first place.   So we can just go through our teaching routines, and find the balance, and tone things down, and make the adjustments.   It's not really all that hard, but the payoff is sweet.

I remember sharing some stories with a group of campers about one of my survival camp outs, telling them about the back up food I brought, and being huddled in a thick wool blanket in the early morning cold, leaning against a big pine tree and seeing the raccoons heading back to bed along the creek in the mist.   I remember sharing about my army poncho, and how it kept me warm and dry in a massive, two hour downpour in the back country on a cold November evening.   A year later, one of those same campers came back and shared her story, about how she remembered my wool blanket, and brought one along on her camping trip and was able to see deer pass within a few feet of her, on a morning where she would have had to leave early because it was just too cold for the clothing she had on.   Kids listen.   They understand, and they emulate.  And when they have a success, they will know your teaching helped them have that experience, and it will be good.   And those teachings will be passed down to the next generations, and so on.

Let's make sure we can pass on the best of our teachings to the kids of the future.   Doesn't every student of ours deserve our best?  And, if we do this, in a serious and deliberate way, the passing of this young Scottish man will not be for nothing.  It will matter.  It will make a difference.

Maybe his family would like that.

What do parents think?  

What do students of the wilderness feel about this post?

What do you think?