Creating the Augustana Outdoor Education Program

Creating the Augustana Outdoor Education Program

Submitted by: William
The 70s were a period when there was a lot of activity in the outdoors field. A number of institutions had outdoor programs. I was teaching at the U of A’s Augustana campus, and would look at other institutions who had outdoor programs wonder: “why not here?”. The University’s main campus was starting to try out some outdoor programs, and were willing to take me on to complete my PhD. For two years I worked for Don Smith, who was in charge of the outdoor ed. Program at the U of A.  He basically asked me to put my ideas and background as a lumberjack into action. I had such a wonderful education there with his full support.

When I first started, the program involved tennis, badminton, golf, and a weekend trip to the YMCA camp in the fall. I was startled, we were provided with beautiful gear,and we didn’t have to use most of it camping in the cabins. Don gave myself, and a classmate who had been a scouter complete sanction to run an advanced outdoor ed course. We took a group out in the middle of winter, and set up a very fashionable stove-heated tent. The next morning, we sent them off down the frozen river in groups of five, with their clothes, an axe and some plastic pulled behind them on an army sled. They had very limited food, and after some instruction, were left to their own devices to trap and eat whatever they could find. We fished and snared rabbits, they ate anything they could get their hands on. One group was able to catch grouse using a pole with a snare loop wire on the end.

Nowadays I would have been run out of town, because these student had no idea what they were doing. Because of my background I instinctively did certain things, and refused certain things in the woods. These kids didn’t had that same knowledge. In the evening I would snowshoe around and check on everybody. Some groups had gotten off the river in areas where water was flowing up over broken areas in the ice. It is a miracle that no one went through and got swept under. I remember Randy wanted to camp alone, and I scared the living daylights out of him when I snowshoed up in the dark, he had his axe at the ready when I emerged through the trees.

That was the beginning of the advanced outdoor program at the U of A. I was supposed to prove my mustard before I graduated, so I wanted to take a trip on the north Saskatchewan with students. Fortunately, because I had gone spent the summer instructing at pioneer ranch camp where I canoed in moving water and learned about performing in rapids.

My father gave me a rowboat when I was twelve. He called me down to the river and said “son, look across at that island, do you see all of the timber piled in front of it? You have to go across to the left and down to avoid being swept under.” I had no life jacket, but I spent hours in my boat that I was so proud of, learning how water flowed.  I also watched my father as a lumberjack, his life was on the river. You internalize the people that you grow up with, and what they would do in the same situations.

By the time we started the trip, I was fairly comfortable on the water. We had some students in kayaks and some in canoes. The plan was to start in Rocky Mountain House, and travel all the way to Edmonton, not realising how arduous it would be. Our group of 30 was making history, the school had never done a trip even close to that long before. We had many wild experiences, as in those days there was no control on the river. Every time it rained the water rose up and you would fly through the rapids. The river tested us, fortunately I had two women and two men to help me.  One of my helpers was a whitewater racer, and that helped a lot in terms of covering dangerous stretches of river. Three quarters of the way, we came across the river camp of the St. John’s boys school. The was a revolt within the group, half wanted to be picked up, and the other half wanted to continue on. The white water racer took half of the group to finish the trip, and I stayed with the others who felt it was a bit too much to be picked up.

One top of my PhD, i was working at a provincial training school in Hinton. I spent a number of assignments out there teaching canoeing, and how to find your way in the wilderness. Every time I went there I learned something new. By the time I finished my PhD, I had a number of major experiences in the wilderness and a strong sense of leadership and decision making.

When I returned to teaching at Augustana, I was sanctioned to create and teach outdoor courses.  My friend pastor Lundy, the football coach, and Dave Larson got on board to help me. Dave was well trained in handling a canoe in fast moving water, and I knew the wilderness that he didn’t know.  We made a good pair. The program started out with nothing. My wife Dorothy taught sewing for the city, and we made all of the gear ourselves. Tents, sleeping bags, rain gear, wind gear, she sewed it all. Initially, all that we had was plastic, axes, a couple of tin cans from the cafeteria and canoes gathered from wherever we could find them. The canoes weren’t balanced by any means, and the equipment wasn’t top quality, but we persevered.

We had a fall introductory course where we went into the badlands and learned orienteering and how to treat the environment, an introduction to camping and hot to light and handle fires. Then we had a canoe trip down the North Saskatchewan.

The second course was basically winter survival in the outdoors with a very limited amount of food.  The Rotarians gave us ski boots and poles, which initiated a whole chain of action.  Students could travel over the winter landscape, trap their own food and sleep in quinzies they built.

We had another fall course camping in a small canyon along the Battle River. We would have a big tipi, and the students would make lean-tos. The sides were made of plastic, and you had a fire in the middle, and the smoke would go out the top. One year one of the guys found it hard to sleep, he looked over and the girl on the other side of the tent was on fire. Being the hero that he was, he  leapt to his feet, grabbed her and rolled around in the snow with her to put out the fire.  I had one guy that just had blue jeans, he just about froze to death. I had taken everybody down with a truck, and they were to come home from there by pulling their toboggans and their gear. If they had taken it, they would have known that some of their things were inappropriate. If I was more experienced I would have went over everyone’s gear.Their small toboggans were piled very high, and would topple over every time they went over the ridges to cut the bends in the river. They would make it back in their own time.

In ensuing years, the program developed a whole array of courses. We had a four week course in the spring, where we learned to climb and navigate the mountains. Dave Larson got permission to teach a course on nature. We also had a whole section on the river, where we did rescue, survival and all of those aspects. From all of our experiences out tripping, I came to the conclusion that the techniques that we were teaching these students were very small compared to what they needed, which was to learn how to function together as people.

Over the years, many of my students continued on in the outdoors field, some attending the National Outdoor Leadership School, and then returned to help the program grow. I always valued the opinions of my emissaries.

Lyle Benson returned, and took over the personal development aspect in terms of leadership and functioning with others, that became a major focus of the program. Randy returned and questioned my use of the axe, so we completely uprooted the way we did things and started to focus on sustainable land use ethics.  Morten Asfeldt returned, and did trip after trip with me, contributing a lot of outdoor knowledge. I ran that program until I retired, and it is still runs and continues to evolve today, under the direction of Morten Asfeldt.