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Portage 2014: Finding Awe in the Woods

I admit that I didn’t fully know why we were going.

From my own camping trips, I understood that time in the woods was a fundamentally good thing. Good in that it always offers beauty, a healthful disruption from our day-to-day, and the simplicity of having food, movement, and shelter as the only aims. What I didn’t know was the real why of our going: why the woods, when focusing on students with learning challenges and the context of transition?

Even more specific questions emerged, like what the connection was between SHIFT Week—those five days of workshops and orientation sessions comprising the Students Heading Into Full Time summer program—and our heading onto water and into forest. What would they learn beyond what they’d already just learned? How would Algonquin Park support these students to understand anything further about the impact of their disabilities on their learning? What do tents, cooking together, and arduous hauls of canoes and gear between lakes have to do with shifting into first year? I suppose my questions emerged from that in-between space of theoretical and lived. A liminality of not having yet seen, heard, and lived alongside what can happen for students in the outdoors. What can happen for all of us.

From the eighteen students who participated in SHIFT Week, six decided to put their faith in our sister transition program, Portage (thoughtfully created by John Hannah in the late 2000s). Rooted in research and at the fore of progressive education, John knew something that I, others, and, increasingly, secondary and post-secondary institutions are cottoning on to: powerfully rich, authentic learning happens in the woods. Unplugged, spontaneous, and awe-based.

Portage 2014 The Woods

Our participating students came from a diversity of programs (Computer Science to Child and Youth Care), and for a variety of reasons; some because their parents urged them, some because they had nothing else to do, and others because it was free (we receive specialized transition funding to support students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD). And, in the case of one student, their homelessness meant there was nowhere else to go.

We were picked up outside of Jorgenson Hall on an early Wednesday morning, everyone carrying yawns and packs of varying size; they held tight clutches on their iPhones, realizing that in but a few hours reception would be lost. The ride up, no less part of the journey, was one of fatigue, trepidation, excitement, and possible regret in equal measure. It is likely that each one of us—except John—thought, what have I’ve gotten myself into?

The response, as we’d find out over the following two and half days, was a life-changing, awe-inspired adventure. An enacted definition not only of transition, but transformation.

Portage rose from the metaphoric to the momentous and metamorphic. Through learning to paddle and build fires, to jumping off ever higher cliffs and mindfully helping with camp chores, to smearing on mud as war paint and singing together as a way to rally through a nearly two kilometre portage, to organic conversations on rock outcrops about feelings of readiness for the upcoming semester. What happened to us was what any outdoor educator knew would happen: put people, no matter how hesitant, into a gorgeous natural setting, and one in which they need to take part and help, and good—no, great—things arise. Great things like understanding just how capable we each are. Great things like confidence that soars even if dyslexia or anxiety has felt like an insurmountable roadblock. Great things like how ADHD seems to dissipate in the woods. (One student’s cell phone dependency morphed into a three-day odyssey focused on a single goal, catching a fish, which he did after assembling a fishing rod from a branch and creating a lure from campsite debris. The accomplishment was not only a smallmouth bass, but beaming pride and admiration for this otherwise profound introvert, as well as the rest of us.) Great things like how we are all teachers and students on this implicitly levelled playing field, seeking out each other’s expertise, be it how to scramble down a waterfall, do a proper J-stroke, or paddle solo; just as how to apply for OSAP, get a part-time job, and maintain a long-distance romantic relationship in university. Great things like resiliency.

Portage 2014 Fish

Like the students’ sense of self-efficacy and -assuredness, my own experience has transformed. I’m no longer asking why, but am instead wondering what if? Since there is a clear connection, since wilderness enables deep coping and competence, since lasting community and robust relationships can’t help but thrive, what if? What if Portage occurred not once but several times throughout the year? What if there were outdoor opportunities for mid-stream transferring students, and those transitioning on to graduate school and the work world? What if this were an orientation offering for all students? What if staff could experience the creativity and interconnectedness that forested together-time nourishes? (What if I shift my doctoral studies to pursue outdoor and experiential education and transition reading and research?)

In the unstructured time, under the canopies of cedar, white, and hemlock, amongst lifetime friendships cultivated in but a few days, awe propelled us; it shaped our transitions, guided our adventure.

And, so, I wonder, what if: what if, for all of us, awe drove learning?