Wilderness skills enliven summer school science course

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Jason Smathers
Saturday, July 3, 2010
— They’d been roughing it for minutes now.


Kneeling in the dirt, Duncan Leckey continued to saw his makeshift bow back and forth, rapidly spinning the attached wooden stick into a small wooden base.

He stops. Any smoke it produced quickly blows away.

Leckey shows his first signs of frustration.

“'Survivorman' said this doesn’t really work well,” Leckey says, clutching the Les Stroud book to his side as though it was a wilderness bible.

“Well, we’ll keep trying for a few minutes then move on to another method,” says Neal Boys, one of the class instructors.

Leckey’s other middle-school classmates aren’t doing well either. Some have abandoned the task and are in search of tinder or a brief 15-minute adventure.

No one said survival was easy. But it has been fun. And for Boys and co-instructor David Hintze, that’s the point.

The teachers, both teachers at Parker High School, were looking for ways to energize the average summer school science course. When they saw the rise of reality survival TV shows such as “Man vs. Wild” and “Survivorman,” they got the idea to use the Janesville Outdoor Laboratory for a kid-friendly survival course.

“We decided to combine survival science with the natural woods stuff: plants, trees, birding,” Hintze said. “This place is just a little jewel and makes for a much more exciting classroom.”

Hintze handles the biology and botany while Boys has more of an earth sciences emphasis. So far, they have taught the boys how to capture water through transpiration by putting a bag over the branches and how to filter creek water. In later weeks they’ll learn shelter building and navigation. They will also learn geocaching, where they’ll search for hidden items using only their latitude and longitude coordinates on a global positioning system.

But this week it’s fire. Starting out with their self-made waterproof matches did the trick, but more basic methods such as using magnifying glasses have only produced smoke.

The bow and drill method produces even fewer results.

But the students are learning. Most know to pull apart tinder to increase the surface area for it to burn. They understand that the narrow focal point of a magnifying glass concentrates the heat for burning. The poster boards with marked and labeled leaves provide enough evidence that their knowledge and appreciation of nature is growing.

And today, they have learned that a stick rubbing against wood might not provide enough friction to start a fire.

Boys moves on to harder stuff, gathering the kids around the shelter to show them what the stick dangling from his hand can do.

“These are called magnesium strikers,” Boys said, dangling a charcoal-colored key with a red top. He takes a metal strip and quickly strikes the black stick, producing a brief flurry of sparks. The students produce a low “whoa.”

Minutes later, it’s up to each group to try themselves. Chris Reynolds is given the striker and produces smoke, but no fire. Leckey does the same, using Survivorman’s suggestion to blow on the budding embers to spread it. Still nothing.

Finally, Boys introduces a shavings of tinder cube and they get the individual piles of grass and wood burning.

The next day, it’s time for the unit’s final exercise. Kids break into groups and find different sizes of tinder, strips of bark and small branches. The pit starts to form into a teepee and Boys prepares the powder.

Alec Osborne has been given the role of firestarter.

“OK. So we are starving to death, we are freezing to death,” Hintze reminds Alex. “Our life is in your hands. No pressure.”

A few sparks in, it catches. They have fire. They have food. In this case, s’mores. As they roast their marshmallows, Josh Harmata lists his newfound wilderness knowledge, while others compete, demonstrating their knowledge of water filters and fire techniques.

Even on a Friday, they’re eager to learn.

Last updated: 2:26 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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