Tag Archives: Montana

Roadkill: It’s What’s for Dinner

My grandmother mentored me in breaking the law. It wasn’t legal to pick up road-killed game along the highway, but she taught me that it was the right thing to do.

My grandmother mentored me in breaking the law. It wasn’t legal to pick up road-killed game along the highway, but she taught me that it was the right thing to do.

My grandmother mentored me in breaking the law. It wasn’t legal to pick up road-killed game along the highway, but she taught me that it was the right thing to do. The key was to do it quickly, while nobody was coming. Roadkill deer were loaded into the back of her truck and brought home for gutting, skinning, and butchering. Good meat went into the freezer. Any questionable meat was a treat for the dogs. Fortunately, the 2013 Montana legislature legalized the use of roadkill game (limited to deer, antelope, elk, and moose). Although my grandmother passed away years ago, I know that she would have appreciated the new law.
The illegality of salvaging roadkill game always seemed nonsensical to me. After all, Montana has a law that forbids the wanton waste of meat if a hunter kills a deer, yet there were thousands of deer going to waste along our highways every year. Moreover, according to the Foodbank Network, thirty percent of the population in Montana is at risk of food insecurity, especially the poor, the elderly, and children. According to their website, “Food insecurity is characterized by not having the financial means to buy food or grow food, the need for emergency food assistance, and adults skipping meals. Food insecurity exists when the availability of nutritionally adequate food or the ability to access it on a consistent basis is uncertain or limited.”

Montana’s new roadkill law applies to deer, moose, elk, and antelope.

Montana’s new roadkill law applies to deer, moose, elk, and antelope.

I asked around, but no law enforcement officer could offer a compelling reason why it wasn’t legal to pick up roadkill game, and they always seemed to be drawing straws, making up answers about issues such as safety, liability, or the risk of encouraging poaching. But I finally figured out the answer myself: It wasn’t so much illegal as merely unlegal. Montana had no law against picking up roadkill game, yet no law allowing it either. According to Montana’s fish and wildlife laws, game animals can only be taken by approved methods, and anything not specified in the rulebooks isn’t allowed. Thus, picking up roadkill game was illegal by omission. For similar reasons, it isn’t legal to hunt upland game birds, such as grouse, with sticks or rocks. By the letter of the law, one is required to cheat nature and hunt with a gun or a bow.
I once dreamed of getting into state politics, and if I did, then I would have introduced legislation legalizing the use of roadkill game. But Steve Lavin (R-Kalispell) beat me to it. Lavin was previously a police officer. He and other police officers admittedly donated roadkill game to the food bank on occasion, even though it wasn’t exactly legal. Evidently, my grandmother was not the only outlaw! No doubt there were many other closet lawbreakers. It was the right thing to do.

Montana is especially rich with roadkill game. There are only about a million people in the state, somewhat less than the combined population of deer, antelope, elk, and moose.

Montana is especially rich with roadkill game. There are only about a million people in the state, somewhat less than the combined population of deer, antelope, elk, and moose.

I have enjoyed many roadkill deer over the years. Most were processed exclusively to fill the freezer with delicious steaks and roasts. Others were made partially or entirely into jerky and utilized as trail food for walkabouts and canoe trips. Processing roadkill deer is an essential component of our Green University® LLC internship program. Interns are encouraged to pick up roadkill game for processing. They learn how to properly gut, skin, and butcher the animals, as well as how to soften or braintan the hides and make fashionable buckskin clothing.
Montana is especially rich with roadkill game. There are only about a million people in the state, somewhat less than the combined population of deer, antelope, elk, and moose. Montana is also the fourth largest state, with a lot of long, empty roads that are often driven a little too fast. Thus, drivers face about a 1 in 77 chance of hitting a deer in any given year, compared with a 1 in 232 chance in neighboring Idaho.
Drivers are most at risk of hitting deer during the fall breeding season. Deer disperse during the summer while the females raise their fawns, but group together in the fall and winter. The late season routine covers more area and takes the animals into unfamiliar territory. In addition, male deer wander more in search of females. The learning curve is steep, as vehicular selection removes a great many inexperienced deer from the gene pool. The survivors are less likely to be hit during the winter months, once the herds have established a familiar routine. Mortality rises again in the spring as the herds separate once again.

To avoid a collision, it is important to reduce speed in the spring and fall during the evening, night, and early morning hours.

To avoid a collision, it is important to reduce speed in the spring and fall during the evening, night, and early morning hours.

To avoid a collision, it is important to reduce speed in the spring and fall during the evening, night, and early morning hours. Be especially careful where irrigated alfalfa fields line the highways. Whitetail deer breed like rabbits on the rich food. Driving these corridors can be a bit like running the proverbial gauntlet. The odds of colliding with a deer is substantially higher in these few key locations than elsewhere in the state. Drivers who blow by at seventy miles an hour without full light are courting disaster. In addition to the unfortunate death of the animal, the damage to a vehicle can run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars, and passengers are often injured and sometimes killed. Nationwide, about two hundred people die in collisions with deer every year. By that measure, these docile creatures are the most dangerous wild animals in North America!
Montana’s new roadkill law makes the best of a bad situation. It is good news for Montanans. Any family of limited means can now put healthy, organic free range food on the table and thereby save money and improve their financial situation. Moreover, they don’t need to buy a gun or a tag or wait until hunting season to feed the family. Anyone who is thrifty like me will no doubt butcher their own, but other people will haul roadkill game to the butcher shop, providing additional four-season employment.
Montana’s roadkill law applies only to roadkill deer, antelope, elk, or moose. Salvaging other roadkill game, such as pheasants, grouse, geese, mountain lions or bears, still isn’t legal. (However, no permit is required for nongame roadkill, such as rabbits or coyotes.) The law was supposed to take effect October 1st, but wrangling over the rules and procedures delayed implementation of the law until November 26th, 2013. The final rules are very user friendly to anyone interested in salvaging game.

In addition to the unfortunate death of the animal, the damage to a vehicle can run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars, and passengers are often injured and sometimes killed.

In addition to the unfortunate death of the animal, the damage to a vehicle can run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars, and passengers are often injured and sometimes killed.

A “Vehicle-Killed Wildlife Salvage Permit” is required for each animal taken, but the permit is presently free. A law enforcement officer can issue the free permit if they happen to be at the scene of the collision. Otherwise, individuals are required to apply for a permit online within twenty-four hours after picking up an animal. The permits serve as a tracking system for wildlife officials to watch for signs of misuse of the program. Law enforcement officers may occasionally require inspection of the animal, parts, and meat and/or they may ask to see where the animal was picked up along the road. It is a sensible check-and-balance system to help reduce abuse of the program by poachers who might shoot game and try to claim it as roadkill.
Salvaged game must be entirely removed from the roadway by the permittee. It is okay to field dress the animal on site, but the entrails and all other parts of the carcass must be removed to avoid attracting scavengers and predators to the roadside. The meat must be used for human consumption and may not be used as bait for hunting predators. And despite anecdotes to the contrary, the Montana Food Bank Network officially does not accept donations of road-killed game.
      One aspect of the rules I question is that citizens are not supposed to kill animals wounded in collisions. The individual is expected to call a law enforcement officer to the scene to finish the job. However, the more humane thing to do is to put the animal out of its misery right away. A blunt instrument to the head, such as a crowbar or tire iron, is highly effective. Death is instantaneous and humane, and it is the moral thing to do. Aside from that issue, I wholly support the new roadkill law, and I am glad to have competition for the resource from other Montanans. I would rather come home empty-handed, knowing that the meat went to someone else’s freezer, than see perfectly good meat go to waste on the side of the road. I believe my grandmother would have felt the same way.

Thomas J. Elpel is the founder and director of Green University®, LLC and Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS). He is the author and producer of numerous books and videos. Harvesting and processing roadkill game is detailed in his book Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills and expanded upon in his forth-coming book, Foraging the Mountain West: Gourmet Edible Plants, Mushrooms, and Meat.

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Filed under Conservation, Politics, Recycling, Sustainability, Wildlife

Russian Roulette with a Bottle

"Statistically speaking, the odds of roulette run in your favor. About one out of every thirteen Americans has an alcohol problem, so any individual can confidently put a bottle to their head on the expectation that they will be one of the twelve who gets lucky."

“Statistically speaking, the odds of roulette run in your favor. About one out of every thirteen Americans has an alcohol problem, so any individual can confidently put a bottle to their head on the expectation that they will be one of the twelve who gets lucky.”

The True Cost of Drinking
      One gun. One bullet. Spin the chamber. Pass it around. Each person puts the gun to their head and pulls the trigger. One person dies. The others live and call it entertainment. Sound barbaric? Americans play the game on a daily basis, but we don’t use a loaded gun. Instead, we use a loaded bottle, and it is just as lethal.
      Almost any adult can name at least one person they have lost to alcohol. A parent. A sibling. A cousin. An aunt or uncle. A childhood friend. A neighbor down the street. For some, it was drunk driving. For others, it was binge drinking or cirrhosis of the liver. Others never tasted alcohol, but were mowed down by someone who did. Many who lost their lives are not dead. But alcohol cost them their job, their marriage, their family, and their dignity. Some lost their mobility and dreams to a beer-belly and never regained their freedom. Controlled by alcohol, the bottles and cans stack up into great piles for the dumpster, or hang on wires around the garden to scare away the birds. Nearly everyone can think of someone who lost their life to alcohol in some way or another, but strangely that knowledge doesn’t stop people from drinking.
"The odds are less favorable for some people than others. Kids who start drinking before age fifteen have a one in six chance of becoming alcohol dependent. Adult children of alcoholics are most at risk, with approximately one in three becoming alcoholics like their parents."

“The odds are less favorable for some people than others. Kids who start drinking before age fifteen have a one in six chance of becoming alcohol dependent. Adult children of alcoholics are most at risk, with approximately one in three becoming alcoholics like their parents.”

      Statistically speaking, the odds of roulette run in your favor. About one out of every thirteen Americans has an alcohol problem, so any individual can confidently put a bottle to their head on the expectation that they will be one of the twelve who gets lucky. The odds are less favorable for some people than others. Kids who start drinking before age fifteen have a one in six chance of becoming alcohol dependent. Adult children of alcoholics are most at risk, with approximately one in three becoming alcoholics like their parents.
      Statistics vary from source to source, but according to the Council on Alcoholism, about 85,000 Americans die from alcohol-related issues every year, including about 16,000 from drunk driving or drunk drivers. Alcohol is also implicated in about one fourth of all emergency-room admissions, one third of all suicides, more than half of all homicides, and half of all incidents of domestic violence. Alcohol is associated with unplanned and unprotected sex, sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies, and abortions. About 1,700 college students are killed in alcohol-related incidents in the U.S. every year, but they are generally considered expendable because they are someone else’s children, not ours. It is part of the cost of roulette. We accept their loss as necessary in order for the rest of us to have a good time.
      That is the reality of Russian roulette. It is a game. It requires winners as well as losers. The odds are pretty good for any one individual. It is only a question of whom we are willing to sacrifice for our entertainment. Point the bottle around the room at friends, family members, and strangers.
"Whom do we consider expendable? A brother? A sister? A niece or nephew? Our own child or someone else’s? We don’t know who the winners and losers will be. We only know that roulette requires participants, and we willingly gamble with other people’s lives every time we reach for the bottle."

“Whom do we consider expendable? A brother? A sister? A niece or nephew? Our own child or someone else’s? We don’t know who the winners and losers will be. We only know that roulette requires participants, and we gamble with other people’s lives every time we reach for the bottle.”

      Alcohol will ruin the life of one out of every thirteen people in the room, whether or not it actually kills them. Whom do we consider expendable? A brother? A sister? A niece or nephew? Our own child or someone else’s? We don’t know who the winners and losers will be. We only know that roulette requires participants, and we willingly gamble with other people’s lives every time we reach for the bottle.
      In the effort to make roulette safer, people are encouraged to “drink responsibly.” Put the bottle to your head. Just don’t get trigger happy, or at least don’t try driving after you’ve blown your brains out. Responsible drinking works great for the winners, not so great for the losers. How many people have been seriously maimed or killed in a drunk driving accident after attending a funeral for someone who died driving drunk? Sadly, it happens all too often.
"Montana has the highest alcohol-related fatality rate in the nation, and our state is the national champion of drunken driving. Teenagers are killed in drunken driving accidents all the time, and nobody cares enough to change their own behavior."

“Montana has the highest alcohol-related fatality rate in the nation, and our state is the national champion of drunken driving. Teenagers are killed in drunken driving accidents all the time, and nobody cares enough to change their own behavior.”

      Drinking alcohol is a mimicked behavior, and participants are recruited early into the game. Give alcohol to a child, and they will likely recoil in disgust the first time they try it. But adults act like alcohol is special, fun, and tastes good. Drinking and partying is glorified in television and movies. Drink it enough times, and a child learns to like it. Some families are so alcohol-oriented that every party and family reunion is a drinking escapade, as if they wouldn’t know how to interact with each other as authentic human beings without alcohol. Children learn that it is necessary to drink in order to have fun, fit in socially, and play the game. In my home state of Montana, drinking is a way of life, indoctrinated early.
On July 14, 2011 Megan turned 20 years old, and only 2 days later on July 16, as she celebrated her birthday with friends by floating the river and drinking, Megan thought she was okay to drive. She crossed the center lane and was hit by on-coming traffic and she died instantly.

On July 14, 2011 Megan turned 20 years old, and only 2 days later on July 16, as she celebrated her birthday with friends by floating the river and drinking, Megan thought she was okay to drive. She crossed the center lane and was hit by on-coming traffic and she died instantly.

      In rural communities, the bar is often the town center. Kids flow in and out of the bar as they grow up. They play pool while the adults drink. But teenagers drink at the bars, too. I stopped by the town bar one lively night this past summer to check out the music and street dancing. My recently graduated son’s eighteen-year-old classmates were also at the bar, drinking beer and totally smashed. The adults knew they were underage. The cops knew it. Nobody cared. As one of the boys said when he went on a camping trip with us, “I’ve never been in the woods when I wasn’t drunk before.” It is a way of life here. Montana has the highest alcohol-related fatality rate in the nation, and our state is the national champion of drunken driving. Teenagers are killed in drunken driving accidents all the time, and nobody cares enough to change their own behavior.
      I was fortunate to grow up in a family where alcohol wasn’t particularly important. It wasn’t celebrated, and it wasn’t a game. Nor was it consumed in sufficient quantity to change anyone in that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde way that is often encouraged by other people. I’ve tried alcohol, but never drank enough when I was younger to acquire a taste for it, and at this point, probably never will. I don’t mind when other people drink, unless they make a big deal out of it and carry on like they are mimicking some party scene they saw on television. I would rather socialize with real human beings.
      As a nondrinker, it is perpetually incomprehensible to me why anyone would desire to drink until they puke their guts out, then engage in behavior that results in a trip to the emergency room or an unplanned pregnancy, only to suffer through a hangover the following day — all in the name of “fun.” There are a million ways to have fun without getting wasted and feeling lousy. It is a sad commentary on the quality of life in our culture that people find it necessary to get drunk on the weekends to forget for a moment how dreary their lives are the rest of the time.
Beer bottles discarded in a dumpster... by the recycling bin.

Beer bottles discarded in a dumpster… by the recycling bin.

      Roulette is not so great for the planet, either. Beer commercials often highlight beautiful scenery, but there is a direct connection between getting wasted and wasting the planet. Beer cans and broken beer bottles are strewn along millions of miles of highways. They can be found littered along most floatable rivers. They accumulate in fire pits and around the parking lots at campgrounds and outdoor recreation sites. We would be lucky if litter was the beginning and the end of the problem, but it isn’t. It is fundamentally an issue of self-respect. People who lack the self-respect to take care of their own bodies are less likely to respect other living beings and the environment. Here in Montana, for example, beer and guns are a common combination, as people drink while blowing away ground squirrels for entertainment. Those who lack respect for themselves are more likely to work meaningless or environmentally destructive jobs. Getting wasted on the weekends only ensures continued entrapment to destructive behaviors.
"People learn that alcohol is a means of escape, rebellion, and freedom, but it is ultimately a tool of entrapment."

“People learn that alcohol is a means of escape, rebellion, and freedom, but it is ultimately a tool of entrapment.”

      That is perhaps the great irony of the great escape. People learn that alcohol is a means of escape, rebellion, and freedom, but it is ultimately a tool of entrapment. It is an imaginary escape that leaves a person enslaved to meaningless or destructive employment to pay for a meaningless and destructive addiction. Perpetuating the game is good only for padding corporate profits. True freedom requires breaking free from the game to play life by one’s own rules.
      Unfortunately, no one can legislate freedom or end the game. Alcohol is a cornerstone problem linked to broken dreams, broken marriages, broken families, domestic violence, homicides, and wasting the planet, and yet, there is no person or entity on earth powerful enough to outlaw the game or enforce such a law if it were passed. Prohibition was an utter failure, and arguably only glorified alcohol even more.
      What we can do is lessen the impacts to the greatest possible degree. For example, states with deposit fees on cans and bottles have higher recycling rates and far less litter and waste than states without deposit fees. We can also hold corporations responsible for their part in encouraging addictive and destructive behavior. For example, the bags of cans and bottles that pile up at an alcoholic’s home typically come from only a couple major corporations, such as Anheuser–Busch (Budweiser) and MillerCoors. Ditto for most of the cans and bottles littered along our highways and rivers. These companies profit at the expense of individual lives and should be required to do more to rectify the problems caused by their products, or taxed sufficiently to fund treatment and counseling for everyone who needs it. Local microbrews, on the other hand, are not usually associated with destructive behaviors and should be exempt from such requirements. Beyond that, the best that any one individual can do is to refuse to play the game and set an example for our children, our families, and our friends, that drinking isn’t particularly interesting or important.

      Thomas J. Elpel is the author of six books, including Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit. He has often dreamed of getting into politics and making a positive difference in the world, yet recognizes that it might be difficult to get elected if he cannot sit down and drink a beer like a “regular guy.”

Drinking

Hi Tom,

You wrote an article last year on the destructive elements of alcohol and it’s been really helpful to me quit drinking. I find myself going back to it frequently. It’s been a recurring problem for me but I’ve been fortunate not to get into any serious trouble. Your work is very inspiring to me, thank you.

When you have a lot of Native American blood like me, the odds are really against you. But I’m determined to keep positivity in my life as a focus. Groups like AA don’t take the attention off the problem and can keep someone overly identified with their problems… in my experience anyway.

–Max H.

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A Day in the Life of the Tribe

      Back in 2002, I volunteered to bring my daughter’s seventh grade class out on an overnight wilderness survival camping trip. We were deluged with 1.3 inches of rain overnight – and had nothing to keep us dry but shelters built of sticks and bark. But we had such a great time that I have continued hosting the Junior High Camping Trip every year, and it is now written into the Harrison School curriculum. Being a small school, we bring all of the seventh and eighth graders out together for three days and two nights each May.

      The outing is very hands-on oriented, engaging the kids in the many activities shown in the video above and much more. Instead of merely talking about nature, science, and the way that our ancestors lived, they experience it directly, being deeply immersed in this unique outdoors experience. However, it also seems important to reflect on the experience afterwards and process it on another level.

      This year, the students were asked to write a sort of journal about what it might have been like to be part of a tribe living in this area. The students shared their essays with me, and with permission, I am sharing one of those stories here:

Day as a Tribal Member
English Final Test, 2012
By Taya

Junior high students work together to construct a bow and drill fire set and start a fire with it.

      I sit up, feeling a small breeze hit my face. Sunlight streams from the small holes the wooden shelter doesn’t cover. My people are already gathering mint leaves for tea, so I slip on my worn moccasins and crawl out of the wickiup. Voices, speaking in our native tongue, surround me as I walk to the fire. I glance at the slightly curved stick and wooden board knowing that one of my tribe members must have used a bow and drill to create friction, and eventually fire. Looking at my father’s shiny brow tells me that he made the fire. He nods at me, so I turn and jog into the peaceful, wide band of trees. The awakened wilderness engulfs me, and drops of dew glisten on the green plants and a nearby spider web clinging to a tree branch.


     As I search for a fairly dry piece of wood and a mid-sized stone, I carefully avoid a duck nest lying underneath a small tree. The two weapons I grab will be used to hunt for prey. Cautiously, I place one foot in front of the other, like a fox, ducking underneath branches, trying to make as little sound as possible. Disturbing the forest and its creatures could cost my tribe and me a morning meal. I hear a scurrying beside me and quickly pause to turn my head to the noise. A rabbit crouches behind a shrub, nose twitching. It turns to dart away from me, but it waited a moment too long. I have already clutched and thrown my stick at the rabbit’s gray body before it has moved a hand’s length. I carry the limp creature back to camp with my teeth peeking out of my mouth. I lay the furry animal, along with three others, beside an elder. She will cut the rabbits with a deer rib saw knife and toss the meat into a smoking pan to be cooked. The fur could quite possibly be used as a garment later.

Students wade into the swamp to gather cattail roots (rhizomes) and shoots for our meals.

      Next, I run like a coyote, with knees reaching my chest, to a marsh only a short distance from my home. There, cattails roam the inky waters. Taking off my footwear, I wade through the knee-deep substance. I pull many cattails from their roots, feeling the muck seep between my toes. With the plants in both hands, I head back to camp, hearing the birds sing their sweet melodies. All of a sudden, the noise to my right stops, and I can only hear a steady, staccato bird warning call. I turn my head right and catch a glimpse of tan, buckskin clothing disappear behind a tree. I faintly call out, and my little brother’s head peeks out. I laugh, and with him by my side, we pick dandelion leaves and flower heads to go with the cattails.

Taya uses hot coals and a blow tube to burn out a cup from a section of cottonwood root.

      Once we are back, I chop the pale cattail roots into a wooden bowl I had made by blowing on ashes in the center of a log to burn a deep hole in it. I add the dandelions, and soon adults and children have gathered to eat the salad. The greens that didn’t fit in the bowl, I lay on a bark plate.


     The sun is completely out by the time our meal is gone. I quietly sip my mint tea, from a cup also burned with ashes, staring at the gray sky near the mountain peaks. I then gather my belongings and toss them in my shelter. To prepare for dinner, we move the fire to a different location, so there is now a hot pit. While some are placing stalks of cattails in the pit, others are putting in fresh deer meat, killed with an atlatl, a device used for throwing a long dart. Roots, wild plant leaves, and other greens are also added to the pit. It is then covered with grass, picked by little fingers, bark pieces, water to create steam, and finally soil.

We covered ourselves with mud, then played stalking games in the woods.

     While the food is steaming, which will take a few hours, I gather all of the children. Their challenge is to get as close as possible to one of his/her parents without being spotted. We all crawl in thick mud. I crawl on my stomach to get as low as possible to my mother. She is sewing moccasins and a shirt. I look at the men, and they are either sharpening their knives or brain-tanning hides. My father is trying to tan my rabbit hide. The game ends after a few hours, with my brother winning. Being so small, he was unnoticeable.


     I go to help my father, and soon, dinner is ready. A few pieces of meat did not cook thoroughly, but other than that, the food was delicious. Right after we are done eating, the rain shower hits us. I wash my bark plate in a stream and then head to my wickiup. Although it’s not very late, my eyes feel droopy. I rest my head and slowly close my eyes, oblivious to the rain pounding. I think about being a bird and come to a conclusion. We are alike. I am free in this place, and so is the bald eagle. I spread my wings and drift into sleep.


For more information about the Junior High Camping Trip, be sure to read Outdoor Classroom (Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 2011) and more comments from students of the 2011 camping trip. Also, take a look at our Classroom in the Woods DVD, and please check out our Stone Age Living Skills Programs for Schools for more information about our classes.

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The Power of Experiential Education

“I saw my friends and classmates in a new way. They acted much more caring and considerate. We never talked about who saw that movie and if it was good or not. We talked about what remarkable event had taken place during the day, and I personally liked that better.” –Taya D. – 2011 Junior High Camping Trip.

Thomas J. Elpel

Working with Kids - From the Junior High Camping Trip, 2011

Working with kids, I can tell when they are having a good time and excited about learning. But I consistently underestimate the true depth, insightfulness, and heart of our young people.

My work with public school kids began in the mid-1990s, when my daughters, Felicia and Cassie, were in elementary school. I volunteered to take them and their classmates out for an all-day field trip every spring. We built shelters, started fires with flint and steel, told stories, did crafts, made ashcakes and wild tea, and played some stalking games. It was lots of fun, and a chance for the kids to get out of the classroom and have some fun at the end of the year. But it wasn’t just an excuse to “get out of school” for a day, as the kids were truly learning, and very importantly, they were learning about the world directly, instead of just reading about it in a book.

We upped the ante a bit when my daughters entered junior high, taking their classmates out for overnight camping trips on a local ranch. Lacking any tents or tarps, we built shelters out of sticks and bark… and survived more than an inch of rain (on multiple occasions). I taught the kids how to start fires with the bow and drill, basically a simple mechanical device for “rubbing two sticks together.” I demonstrated how to do it, then provided a couple of sticks to each group and had the kids figure out how to replicate the bow and drill and start a fire. We harvested edible wild plants and mushrooms, cooked a stir-fry dinner with hot rocks on a slab of bark, practiced stalking skills, observed wildlife, and played games. It was great fun, and the kids ate it up like it was the greatest thing in the world.

That was ten years ago, and my daughters are now in their twenties. But I still do the junior high camping trip every spring, and we now take the seventh and eighth graders out for three days and two nights, charging a small fee to make the program sustainable. Every year we look at new ways to fine-tune and improve the experience for the students, to make it more educational and more memorable.

The seventh and eighth grade teacher at Harrison School is Linda Ehlers, who was bold and adventurous enough to try this wild idea in the first place, and after doing it for a few years, began to realize just how deeply and positively the experience impacted the kids. She has the students for nearly nine months before I see them, and I am told that the kids talk about the junior high camping trip all year long. Two weeks before the campout, she finds it impossible to focus on anything else, so she structures her lesson plans around the upcoming trip, covering skills like plant identification, fire-starting, and knife safety in the classroom. She talks to these same students in the hallways as they continue on through their high school years, and the way she tells it, they never stop talking about the experience and the memories. But sometimes I have trouble believing it. I have trouble believing that three days of hanging out in the woods doing skills and playing games could impact these kids so much.

It isn’t until I see the written comments – in the students’ own words – that I began to get a sense of how deeply they have been touched by this little camping experience. On a purely academic level, it is obvious that they are truly learning, and they resonate with the lessons in a way that could not be achieved by reading about it in a book:

“I think our Indian ancestors were awesome because they lived how we did, but we only stayed three days. I think it is amazing how they lived, and when they killed something, they used everything off of the dead animal. It is also fascinating that they used everything that they found or killed. The coolest thing was all the cooking utensils and how they used fire and coals to cook.” –Brett P.

“The life we lived out there for three days is what our ancestors’ lives were like year-round. I see that my ancestors routinely did what I struggled to do once. It makes you stop and think about how technology has changed our way of living. This experience has changed the way I see people back then.” –Britt C.

Sometimes I try to get in the heads of the kids while we are out in the field, and I imagine them to have little depth beyond the desire to have fun. Yes, I can see that they are excited about learning, but I rationalize it as “excited compared to sitting in the classroom.” After all, this is technically a school trip, and they are conditioned to follow instructions and do whatever I tell them to do. And yet, when the kids have started some game of their own – and it is obviously a healthy and satisfying activity – I hesitate to interrupt them. I experience a moment of self-doubt, thinking that they will be disgruntled at the interruption – that they won’t get excited about learning some stupid stalking skills or playing some dumb stalking game. But when I finally make the call, I am shocked to see their game break up immediately as the students come streaming over, excited for the new activity:

“My most meaningful experiences were Wolves and Deer and the Stalking Game. These were meaningful because they are games that everyone was involved in. We were having fun and enjoying ourselves. Wolves and Deer was meaningful because it involved paying attention and being knowledgeable. The Stalking Game was meaningful because we had to be quiet and know the placement of our feet. I enjoyed this because when I got out, it was very fun watching everybody else try to get the bag of candy.” –Colton C.

“I felt everything I stepped on as I walked in the all-leather moccasins… Stalking to get that candy was so intense. It shows how patient you have to be to get your food in the woods. From the birds chirping to Koby running through the trees, all the natural sounds really made me open my ears and listen.”  –Alecia P.

I am always surprised at how much the students comment on the importance of teamwork, friendship, and appreciation of each other, especially because our schedule doesn’t have include any specific team-building activities or agenda. But from the kids perspective, it is all about teamwork:

“My most meaningful experience was being able to work together to start a fire with the bow and drill. The campout taught all of us that we had to work together or you wouldn’t get anything done.” –Gabie A.

“The bowdrill is one of the best ways to make a fire. It takes teamwork and passion. When my group was making fire, Britt was working the bow, then she said, ‘Help!” I grabbed the other end of the bow and helped her through it. We were the first group done because of the teamwork we did.” –John E.

“Friendship and teamwork are priorities above all others. Without these I would have never been able to start a fire, find Kris, or even fix the wickiup. You need friends and partners to survive in the real world, and without them, we are lost.” –Jon S.

More surprising to me is that the kids truly connect with the natural world. I often imagine our young people as being totally into the social scene and not really interested in nature, beyond the excuse to be out of the classroom for a few days. I imagine them to be patiently tolerant at best, when we wake them up early in the morning to go stalking through the woods in the hopes of seeing wildlife:

“Another meaningful experience was when we went on a morning wildlife walk. This time, I could hear the animals waking up. That morning was very peaceful. I felt proud that I was on this walk seeing animals, not disrupting them, and making my way through the great outdoors.” –Taya D.

“Before I went on the campout, I did not take the time to enjoy all of the experiences that are out there. I would walk to the bus each morning with my headphones in my ears, ignoring all of the natural music around me. The birds sang their songs each and every morning, and I ignored their exquisite music. Now, when I walk to the bus in the morning, I try to listen to each and every song that the birds have to offer. I slow my pace as I indulge the sound of the songs. I allow myself to ‘stop and smell the roses’ when I stroll along the twisting, winding road to the bus.” –Michaela J.

Most of all, I am surprised at the depth, reflection, and insightfulness of many of the comments. These comments come from young teenagers, yet sound more like adults:

“For three whole days, we were shut off from the TVs, the iPods, and even the world famous cell phone. It is hard to believe, even now, that we could survive without these advances. Now, new things can replace this “junk” that has taken over our lives. Instead of watching TV, we can play the real live video game of marshmallow wars, instead of being stuck on a couch with a joystick in hand.” –Britt C.

“It has always seemed to me that nature is like a piece of artwork, fragile, but only to be admired through the gentlest of hands. We go walking on a weather-beaten path that so many have followed, but never step off to travel farther into the heart of the forest. I now know what it is like to go into the depths of the forest, experiencing the full force of the wild. Nature is not a picture. It is much more than that.” –Chas B.

Seeing feedback like this from the kids makes me realize just how deeply they are affected by this one-time experience in nature. And they are definitely hungry for more. In his book Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv called the nation’s attention to the growing problem of “Nature Deficit Disorder,” a concern that was shockingly brought to life in the documentary Play Again: What are the consequences of a childhood removed from nature? The book and the movie highlight the crisis that faces our young people and the future of our society. How can society function if we raise an entire generation of kids who are plugged into something like Second Life, while lacking a First Life in the real world?

I never imagined that our little camping trips would turn into cutting edge work that could make a critical difference to the future of our young people. But while Last Child in the Woods and Play Again have called attention to the problem, we have apparently stumbled into a critical piece of the solution. The experiential model that we have created resonates with the students and reaches them at a deeper level.

It is my greatest hope to expand our programs to many of our other local schools to share similar experiences with the kids that are currently missing out. More than that, I hope that our work can become a role model for other people seeking to introduce experiential outdoor education to the young people in their lives. As one student wrote this year:

“The outdoor classroom experience has given me a more in-depth look at nature and our ancestors than any movie or text book has or ever will. Living in the outdoors has shown me that nature is full of surprises and that it provides everything that we need to survive. If more schools took their students on outdoor trips like we do, humans might learn to be more conservative and save our world.” –Spencer O.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

For more information about the Junior High Camping Trip, be sure to read Outdoor Classroom (Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 2011) and more comments from students of the 2011 camping trip. Also, take a look at our Classroom in the Woods DVD, and please check out our Stone Age Living Skills Programs for Schools for more information about our classes.

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