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News & Views - April, 1995 Issue #33 

by: Cinda Stanek, Director
Alaska Wilderness Institute (AWI)
Juneau, Alaska

(Cinda is developing a 21-day wilderness survival experience based in Southeast Alaska which will start its first expedition in May , 1995. She has combined working with troubled youth and learning the Southeast Alaska wilderness for many years. The following is taken from an essay she wrote relating how the wilderness survival experience [and specifically one in Southeast Alaska] can be a learning metaphor for life back in civilization) 

An adventure-based program for challenged, high potential young people can focus on the concept of personal and emotional growth through wilderness challenge. The courses I have in mind are immersion experiences which use the vehicle of intensive wilderness travel, by sea kayak and backpack, to develop and instill: positive, healthy behaviors; emotional growth; coping decision making, and conflict resolution skills; increased self- esteem and self-confidence; realization of personal potential; and a sense of belonging. 

Throughout each course, students should be incrementally given the challenge of increased responsibility for the execution of, and safety for, the trip. In a sense, the whole expedition is preparation for a final expedition in which students take full responsibility for the course -- including all safety, travel, camping, survival, navigation, group facilitation, and decision making. This often would be the first time in a youth's life they are trusted with such responsibility and they then have a chance to flourish in their own accomplishments. The success of self-reliance, through knowledge and skills gained, is a powerful tool for personal and emotional growth. 

The environment of Southeast Alaska is unique in that it is a dramatic landscape of water, mountains, and glaciers that serves up predictable natural consequences. The natural cycles of Southeast will guide how each group moves throughout the day. At one time, a group may need to rise at 2:00am to catch a 3:00am high tide through a narrow passage of their route. At another time, a group may need to plan their day around the winds that often occur at each tide-change. While hiking in the alpine, students will learn how to read indications of the seasonal migration of animals between alpine and seashore, thus choosing to camp in places that will not be within the animals path of movements. 

Reading the environment teaches the students the skills of critical thinking, observation, decision making, cause and effect, and the weighing of real risk versus perceived risk. The continuous evaluation of what is happening around us, and how we need to deal with it, is a tremendous metaphor for their life back in civilization. Looking at situations and deciding how to deal with them is often a difficult lesson to learn. The wilderness, with professional and skilled guides and mentors, offers a safe, supportive, and caring environment for students to practice these skills. 

Being immersed in the experience of wild places is a powerful and unsurpassed vehicle for learning. The environment of Southeast Alaska is not only an educational tool, it is, in itself, a teacher of science, of history, of balance, of diversity, of consequences, and of personal insight into ourselves. Lessons and insights learned while in wild places are learned because of the cathartic influence of the wilderness. These lessons are unparalleled in their impact. 

Transference of skills to the students life back home, must be an important foundation of any program. From the beginning of each expedition, staff needs to continuously relate the knowledge and skills students are developing to each student's home, school, and community life. This style of metaphoric education allows youth to learn important skills, while in the safety of an intimate environment that is free of unhealthy influences they may previously been living with. With continuous attention paid to the issue of transference, each student's experience has the potential of having a profound affect on their lives. 

Whenever possible, the young people should reunite with their families while still in the environment of their wilderness experience -- an environment that has provided a strong foundation for moving forward. This ultimate transference can include the shared challenge and trust of a high ropes course, along with honest and open group discussions. This is the final step in taking the lessons of the wilderness experience and transferring them back to the rest of the student's life. 

Copyright 1995, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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