By Frank Burch, Assistant Camp Director
Earlier this year, I had the wonderful opportunity to become a Wilderness First Responder with Landmark Learning in nearby Sylva, North Carolina. Getting your WFR (we typically pronounce the acronym as “woofer”) gives you the training to make some pretty high-level medical decisions and perform interventions when you’re in a place not easily accessible by EMS. As many of you already know, this is a pretty important set of skills to have when you work in an outdoorsy industry like summer camp— particularly one that sends campers and staff on backpacking trips.
I’ve taken enough first-aid courses in my life to feel pretty comfortable with the medical side of this kind of training. I’ve been a lifeguard since I was 15 years old, and am a certified CPR and AED instructor. Getting a higher level of medical training was something I was quite excited about! But I was a bit nervous about this training— not the “First Responder” part, but the “Wilderness” part.
You might be surprised, given that I am a summer camp professional, but I have to admit that I’m a bit of an inside cat. I went on family camping trips and can set up a tent, sure. I slept in cabins without A/C in the dead of Texas summer for years as a summer camper myself. But my outdoors experience was a drop in the bucket compared to some of my classmates at my WFR course. Between the sailors and the adventure marathoners and the river guides and the folks who spent more of their year backpacking than in air conditioning, my ability to camp out overnight every once in a while didn’t seem particularly inspiring. I’ll admit that I felt a little out of place.
I’ve seen some examples online, usually in an opinion column in a newspaper or magazine, or on someone’s social media, or in a podcast, that talks about “The Wilderness” or “The Great Outdoors” and its importance to our lives. I think part of my reticence about being an outdoor enthusiast in the past has been my disdain for these arguments, which usually revolve around retrograde ideas about masculinity and how “soft” people have become, or to sell some overpriced piece of outdoor equipment to insecure people looking to project an image of self-reliance and authenticity.
But I’ve found that folks who truly are at home in nature are so for very different reasons. The folks I took my WFR class with, for example, never felt the need to prove their wilderness bonafides to anyone else in the class, nor could I detect so much as a whiff of judgment from any of my classmates. They, and so many others I’ve had the good fortune to interact with, have helped make the outdoors, in spite of its lack of creature-comforts and indoor plumbing, more inviting to a novice like me.
This is such an important quality for stewards of the natural world to have, because having a relationship with nature really, really is so important— now, more than ever. Not for reasons of personal aggrandizement, but rather for personal well-being, to say nothing of the well-being of our world. Taking care of our environment is something we should all be mindful of in our daily lives. But you don’t need to go backpacking to understand that. Why, then, is spending time embracing nature, getting your clothes dirty and listening to the wind whispering through the trees, important?
I found myself wondering this as I trudged up the mountain for one of our rescue scenarios at my WFR course. Now, I can’t go into details about what our scenario was— our instructors asked us to respect their course confidentiality, so future students may have the same experience we did. What I can tell you is that I left my course feeling much more confident in the “Wilderness” part of my certification than I was when I stepped foot on campus. I’m no expert in living in nature, but I’m much more comfortable with discomfort.
We think about “stepping out of our comfort zone” in a purely metaphorical sense, something that happens inside of us— asking someone we like on a date, or moving away from home to go to college are classic examples. I think one reason why we as child-care professionals love the outdoors is that it gives our campers literal, physical practice in learning just this skill. If you can spend a week sleeping outside on a Hante Adventure, who’s to say you can’t spend a semester in a dorm room?
At the risk of sounding like one of the opinion pages I mentioned earlier, this is especially important in the world we live in today. COVID pushed so much of our lives— mentally, emotionally, and often physically— into screens. Before COVID, a day of mine would include: teaching a class full of college students at Texas State University, meeting with my colleagues in a shared office and grabbing a coffee at a busy café, taking a walk through the quad, catching a movie in the afternoon, and attending a reading at a bookstore before heading home. When COVID hit, and we all took the precautions necessary to save lives, all of these things left the physical world. Instead, they existed on a screen, a few inches from my face, available to me without ever leaving the comfort of my home.
I could even order the coffee on my phone!
I’ll admit that I, like so many of us, became accustomed to the somewhat frictionless experience that living life through a screen created for all of us. This is especially true for our children, who lost years of valuable experience learning and playing with their peers, learning how to say something to someone and read their physical and facial expressions. Life became segmented and highly individualized. Communication became more common through text messages and carefully curated Instagram or snapchat captions than the improvisational high-wire act that is face-to-face conversations.
You’ll find that depictions of an “outdoorsy person” in our culture is usually something of a “lone wolf” or a survivalist, someone who barely utters a word unless they’re howling at the moon. But that isn’t usually the case, especially at summer camp. Navigating the outdoors is an incredible way to develop teamwork and communication skills. Even something as simple as walking down a trail can become an intricate test of communication when you’re in challenging terrain! Whether it’s setting up or breaking down camp, adjusting a day’s plan and making group decisions on alternate routes, to— most importantly of all— making sure everyone is safe and accounted for, trips into the backcountry couldn’t be more tailor-made to teaching adults and kids alike how to be a member of a team.
I’ll finish with an example: about halfway through my WFR course, we learned about evacuating an immobile patient in the backcountry. If you take a minute to imagine walking someone on a stretcher for even a mile through uneven terrain, you can imagine how challenging this would be! While we weren’t asked to carry our pretend victim for a mile, we did carry them around enough for it to sink in how much teamwork it would require.
Now, I’m saying “we,” but I really mean “them.” That’s because the victim during this exercise happened to be me. Fortunately for my ability to lift heavy things, but unfortunately for my classmates, I’m about 6’2” and played offensive tackle on my high school football team. Needless to say, I was one of the larger students in this particular WFR course. My classmates didn’t complain. After all, accidents can happen to anyone.
After some initial practice learning about the proper way to hold the stretcher, they set me inside. Before doing anything else, my rescuers took a few minutes just to chat about what was about to happen. They discussed the route they would take, who was in charge of issuing cues to lift, walk, and stop, and whether anyone wasn’t ready to begin. Once everyone was settled, and everyone was ready, they assumed the carrying position. The countdown to lift began.
And somehow I knew, even before they hoisted me up, that I couldn’t be in safer hands.