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OCT. 7, 2013

Learning from Tangles

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The water splashes up over the bow of the canoe, soaking the student as she bends to put her paddle in the river. Her face simultaneously registers shock, fear, and elation. She shakes the water from her eyes and continues vigorously paddling down through the whitewater, her eyes fixed on the next drop and swirling hole. The paddling team is focused and poised, as if nothing else in the world matters, just them and the whitewater, paddle and roiling river. While most teenagers are still sleeping at 10 a.m. on a Saturday, the students at The Outdoor Academy are out on the river challenging themselves and learning from adventures. A sixth grade teacher once told me that “life is a muddle and it is the role of education to teach us how to deal with the tangles, how to be adaptable and learn from every experience.” This weekend on the river was the perfect opportunity to learn from the tangles: tangles of waves, stern lines, and communicating in stressful situations.

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“Want to play a game?” the instructor yells from her little yellow canoe. All of the students cheer. The instructor throws a bag of rope into the water and quickly paddles away. The students charge towards the rope, boats bumping into each other in companionable competition. Our cheers and laughter buoy us down the river, sore shoulders and knees forgotten in the excitement of the game. We splash and shout as a great blue heron flies over us. Sooner than we all expect, we see the small beach near our campsite. The students pull their boats onto land, aching but energized by the excitement of a day on the river. Tents are soon up and water is boiling on the stove, it will be another peaceful evening in camp.

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After three days of exciting whitewater, we sit in the sun at the takeout, debriefing the weekend and sharing appreciations. Our boats were pulled up on shore, colorful PFDs, paddles, and float bags strewn across the pavement of the takeout. The students are wet and tired, but triumphant. The pride in their accomplishments is made apparent as we go around the circle and share what challenges we have struggled with and overcome during the trip. The students all share that they have felt a connection and camaraderie on the river. As a leader my goals for the trip were to promote respect for the land on which the students were traversing and an admiration for the vitality, bravery and strength of their fellow paddlers; the students articulate responses during the debrief illustrate that these goals have been reached. We conquered waves and fears, learned about river hydrology and camp cooking, communication and the importance self-reliance. It was a good weekend in school.

Becca Hamilton
Resident Wilderness Educator