By Joanne Rodgers, Bruce Peninsula Press
50 years ago, a vision by a newly appointed Principal, supportive School officials and an experienced outdoor enthusiast/teacher brought Outdoor Education to the Bruce Peninsula District High School (BPDS). Students were taught outdoor education skills such as canoeing, backpacking, preparing meals, building shelters, and at times, experienced more thrills and excitement than anticipated. Each instructor added to the program activities, reflecting their own interest and skill sets. Many Outers state this course was the best thing about high school. Two or even three generations of Peninsula families have participated in the Outers Program.
Outers – Year 1
From his previous teaching experience, School Principal Paul Cole felt that if Grade 10 students could spend time in the outdoors and learn practical skills, they would more likely stay in school.
The conditions were right, the Outdoor Education Centre at Oliphant was opened, money was available from the province for outdoor education, school officials provided progressive leadership and teacher Dave Caudle, with his love of the outdoors, was the prefect candidate to launch this program.
Finley Cameron credits this program to keeping him in school. Looking back, he says it taught him life skills, he developed strong friendships and felt he grew up during that year. At the time, the 16 year old and his friends were enjoying every minute of the course, thrilled to be outdoors.
From the second week, the students were packing gear and going off on canoe camping trips, hiking from Cabot Head to Lion’s Head, and snowmobiling in winter. Most students were already proficient in fishing and hunting, but for many it was their first time in a canoe. They learned how to build igloos and lean-tos with plastic sheets and use brush for bedding. The key to all these excursions was to “leave no sign”, all waste was buried or packed out, maybe cleared brush and remnants of a campfire were all that remained.
The big event that year was the canoe trip at Little Garden River near Sault Ste. Marie at the end of May.
The group of 18 boys were all keyed up for this great adventure. Caudle had canoed the river many times and knew it well. With a year of outdoor experience behind them, the boys were well prepared for the trip. They had not canoed white water and were looking forward to the adventure.
Staying a night at Caudle’s in-laws, they helped slaughter a calf. Cameron, a farm boy, said he never butchered such a big calf, as on his farm calves that size were sold off.
The group camped at an old logging shack at the Mill dam, it had been raining for 4 days. Leland Bray remembers a paddle stuck in the river’s edge was used to mark the rising waters. With everything flooded, the group decided to go down-river.
They traveled down-river until reaching an area of the river called The Hook which was filled with rapids. The flood waters made the rapids almost impossible to shoot, at times the swells were 8-10 feet, resulting in all canoes capsizing; the boys were all wearing life jackets and could swim.
12 boys swam ashore in the area but the remaining 6 were swept downstream, some as far as 5 miles before coming ashore.
Scott McFarlane said “It was the strangest thing to be paddling your canoe and the water breaking over the bow until the canoe sunk enough to hit the rocks and just fall over. Then it was a challenge to get to the shore. The water was moving very fast and you couldn’t swim or run that fast. Thankfully the river had frequent bends so I would try to get as close as I could to the shore so when I came to a bend I would reach out to grab a tree branch to pull myself out. It took a couple of tries but I finally got out of the water.”
Feeling scared, McFarlane bravely headed back upstream and found some of the boys and Caudle and assisted in the lighting of signal fires.
Bray related a similar story “Dave Tyndall was my canoe partner, as we got to the rapids, water was moving very fast and rough. Our canoe capsized and Dave and I were hanging onto the canoe, still going down river with speed, at one point as the canoe was moving though the rapids it flipped and Dave went from hanging on at the front to behind me at the rear. In some areas the water was shallow (knee height) but moving so fast you could not stand. Eventually we got to shore without the canoe.”
With the canoes broken or lost, no gear and no food, the group which ended up on the east side of the river decided to hike out, the plan being to follow the river to the Highway. Bray remembers it to be rough going. The East side group saw planes flying over, but did not know they were searching for their group. A pilot with Air Dale Flying Services had spotted the first group and called The Sault rescue services.
At one point, a helicopter dropped something, the hungry boys hoped for a loaf of bread, but it was a note telling them to stay put. They cleared brush from a sandpit with hatchets and saws dropped from the helicopter. The helicopter arrived with a pot of warm wieners and beans. That evening and the next morning a helicopter brought the boys out of the bush. The group stayed at a motel overnight before being retrieved by principal Paul Cole and bus driver Allan Lemcke. Caudle returned to a hero’s welcome back home.
The leadership by Caudle and the training the group had received during the year were tested in the outdoors and they met the challenge.
Renowned Tobermory resident Orrie Vail invited the boys to visit and gave those who came by a hunting knife each. Cameron still treasures his to this day.
Randy Robbins was the first winner of the Walter Warder Outers Proficiency Award created by Walter Warder, a local farmer and historian.
Some of the boys accompanied the succeeding year Outers on other canoe trips at Stokes Bay and from Sky Lake to Sauble Falls.
After the Little Garden River incident, all future long-distance canoe trips took place at Algonquin Park in late May/early June.
Year 3 – Beginning of Jerry Blair’s Leadership
For the third year of Outers, Jerry Blair was hired as the physical education teacher and Outers program leader and continued for the next 20 years. During his tenure he introduced a broad range of experiential trips to the program.
While the Algonquin Park 10 day, 100 mile canoe trip was the highlight every spring; the year was packed with hiking, backpacking, winter camping, cross-country skiing, ice fishing, orienteering and rappelling exercises.
Sandy Walsh says “Our year was mainly guys, just 3 of us girls. Ten days in Algonquin was definitely the highlight.”
The coed students were taught a variety of survival skills. Many Outers remember Blair’s emphasis on tasty meals as part of their camping experience. Each Outer was responsible for at least one meal and they were graded for their efforts; no prepackaged or pre-made meals were allowed and there was even a cherry cheesecake challenge.
Blair’s passion was fishing and it became an important component for teaching outdoor skills. He taught carving as a means to teach students how to handle a knife. The students were required to carve forks, spoons, tip-up poles for ice fishing and fishing poles. Additionally, the students carved fish out of Styrofoam, and painted them; this encouraged creativity and artistry.
Hikes and canoe trips were important training exercises. The Emmett Lake hike was a strenuous 2 mile hike in the brush and a lesson in orienteering. It was a real challenge and the students felt a sense of accomplishment when they completed it.
The Outers enjoyed their rappelling exercises, David Rodgers say he was a bit apprehensive but knew his teacher Mr. Sweet had him covered as he belayed from above. He says “I lowered myself over the edge, kicked off and was floating in mid-air just for a second, kicked off again and lowered myself a few more feet until I had the rhythm. Before I knew it I was on the ground and could not wait to try it again.” Blair regularly took his classes rappelling along Lion’s Head Bluff.
Blair chose rivers with gentle rapids and taught his class what to do if they tipped, not to stand in running water, how to right a canoe, how to rescue themselves. There was a 5 mile portage, in areas the students had never been before, they would walk with their packs, leave them, walk back and then take the canoes. They learned the 6 man lift, so everyone helps and no one is left behind, fostering teamwork skills.
Blair remembers a trip at Gillies Lake, when the temperature was minus 30C; the students had to make a snow shelter, protected their food by placing it in springs to keep from freezing and walked to warm-up before bedtime.
One Fall, the water level in the Rankin River was low with exposed dead trees thus making it a challenge to navigate, the students then had to camp in the snow employing their winter camping skills. Overnight there was a mild spell and everyone awoke to find themselves in mud, totally drenched and muddy. They ended up at Sauble Amusement Park for showers and to dry out.
All the challenges planned or unplanned, proved the value of the outdoor education by teaching students how to adapt to changing situations.
Look for more coverage on the history of the Outers Program in the next issue of the Bruce Peninsula Press.