Wilderness Education on America’s Last Frontier

Published in the St. Albans Bulletin, Summer 2012.

By Robert Shurmer

It is late morning and still on the chilly side of 60 degrees, but the rain of the previous week has gone and the dreaded black flies have yet to make an appearance. Lush green cottonwoods surround us and ascend the snow-capped mountains, still thickly shrouded in cloud but now visible on every side. Gear packed and loaded and carefully secured to the yoke, we slide the expedition canoe easily across the slick strip of alluvium along the bank where we hauled out the previous night. The other three canoe teams have already launched and are puttering about, testing their strokes in the calms of the tributary to my right, in water of limpid Dartmouth green. It’s my first river trip in years; I, somewhat awkwardly, climb forward to the bow, give my boots a drag in the water to wash away some of the mud, my canoe partner, Matt, gives a hearty push and launches us into Clearwater Slough. After some instruction on the rudiments of paddling technique and a bit of practice in the slough, we give the green light and the lead canoe edges toward the mainstream of the mighty Stikine River, one of the truly wild rivers remaining in North America. As each canoe in succession nudges its bow into the fast-flowing water, it is caught by the current and propelled swiftly away from us. We are two km from the Canadian border and over 40 km from the nearest human settlement. This is what we have come for – the isolation, the beauty, the challenge, the camaraderie. A thumbs up from Matt and we too ease our bow into the current and are carried with surprising speed downstream with the others.

Though many confuse my treks into the back country with escapism, I go to Alaska for perspective. There exists there a brutal spaciousness that helps ground a person in a certain reality: there are other ways to live; we aren’t always in control; and we are infinitesimally small and insignificant in the grand scheme of natural history. Maybe it is something from my Mid-Western heritage that finds these sentiments rather comforting, or perhaps the fact that I’ve been living in DC for nearly twenty years now has made them absolutely necessary. The Alaskan bush, like the grizzlies that inhabit it, can literally dismantle and digest a man, leaving little or no trace. It demands respect. It demands cooperation. Entering into that awesome space with only a pack and canoe never ceases to get the adrenaline pumping and the act itself is, I am convinced, fundamental for giving vent to a force deeply embedded in the traditional American male psyche.

Since 2001, I have been leading backpacking and dog sledding treks in the United States and Canada, but developing a specifically Alaskan wilderness program, which has taken the better part of three years, has turned out to be one of the more exciting and rewarding adventures of my career. In what some friends considered a fit of absentmindedness, I acquired land last year in southeastern Alaska and began to transition summer operations to Wrangell Island, situated in the middle of the 17 million square miles of the Tongass National Forest, the largest in the United States. Of course, I heard all of the Into the Wild jokes along the way, but the allure of such a remote place and the active interest among students buoyed me during the start-up phase. This past summer six Form III boys joined the program in Wrangell, AK and, with the help of Johnny Miles [STA class of   ? ], Matt Asbill [STA class of ’07], and Jamie Gerber [STA class of ’12], plunged into the Stikine-LeConte Wilderness to experience one of the few pristine natural environments remaining in the United States.

The wilderness is a special classroom. S. Hall Young wrote of his travels in the Stikine valley with John Muir in the 1880s that among the richest prizes of this good earth, his most imperishable treasure, was the experience itself and the lingering memory of the adventure and the beauty: “We seemed to stand on a high rostrum in the center of the greatest amphitheater in the world.” During trips, I often have to remind myself that for many boys, this is not only their first glimpse of the natural amphitheater, but the first significant contact with the great American forest, the first time off-trail, the first time to experience the grandeur of a mountain vista, the first time to share a small cabin with six others, the first time to gut and cook fish over a simple fire (or cook at all), and the first time to know a little fear from a wolf print close to camp or a grizzly sighting (yes, we had both this summer). Faced with challenges of terrain, weather, unstructured time, and the back-country camp, students must engage fully with their environment, their guides, and with each other. The excitement, uncertainty, effort, risk, and interaction with the natural environment that come with adventure education stimulate areas of the brain rarely tapped within the confines of a school building. Sharing the burdens of the trail and giving boys the opportunity to make their own decisions, individually and as a team, are also powerful engines for profound personal growth. St. Bernard de Clairvaux, a 12th-century proponent of the monastic life as well as an active international diplomat, wrote that “you will find something greater in the woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters.” Bernard, a man viscerally drawn to the wilderness, but one with a role in the world as a prominent lawyer and statesman, has left us, perhaps, the first recorded expression of the driving ethos of the modern outdoor education program. Anyone who has participated in an Outward Bound or NOLS program readily recognizes the sentiment and those who have attempted to create such programs, even on a small scale, understand the unique challenges.

It continues to be one of the more gratifying experiences for me as a teacher to see how a journey into the bush can significantly touch the sensibilities of a young man and significantly change his perspective on life and his own abilities. The Native Alaskan statesman William Iggiagruk Hensley writes of Alaskan life: “Your accomplishments are measured by your character and the qualities long and deeply prized in the region. Up here, humility and cooperation, generosity and goodwill still trump wealth and academic and political prowess.” One can’t help but be changed in some way by contact with Alaska and her people. Wilderness education, like much of what we do at St. Albans, promotes and encourages self-confidence, cultivates the leadership potential in each boy, and instills camaraderie that comes from common effort rather than individual achievement

Students at St. Albans arrive each day to an idyllic setting — preened and pruned — and are afforded the attendant opportunities of life in a great city, but to borrow from the deeply religious Flannery O’Connor, sometimes a man need to escape to the country to see the world a whole. I firmly believe that the truth expressed by St. Bernard nine hundred years ago still holds, viz. that to step into the wilderness is to enter the classroom of a master teacher.

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