The Transformative Power of Wilderness Education
A graduate student finds an understanding of the effect of wilderness on the development of young people’s sense of self-worth
by Rory Crowley
n July 7th, 2001 I lie huddled in my sleeping bag, shivering as I survey the cloud of water vapor that floats above my head. It’s 2:00 am and sleep is distant; I realize that I am unprepared for my first solo backpack. I’ve brought a waif of a summer sleeping bag into the high-country, and as snow covers my lonely two-man tent and the ground steals away the heat, I shiver. The Nalgene bottle under my knees is cold; I pull it out, undo the top and gulp the cool water. I open the tent door and pour the rest of the water into my camp stove. I am boiling water for the fourth time tonight; I watch the blue flame in anticipation. I need a warm water bottle under my knees to keep the night bearable.
“What am I doing here?” I say to myself, echoing what I’ve been thinking all night. I have come to Cathedral Provincial Park to test myself but I have also come in search of wildness, to find something that a city cannot supply. I just don’t know what I seek.
The simplicity of wilderness travel attracted me to strap on the hiking boots for that solo and embark on a career in environmental education. Carrying everything I need to survive a week, and leaving behind the overabundance of technology and distraction. Wilderness travel requires simplicity because of the load limits of the human body. Furthermore, wilderness travel resigns the distractions of the modern world to the subconscious. Gary Snyder eloquently warns people who seek the wild that
“Wilderness can be a ferocious teacher, rapidly stripping down the inexperienced or the careless. It is easy to make a mistake that will bring one to an extremity. Practically speaking, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness.” (Snyder 1990, 23).
During my first solo I was searching for my self-definition as an adult. Self-definition — ”defining, or interpreting ourselves to others, so that people in our social environment have a clearer understanding of who we are”— is a constant evaluation to see if our actions reflect our values (Williams et al. 1989, 170). I wanted to exhibit the “Mountain Man” persona as a symbol of my personal values. But there is also a cultural aspect; this self-image is desirable because the natural wonders of the wilderness are symbols spiritually and aesthetically unique to my Euro American culture. I came to Cathedral Provincial Park with a very anthropogenic goal. Unfortunately, like me at twenty-one, many “weekend warriors” do not go beyond the personal benefits of wilderness — views, peaks, the workout — disregarding their interconnections to the natural world. Learning is facilitated in wilderness when “the learning is necessary to solve basic problems of comfort and even survival” (Miles, 1987, 7). However, wilderness education needs to be sure to go “beyond the simple act of holding classes in the great outdoors” and embrace the experience and personal growth possibilities (Grumbine, 1999, 125).
Much of my summer (2004) was spent in the backcountry in North Cascades National Park. I was at the halfway point of a graduate program jointly administered by Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University and North Cascades Institute. The Master’s of environmental education is centered on place-based education, leadership and non-profit administration gave me the opportunity to teach in the backcountry while fulfilling course requirements.
During a 6-night canoe camp, my co-leader and I took a group of participants, aged 14-16, up a difficult hike to the top of Desolation Peak and a fire lookout. Rob, the oldest and most experienced participant who had attended two previous camps, set out to try and summit Desolation, a peak that his earlier instructors had never attempted with their groups. After ten minutes of strenuous hiking Rob sat down for a drink of water. Gasping he said, “I am never hiking that fast again, it sucked.” At this point I thought to myself, “okay, I guess we won’t make it to the top, but we’ll make a day hike out of it.” I was wrong. As the group quickly started leaving Rob behind, I sent Rob’s best friend in the camp, Stan, back to hike with him. Stan talked Rob all the way to the top, reaching the lookout just thirty minutes after the rest of the group. The weary hikers were greeted by a fire raging in the distance, the lookout making her daily observations, a helicopter flying through the smoke, and the ghost of past lookouts.
About a month after the trip I received an e-mail from Rob’s father. Rob was doing really great in alternative school this year, especially in English class. Our lessons during the hike had centered on Jack Kerouac, who spent the summer of 1956 as Desolations Peak’s fire lookout. Our lessons, combined with the accomplishment of reaching the summit had convinced Rob to read both Desolation Angels and Dharma Bums. Most importantly, he had started writing. Although Rob said he hated hiking at the time, I am happy to hear that after some reflection he has incorporated some positives from the day into his daily life.
Rob was receptive to coming to the wilderness and striving towards self-improvement. His actions exemplified this commitment. The wilderness of Ross Lake differs from Rob’s daily hectic life in urban America. Contrast and attunement during time in the wilderness humbled and empowered Rob.
With increased visitation to wilderness areas as population grows, stress on our protected areas increases. As a result, programs that do not depend on the pristine wilderness should take place elsewhere. But if the program depends on the healing and restorative powers of wilderness the activity will be inferior elsewhere. In my opinion, Rob likely would not have received the same personal benefits if the canoe camp was on a local lake and the hike was on a less significant peak near his home.
During the summer of 2004 I also began to explore what it means to be a mentor and a facilitator. I tried to make the experiences I led as valuable as possible, exposing youth to wilderness’s restorative capabilities, while modeling positive behavior in the backcountry. Although a recent resident of the North Cascades, I have further sought to exhibit the qualities Barry Lopez suggests in his essay “American Geographies,”
It resides with men and women more or less sworn to a place, who abide there, who have a feel for the soil and history, for the turn of the leaves and night sounds. Often they are glad to take the outlanders in tow… they are nearly flawless in the respect for these places they love. Their knowledge is intimate rather than encyclopedic, human but not necessarily scholarly, it rings with concrete detail of experience. (Lopez, 1998, 132-133).
It was in this vein that I set out on successive hikes up Sourdough Mountain with participants from the Washington Conservation Corps.
“What are you doing Cait?” I yelled as I looked back to see Cait walking backwards down the trail. Cait, a member of the Washington Conservation Corps, was close to finishing a long day-hike to Sourdough Mountain lookout which included a talk with Northwest poet and fire lookout Tim McNulty.
“It feels like needles are poking into my toes! Like a thousand needles!” she shouted over her shoulder as she limped down the trail to catch up with the waiting group. “My stupid boots are cutting into my toes. Walking backwards makes it feel better.”
“What’s wrong? Do you want me to check for blisters?” I probed. We were still at least an hour from the trailhead.
“No, let’s just get down,” she said, tears swelling in her red eyes. “How long until we get down?”
“Ah… thirty-forty minutes…if you walk facing forward” I fibbed. We continued down the trail from Sourdough, one of the steepest and hardest hikes in North Cascades National Park, but also one of the most rewarding. From the fire lookout you can see six different river drainages; Ross, Ruby, Thunder, Stetattle, Big Beaver and the lower Skagit. We had an amazing day in the high country: blue skies, mountain flowers, views, poetry and writing advice. An hour and a half later we reached the vehicles and Cait immediately stripped off her dust-covered boots. Her toes were red, raw and inflamed but with no noticeable blisters. Her boots must really be terrible. Now in sandals, Cait soothed her toes in the cool river before we got into the trucks to go back to camp. Her feet will be fine tomorrow.
Back at camp I noticed that Cait was not at dinner. After climbing over 5,000 feet in five miles I expected everyone to be devouring their food. I tracked her down walking back from a payphone, her eyes red and swollen. She had phoned her boyfriend because she could not wait to tell her partner about her amazing day; so amazing she could not wait another minute to share it with him. As an aspiring writer, Cait met one of her idols and it has had a profound impact on her. It was at that point that I realized I had facilitated a day that Cait would remember for a long time. Cait’s amazing day can be summarized as experiential wilderness education.
Cait saw the hike up Sourdough was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Author Tim McNulty was in the lookout crafting his work. While at the lookout she observed his everyday tasks of a lookout. Cait understood the purpose of a writer spending time in seclusion and wilderness. Tim gave her advice of different techniques to make her writing better.
Since our hike Cait has had the opportunity to independently write and apply what she had learned. In a chance meeting she indicated her writing had never been better and that the advise from Sourdough was very helpful.
Cait and Rob exemplify the amazing metaphoric benefits to wilderness education. They have been able to apply the positives from the wilderness to their everyday lives. My time as wilderness educator has also been metaphoric for me as a leader. I knew wilderness could impact someone in a positive way, but I needed to actually witness a transformative experience to fully believe in the benefits of wilderness education.
Learning and teaching during my time working with North Cascades Institute causes me to reflect on my time huddled in my cold sleeping bag in the Wilderness of Cathedral Provincial Park. I was grasping for a connection to nature. The myth of the “Mountain Man” brought me to the wilderness, but the effect has been something deeper. For me wilderness has become a metaphor of a deeper connection to the land, a source of inspiration and, most importantly, a positive influence on me as a member of society, a citizen and a resident of the earth.
Grumbine, E.R., “Going to Basho’s Pine” ISLE, 6(2), 1990.
Krumpe, E.E., “Managing Wilderness for Education and Development.” Preparing to Manage Wilderness in the 21st Century, U.S. Forest Service, 1990.
Lopez, B.H., “The American Geographies” Barry Lopez: About This Life, Toronto: Random House, 1998.
Miles, J.C., “Wilderness as a Learning Place.” The Journal of Environmental Education, 18(2), 1986-1987.
Miles, J.C., “Wilderness as Healing Place.” The Journal of Experiential Education, 10(3), 1987.
Snyder, G., “The Etiquette of Freedom.” The Practice of the Wild, San Francisco: North point Press, 1990
Spray, R.H. & Weingert, P.D., “The Wilderness Environment: Training Wilderness Managers.” Wilderness Benchmark 1988, U,S, Forest Service, 1989.
Williams, D.R. et. al., “The Role of Wilderness in Human Development.” Wilderness Benchmark 1988, U.S. Forest Service, 1989.
Rory Crowley was a Graduate Student with Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University and the North Cascades Institute. Funding was provided by the Skagit Environment Endowment Fund who support conservation, stewardship and education in an around the Washington and British Columbia’s Skagit Watershed.