By Joanne Rodgers,
Bruce Peninsula Press
Two generations of the Mackie family took part in Outers. “The BPDS Outers program is truly one of a kind! The four of us Mackie girls (Amber – Outers class of 2003, Jenna – 2005, Kaley – 2008, and Paige – 2011) were all proud and eager to participate in something that our Dad did and still talks about.” say the girls. Their father, Jerry Mackie, participated in the program in 1974 with eight other students. They say “Several core trips included a fall hike, a winter camp and the famous Algonquin canoe trip. Dad would tell stories of crossbow practice, snowmobiling into winter camp, and hauling canned pork and beans as their main meal in Algonquin.”
The girls say “Outers teachers, like Birch Behmann, are special: fun, adventurous people that make the experience all the better! His extensive knowledge of the outdoors, leadership and authenticity added to the experience.
Traditional Outers games included capture the flag, camouflage, bush ball, gunnel bobbing, and dare Behmann…which resulted in him eating several grubs. Outers was a wonderful experience and some of our best memories of high school. It taught the importance of connecting with nature, life skills, character building, and team work.“
Camps of Snow and Cold
Birch Behmann describes a Winter Camp in sustained temperatures of -20C or lower, “a line of 15 sleds, one backpacker and one four legged self-carrier made record time past the west end of Gillies and onto Lymburner Lake. The Quinzees were built in record time in very deep snow. The quinzees are about 20C degrees warmer, around 0C.” He relates “you know it’s cold when asked ‘Can we go to bed now?’ at 7pm! I put my foot down and made up a rule, Outers never go to bed before 7:30pm!” The challenge being to get them out the next morning.
“Our main mission for the day was to keep warm. We shoveled snow to make our Lymburner Cup rink. We went on a snowshoe hike north to an open spring at the site of a torched cabin. From there we followed a bearing to Conley Lake. The small but open expanse of Conley brought the west wind back into our faces as we ducked for cover to eat lunch. Just as lunch finished, we were surprised by a team of sled dogs and its friendly driver Mike. We always appreciated being able to travel into and out of Winter Camp on Mike’s dog sled trail. Due to the continuous and deep snow, Mike had snowshoed the trail to keep it groomed!”.
Behmann took 31 students, 4 adults, 35 big packs and 1 Karelian bear dog on a three-day hike in the Bruce Peninsula National Park in 2010. This annual Outers Fall Hike recorded the highest number of participants since 1999 when Doug Cunningham’s two classes of Outers trooped through. The group started at Warder’s Ranch hiking on the Bruce Trail. Along the way they played the traditional Outers sports of camouflage and bush baseball. It snowed on and off during the game and during the remaining hike into High Dump.
He relates “As a large group we occupied all of the platforms and dinner cooking turned a central tarped area into a virtual food court. There was chicken kabobs with Indonesian peanut sauce, traditional steak potatoes and mash, various pasta dishes with homemade sauces and the core standby – chicken caesar wraps, a step-up from Kraft Dinner.”
White Squall Sea Kayak Trip
Behmann incorporated the five day Sea Kayaking Trip in the Eastern Georgian Bay for Senior Outers. The class would plan and prepare for the trip for weeks which included some challenging training days on Cameron Lake and at Sandy Beach. At White Squall Outfitters in Nobel, just 20 minutes north of Parry Sound, the group were properly fitted with special kayak personal flotation devices (PFDs) and were given details on the trip.
Behmann chronicles the 2010 trip “Our first paddle was about 5 km arriving in Corbman Bay at the top of Franklin Island around two hours after we started. Franklin Island is a huge island that was recently designated as a Conservation Reserve which permits camping on beautiful flat Canadian Shield granite. There are lots of twisted, tortured veins of quartz and other intrusions but just as much whale-like smooth domes of rock for pitching a tent on.”
The Behmann expeditions were noted for their games: Ninja Destruction, devil sticks, slack lining and hockey lacrosse were favourites, and on this trip, a new game of rope jousting which became part of the Outers game repertoire. It only required rope, two big rocks and two competitive people with a reasonable pain threshold for burns to the hands.
Behmann says “On the second day we woke to a calm misty morning and clear skies. Perfect for an 8 km open crossing to Big McCoy. The McCoys, Minks and Snake Islands are all part of a long chain or archipelago of islands that sit roughly 5 km out from Franklin and the mainland. They provide good shelter from big open swells and allow you to paddle and camp right on the ‘edge’ of Georgian Bay. On Big McCoy, we found a great swimming spot, played more hockey lacrosse, napped and ate lots of food cooked on the Outers stoves.
Day Three we paddled down the entire archipelago to end up camping on Snake Island. In between, in flat conditions we had a great look at a ship wreck from our kayaks just off Green Island. We successfully landed on Red Rock, a 60 foot lighthouse built on a rock that is just a bit bigger than the base of the lighthouse. The lighthouse still guides recreational and commercial ships into the Parry Sound outer harbour and its associated channels. You need calm conditions in order to land on Red Rock as it is steep sided all of the way around with few exceptions that are exposed to the north and northwest. During the time on Red Rock the wind and waves had picked up which forced us to make a hasty and exciting departure. We had a wavy run to Snake Island and settled into a windy but clear night of camping. The stars were amazing that night as they were every night of this ‘new moon’ trip.
Day Four was the day of the big waves and the crossing. The northwest wind had pushed on our tent flies all night long and was no less by morning when we nosed our kayaks into the water. Today we were only going 5km but it was an open water crossing exposed to the west and northwest. We were set to ride the Georgian Bay roller coaster of swells. We divided up into two paddling groups (Chillis and Gunners) in order to better manage the group. And waves they were!! Pushing 2 meters, these beautiful swells brought a lot of smiles and laughs to the group as we rode up and down them… literally the kayaks pointed up in the air and then pointed down to the bottom. Everyone now realized how essential the skirts were that we had been wearing all week as uncovered cockpits were filling in literally seconds.”
The Chilli group struggled against the waves and 20 knot winds. Behmann had taken a less stable ‘tippier’ boat from a student that morning but could not keep it upright, he capsized three times. The Chillis were pushed off course and drifted toward the Pancakes, a pair of islands in the mouth of the ‘big sound’ before Parry Sound. The wind and waves had not abated nor were they predicted to drop off according to MAFOR (Marine Forecast) so they decided to camp there overnight. The Gunner group made it to the original destination on Franklin Island; there was some creative tent, cooking and other equipment sharing to accommodate an unplanned separation of the group. Back on the Pancakes, the Chillis amused themselves with a newly invented game of sock golf.
On the last day, the wind and waves had both dropped off and crossing from both Franklin and the Pancakes seemed comparatively easy in the 10 knot winds and 1 meter whitecaps. The two parties were reunited in Snug Harbour as they paddled in from almost opposite directions. Behmann recaps “It was a perfect week featuring the best that Georgian Bay had to offer the sea kayaker.”
Northern Bruce Peninsula has supported 50 years of Outers with parent and community sponsorship and fundraising. Behmann acknowledges that the program would not be successful without the support of the entire BPDS staff.
Kate Sarnovsky, summer employee at the Lion’s Head Marina, has vivid memories of her 2007 Fall Hike, her friends Cara Warder and Kyle Hellyer were along as co-op students, and they had a hilarious time together. That year, it was Tobin Day’s first time leading Outers, Sarnovsky describes Day as a keener, a good guide, knowledgeable and as being very serious about in-class learning. The Vogageur challenge was the most physical test Sarnovsky has experienced and it taught her discipline and having faith in herself and others.
Haley Forbes of the graduating Grade 12 class of 2020 reflects “Outers at BPDS will always be a once in a lifetime experience. Every year there are a number of scheduled trips that we take part in, however, no year is the same. The weather, the people are all different and with that it makes each trip that much more significant. I learned and experienced so many new things that I will always remember. Our first official trip was Fall Hike, my favourite of all the trips. We hiked a large portion of the Bruce Trail (30 plus kms in three days). The chief takeaway from this experience was that overpacking is a thing! And not something you want to experience especially while carrying your pack the whole time. Nonetheless every trip was special in its own way and I’m happy I was a part of it.”
From Students to Leaders, the Outers’ legacy continues
In 2016, Behmann’s full time position at BPDS was eliminated by funding cuts and he moved away. Breanna Heels (nee Myles) took over mid-year. Heels says “Outers exemplifies the power of outdoor experiential learning. It is about learning beyond the classroom walls and making the world your classroom. After co-leading trips with Birch, I integrated outdoor learning into my 7/8 class. Students should not have to wait until Grade 10 to engage in this type of learning. BPDS is in a prime location to engage students in outdoor learning from Kindergarten. As a teacher, even though you may find some parts challenging (I don’t particularly enjoy winter camping in -30 C temperatures), as one of the leaders, your needs are secondary and complaining doesn’t make you warmer. You have to be mentally strong for the students.”
She also enjoyed the sense of achievement she felt after a trip – both as a student and leader, “trips are still challenging in many ways but being able to challenge yourself and proving you can do it.”
As a Grade 10 student, Heels wrote in her Outers Journal “Algonquin was a huge eye opener and changed me as a person. I can not only say Algonquin, but my entire Outers experience. All last summer, this was all I thought about. I knew I had to do it, but I wasn’t sure if I could do it. Not only was I unsure, but others looked at my size and underestimated my strength. My character has built this year and proved great things to myself. I am proud to say that I am an Outer!”
“When you are on an expedition with students, it isn’t a teacher-student relationship. You become co-adventurers and we all learn from each other and get to know the students in a different way!” Heels says. She had previously taught the Outer students in Grade 7-8, so now she was able to meet their older selves and see how they had changed and matured.
She feels that taking kids into the outdoors encourages them to be environmental stewards who will protect their local environment.
Current Outers Leader Ashley Myles was an Outers participant in 2008/2009 (the 40th year). She relates “There were a lot of students on my Algonquin trip, canoes had to be strapped on the trailer sideways! There was a close encounter with a cow moose and her calf. My partner and I ran the rapids on day 3. We made it almost all the way perfectly until we got hung up on a rock. Our canoe got turned around backwards, and we somehow managed not to flip, and finished the rapid backwards! On day 7, one student got a fish hook in her thumb and had to be water taxied out. We played a lot of bush baseball, and even glow-in-the-dark bush baseball! We had all weather on the trip, high winds, snow, rain and hot weather. We sang many songs and had many laughs. I can still remember the sense of accomplishment I had at the end of the trip.”
In 2014, she was a female chaperone on the Algonquin canoe trip. Being a part of the program again and seeing the students grow throughout the trip sparked her desire to become a teacher. Myles continued to be a female chaperone each year until she was able to apply for the Outers Leader’s position in 2018/2019 year (50th year of Outers). She says “I love Outers. I love the physicality of the program. I love seeing the students push beyond their comfort zones, challenge themselves and overcome the challenges they meet on these trips.”
Preparation is key for any successful trip, “A challenging part of teaching Outers is ensuring that you are preparing the students enough for the trips. BPDS is a very busy school for its size; semesters fly by, and with excursions like Outers it is vital that I have done my part in making sure I prepare the students for the trips. Not only is there a lot of planning and teaching of skills to the students in order to be prepared for the excursions, but there is a lot of sorting, organizing and ensuring proper and safe gear. There is a lot of paper work that must be approved by the Board.” says Myles.
The defining trip throughout the years has been the Algonquin canoe trip, the 2019/2020 Outers class is the first class to miss their Algonquin trip due to a pandemic. The 2017/2018 Outers Teacher Michelle Minke hopes that arrangements can be made to allow the class to experience Algonquin next year.
Myles is committed to the Outers Program, saying “I love the Outers program. I am so proud to be a part of it and look forward to many more years of keeping the Outers legacy going.”