Sunday, February 15, 2009

Survival Living

Thirty-one years ago this month I was gathering rose hips and black birch to make tea and twigs and birch bark to make a fire. I was 17 and in my last semester of high school. Our science teacher, Mr. Camp, taught a Survival Living course and was the Advisor to the Outing Club. I don't remember much from my senior year of math, chemistry, or English, but survival lessons of building fires in snow and rain, an overnight hike, canoeing Lake George, orienteering, a three-night solo final exam -- these experiences are still vivid and more influential in my life since. We got two matches to light our fire for boiling the tea on that cold February day -- we used only one, striking it on the zipper of my jacket.

Looking back at my journal from 1978, I am amazed (and feel quite fortunate) at the activities we did and the life challenges they afforded. I am certain that these can not be repeated in schools today. On February 10th of that year, Mr. Camp dropped us off (about 8 students) at midnight at a powerline along Route 47. Our task was to hike the distance to Route 116 as a group. We had a few compasses, pen lights, and some supplies in a backpack. Two teaching assistants trailed us in the woods in case something happened, although as I recall we did not know that they were there. The hike was strenuous -- powerlines in New England often go up and down and up and down, following the contours of the rocky terrain. We made slow progress, pausing for a drink and to catch a breath.

It was during one of these rest periods, about half way through the hike, that we realized one in our group was having problems. We all had been conscious of checking in with each other as we hiked, a key lesson in outdoor leadership that we'd already learned in our class. Despite this, one person was in trouble, she was having an asthma attack and didn't have her medication. As a group we discussed what to do. It was cold and dark and we didn't know how far we still had to go. Our teaching assistants, hidden in the nearby woods, realized that something was wrong.

They emerged from the woods to help. We built a fire to get her warm, removing her boots to warm her feet. Hypothermia was starting to set in. Together we built a stretcher from the materials at hand - logs, branches, clothing. We carried her down a steep hill, then another 1/2 mile to the truck. We all climbed in and took her to the local hospital. Fortunately she was fine and able to go home later that morning. Our teacher praised us for our actions, although I think we each felt somehow that we should have done more to avoid the emergency. I guess we all got an "A" for that assignment, that provided an unexpected "teaching moment."

In future posts I'll relate more from my senior year survival living experiences and outing club adventures, including hitchhiking to Fort Ticonderoga on our canoe trip to Lake George.

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