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Harrison School 8th Grade Camping Trip
Return to the River
Thursday May 15th - Friday May 16th, 2003
By Thomas J. Elpel and the 8th Grade Class

      The boys' shelter was a bit too small to fit the whole group, and I ended up sleeping in the dripping doorway. The poncho blocked the worst of the rain, but a puddle seeped in below me. In the dark I assumed everyone else was just as soaked as me. Sam had the stomach flu and stepped over me several times in the night to puke outside the door.

      Our kids are enrolled in the local public school, and each year I try to take their classes out on a field trip to learn outdoors skills. This was Felicia's class, my oldest daughter. I brought these kids out on numerous day trips in the past, but this was our first overnight trip. Laying there in the dark and dampness all night, I wondered if our first campout would also be our last. I was sure that none of the kids would want to go out camping with me again. More than an inch of rain fell while we were there.

8th Grade Students boarding bus.       Fortunately, everyone else woke up damp around the edges, but adequately comfortable. The rain subsided and we dried out by the fire. Except for Sam, everyone was having a good time, treating the experience as a great adventure. I think that was partly a reflection off of the teacher and I. I always have a good time, regardless of how uncomfortable I am, and the teacher seemed to be responding the same way. I realized later that if I had been partnered with a teacher with a bad attitude, then everyone probably would have had a miserable time.

      A year rolled by and Felicia's class was eager to go again--to return to the wickiups for another springtime campout. This time the weather was perfect. We scored a couple of warm, dry days between storms. The group paid their dues the last time, and this was their reward--a chance to go back and try new skills that they didn't get to do in the rain. The 8th grade campout consisted of six boys and five girls, plus the science teacher Mr. Jones, and Sam's mother Linda, who is also a member of the school board. This is the story of the 8th grade campout, as told in journal excerpts from the students.

      Whitney: The moment that I stepped out of the bus I endured the fresh scent of nature and the beautiful scenery. It was very green with dandelions spread throughout the fields. In the distance it was filled with uniquely formed trees, and lovely water features. Within five minutes of being outside the bus, our class picked up our luggage and walked down a dirt road about a mile.

      Tanner: Today we walked to the Jefferson River to where we were going to spend the next two days camping with our classmates. The walk in was so warm and beautiful and right then I knew that it was going to be a nice camping trip, unlike the last time.

Students hiking to camp.       Saxton: The walk in was cool because it was a time to talk to my friends. At first we walked on a road by an open field. We entered the cottonwoods a quarter mile after we started. We came across a little stream running though the road. Sam, Bryce, Brent, and I crossed it. They kept on walking, but I stayed back and waited for the rest of the group. When they got there I carried Ashley and her stuff across. I also helped with Linda's stuff. After the group was across I ran an eighth of a mile to catch up to the boys.

      Felicia: Ash, Shayla, Whit, Myself, Mr. Jones, Linda, the Twins (Connor and Tanner) and Saxton all walked together. On the way we saw lots of birds, ponds, irrigation ditches and tons of cattle. We all made it to camp, set our things down and toured the camp. First we went to the outhouse, then the boys' shelter, and last we went to our girls' shelter.

      Ashley: Today was the perfect day for camping, since for the last week or so we have had nothing but rain. Last year we almost got rained out. Since we still had our shelters intact we did not have to focus our first few hours on building them. Last year the process of building our shelters took most of our day.

Students gathering grass for insulation and bedding.       Tom Elpel: The shelters are called wickiups, basically tipi-like structures made with sticks and bark. Before our first trip I went out and selected two good shelter sites on dry ground with an abundance of building materials to work with. I chose sites that were nicely camouflaged and clear of any cottonwood trees that might fall or drop branches in a windstorm. Then I selected three tall forked branches for each shelter and hooked them together to make tripods. When the class arrived, it was a simple matter to gather sticks from the ground and lean them against the tripods from all sides to make the tipi-shapes. We left a small space for a door and covered the shelters with slabs of dead cottonwood bark for shingles.

Wickiup ready for camping.       Bryce: Coming back to the wickiups brings back many memories. This year we improved the structures by putting dry grass in the cracks and using it for bedding. Last year we did not have the weather in our favor, we stayed through more than an inch of rain.

      Felicia: We immediately set to work on the shelters gathering grass for stuffing the holes so we would be warm that night. We had very few holes because we had done such a good job last time we were out there. With what we had leftover we made a mattress and we set up our sleeping stuff for the night. Then we started giving ourselves a few homier touches; we dressed up the shelter with things like juniper branches and Whitney's umbrella.

      Tom Elpel: I don't care if these kids ever learn any real survival skills. I am just thrilled to see them become more comfortable and confident in the outdoors. Kids in the past always played outside in the woods and streams, because there was nothing else to do. But now there are all sorts of indoor entertainment activities, plus easy transportation to shopping malls and movie theaters. Many rural kids don't know how to play outside any more, and some from this class had never been camping before. A few were unsure last year about sleeping in primitive shelters or eating off slabs of bark. But this year was more like a homecoming. They knew the place, and they were eager for new adventures.

Splitting a log with stone and wood.       Felicia: We met up at the boys' camp and we were extremely hot so Dad said, "Why don't we go and do some swimming, and while we are out there we can gather some cottonwood root for making coal-burned cups." The boys' got very excited and kicked us out for good reason, to change. The girls went to our camp and changed into our suits. We were almost changed when the boys' ambled up. We freaked out on them and they changed course to the river. When we got there, Bryce, Brent, and Saxton were already partly in the water. They started splashing us and I jumped in right then. They confirmed that I was crazy. We swam for a while and the boys were called over to start their cups and bowls with cottonwood root. When they were done the girls went. We had a bit harder of a time with the saw than the boys had.

      Sam: I liked making the bowls with a stone and a large stick. We broke a fine-grained rock and used a large stick to wedge open the root into a bowl shape. We used cottonwood roots as the chosen materials. Later we would use hot coals to burn and hollow out the roots for use as cups and bowls.

Students bowdrill fire starting.       Brent: After that we had our lunch that we brought for ourselves and ate. When we were done with lunch we wrote in our journals. Then we had a bowdrill competition. In this competition we had a race to see who could get a fire started faster than the other group. The groups were boys against girls. We had to find our own drill and fireboard and once we got that we had to start the fire.

Shayla: All of us learned how to start fires without matches, lighters, and paper. It was kind of hard at first because we didn't have the right type of wood for our bow.

      Bryce: The bowdrill is a fairly difficult method of fire starting. To get started you need to collect all of the supplies: cottonwood root, a 6-inch straight piece of branch, a small, sturdy piece of bark, some cord or a shoelace, and a slightly bowed stick with a fork on one end. Once you have collected everything you need, you have to cut the piece of cottonwood root in half lengthwise. Next cut a notch in the bowed stick on the opposite end of from the fork. Tie the cord or shoelace to the fork and in the notch.

      Bryce: Next, carve the 6-inch stick into points at both ends (not too sharp) and twist it into the cord on the bow. Carve a divot into one of the two pieces of cottonwood root. Then carve another divot into the piece of bark. Finally, put one end of the spindle in the divot in the piece of cottonwood root and the other in the divot in the piece of bark. Now, stroke the bow in slow steady strokes and slowly get faster. Once the cottonwood root starts smoking remove the spindle and cut a notch to the center of the divot. Then place a piece of bark under the cottonwood root to catch the coal. Now continue to stroke the bow faster and faster until you have a coal.

Girls bowdrill fire starting.       Bryce: To make a tinder bundle, gather the stringy part from the dead cottonwood bark and make it into a nest. Then grind some more bark into a powder and put it in the center of the nest. Once you get a coal, put it into the powdery center of the bundle. Then, pick up the bundle and turn it towards your face and hold it so that when you blow in it the air will go right through it. Once it starts smoking put it were you want the fire and continue blowing until you have flames. Then slowly add small twigs and slowly put on larger pieces on until you have a fire the size you want.

      Brent: When we started everybody did separate things. Bryce stood on the fireboard and I ran the bow. Tanner got the tinder bundle together so that when we got a hot coal we could dump it into the bundle. Sam and Connor went and got wood so that when we got the fire going it wouldn't go out. The problems we had were that we couldn't find a good bow and if you don't have a good bow it is hard to start the fire. And then our string broke so we had to get another one. When we did have a hot coal we started blowing on it to get a flame and we blew too hard and put it out. So we had to start again. On the second time we got the flame going.

      Tom Elpel: The bowdrill can be a frustrating skill for kids to learn individually, but it becomes a fun game when it is a contest between two groups. This class has worked with the bowdrill before, so this time I simply demonstrated making an entire set right in front of them, and I started a fire with it. Then it was their turn. I handed each team some cottonwood root, from which they had to make their own fireboard and drill. They also had to find and make their own socket from cottonwood bark, and they collected their own tinder bundles. They cut their own bows and twisted some plastic baling twine into cordage. This was a race, so it was a kick to watch these two groups of kids work as hard and as fast as they could to build their sets and start a fire. The winning team got a package of black licorice to share.

Students swimming.       Shannon: The girls ended up losing the fire starting competition. That really stunk, but we deserved it after all the bragging we did last year. We went swimming again, and it was pretty fun because I couldn't feel the water, I was so numb.

      Saxton: We went for a botany walk to learn the edible plants of the area. We learned about mustard plants and how you can classify them. Mr. Elpel showed us the parts of the dandelion that you can eat. So we picked a whole bunch of edible plants for dinner that night. Then we found some morel and oyster mushrooms for dinner too.

      Ashley: During our nature walk, we ate mustards, dandelions, mints, and many other edible plants. After sampling each plant, we gathered what we would need for a wild green salad, which, after enough was gathered, would be in our dinner. This year's dinner was so much better than last year.

Students preparing stir fry meal on bark.       Tom Elpel: Last year we tried to cook chicken and vegetables in a steam pit in the rain. The food was warm but completely raw when we dug it out of the pit, so everyone had to cook their own shish kebabs on willow sticks. This year I thought we should try something new.

      Shannon: I helped with the salad. It had in it store-bought lettuce and wild greens that we collected from all over the place. In the salad we also had chopped carrots and tomatoes. Then we made ashcakes out of flour and water mixed together and cooked in the ashes.

      Tanner: One of the things I would have liked to have found would have been onions. Much to my surprise the salad, despite its looks, actually tasted really good.

      Whitney: Tanner was eating an ashcake with honey over my shoulder and dropped some honey in my hair. I squealed and then got up and knocked him down to the ground!

Hot rocks cooking stir fry meal.       Connor: We learned how to cook stir-fry with a slab of bark and hot rocks. The first thing you do is find a good-sized slab of bark, then start a fire to heat some rocks. As the rocks are heating prepare what you are going to eat. When the rocks are heated to a significant amount you put them in with the food you have prepared. Keep adding rocks until your have enough to cook the food.

      Shannon: Making dinner was an adventure. We chopped up meat, onions, green beans, peppers, carrots and the wild mushrooms. Then we took the hot rocks that we had put in the fire that morning and put them in the bark pan. We then fried our food with that. It took a while for the food to cook but when it was done it was really good. I was the only person stirring that didn't get burned, believe it or not.

Student stiring food around hot rock on wood bark.       Tom Elpel: It was great fun cooking a gourmet primitive stir-fry. We all worked together to cut up the food, and then we poured on the teriyaki and soy sauces while it cooked. As far as primitive cooking goes, this method is almost grit-free, but Felicia did bite down hard on one little rock, agitating her incoming wisdom teeth. I've since added one more step to the process to help keep grit out of the food. We still use bark tongs to transfer the rocks from the fire into the bark frying pan. Only now, we drop them into another bark pan to knock the grit loose. Then we pick them up again to move them into the food.

      Sam: The gathering of our forks and spoons and plates was my highlight of the evening. For our plates we used bark, just like the large slabs of bark we used to cook the food in. While supper was being cooked Brent, Bryce, and I went down to the river fishing, but it got a little chilly so we went back to eat supper empty-handed.

Students eating primitive stir fry meal.       Saxton: Dinner was awesome! I personally think that it cooked faster than it would on a stove. We also threw some Ramen noodles into the stir-fry.

Sam: After supper we had Mr. Elpel show us stalking techniques and how our ancestors used to walk. He encouraged us to do the activity in bare feet so it was kind of painful. At the end of the lesson we had a race across the field and I somehow managed to win the race.

      Ashley: Stalking proves to be very difficult, because you are supposed to walk on your toes. You are also supposed to be quiet, and for those who know me I'm not a very quiet person. After losing the mad dash across the field, we started our stalking game. It was a version of capture the flag.

      Whitney: I will admit one of the most fun things about this field trip was playing capture-the-flag at midnight under the shimmering eclipsing moon. It was girls against boys and we were after a candy bar... NOT a flag.

Students learning animal stalking while playing capture the flag.       Ashley: The point of the game was to get the boys candy bar (it was boys vs. girls) before they cold get ours. Now instead of getting captured, getting tagged, you had to be identified. They had to call out your name for you to go to jail. Then after you were identified you go to jail. So the girls wore all black attire, and switched clothes to make identifying us harder.

Blowing on fire ember to make wood cup.       Shannon: It was fun creeping around in the dark, and I snuck around though the woods trying not to make a noise but I did. I'm not the sneakiest person there was. But the second time I got the candy bar, which was so much fun not being caught. Then we sat by the fire telling a really weird story about Hitler, Michael Jordan, Napoleon and Attila, although I think I fell asleep a couple of times. Then we went off to bed which was a relief because I was really, really tired.

      Shannon: We woke up by Tom telling us we were dead beats or something like that. I was the first girl out of our wickiup. I went down to camp and all the boys were down there. Tom showed me how to make a cup.

      Shayla: When I woke up to a loud voice of Tom's I went down to the fire to get warm. Everyone was working on their cups and bowls, besides Whitney, because she was still sleeping.

      Tanner: We burned holes into cottonwood roots so we could use them to drink tea. Our tea consisted of the mint leaves we picked the day before. For breakfast we had mushroom "omelets" that Mr. Jones cooked for us. They tasted just like the ones you get at the diner.

Student showing coal burned wood bowl.       Shannon: Burning out the cups was an all around good experience but I ended up having a hole in my cup so it didn't work. I burned two holes in my pants, one hole in my sweatshirt and two holes in my shoe. It was a good experience that I'm glad I did and hope to do it again. Maybe next time it won't break. The breakfast was really good.

      Tom Elpel: I try to avoid cooking eggs over the fire, since they usually stick and burn to the bottom of the pan. But one trick I've learned is to crack the eggs into a tortilla shell. Fold the tortilla closed over the egg and cook it on both sides until the egg is done inside. It works best in a rounded pan, so the egg doesn't run out. This time we did it in a flat pan and we had to make a dam of fried wild mushrooms to keep the eggs in the burritos. We fed anyone who wanted egg and mushroom burritos first. Then, to speed up the process, Mr. Jones scrambled a large batch of eggs in the pan to feed the rest of the group.

Student cutting mushrooms into stir fry.       Bryce: After breakfast we tried different methods of starting a fire. The different techniques were the handdrill, the bowdrill, flint and steel, a magnifying glass, and the fire plow. I was in the fire plow group. The way you started a fire with the fire plow was you took a piece of cottonwood root and cut a shallow grove in the wood. Next, we took a sharp piece of root and rubbed it in the groove to cause friction. Eventually, the friction would cause heat and a coal would form at the end of the groove. This procedure is a lot harder than it sounds; it takes a lot of work to get the coal started.

      Sam: Bryce and I tried the fire plow but learned quickly that it is not as easy as it sounds or looks, we dropped the fire plow and worked on the handdrill trying to beat the bowdrill.

      Bryce: The handdrill uses about the same equipment as the bowdrill, but you don't use the bow or the piece of bark to hold the spindle down. You have to use about a two-foot spindle. Another thing you need is several people (the more the better), to help you with the drill. Dampen your hands to prevent scrapes then rub your hands back and forth on the drill and push down at the same time. Before you reach the bottom of the drill, tell the next person to start. Like the bowdrill you need to cut a notch to catch the coal once the hole starts to smoke.

Egg burritos.       Bryce: Flint and steel is probably one of the easiest ways of starting a fire. The supplies you need include a piece of carbon steel, a sharp edged rock, and some dry, soft charred cotton cloth to catch the sparks in. To start hold the steel and the rock in opposite hands. Strike them together and try to get a spark to land in the char cloth.

Saxton: If you do it right you will make sparks. But the steel was not good for the project. So I tried to make a magnifying glass out of a sheet of plastic with water on it. That didn't work either.

Cooking egg burritos.       Tanner: The handdrill team won by five seconds.

Brent: We ate lunch and talked a little bit and then went and learned how to use the atlatl. The atlatl is a device used for hunting before bows and arrows were even thought of.

      Saxton: The last event that we did, which I thought was the coolest, was the atlatl contest. An atlatl is an arrow-like spear with another stick with a notch at the end. It is used to throw the spear farther than you would throw it with your hands. At first it was hard but after a while it got easy.

Students learning to throw Atlatl.       Brent: It has a handle that has an antler on the tip that you put in a hole in the arrow to hold on to it. Then you hold onto the arrow and move your arm forward and let the arrow come out. The arrow is a long fiberglass or aluminum arrow and it is flexible so that it can adjust in the air.

      Saxton: The way the contest went was the closest person to the box got two mints, and the second closest got one mint. If anybody hit the box they got three mints. Shannon was the closest one to the box out of all rounds put together. I got the closest in two rounds and the second closest in one round. Tom explained how the atlatl had greater knock down power than some guns. The reason I thought this was the coolest contest is because it is a neat weapon for hunting.

Picturesque campsite area. Ashley: After learning to throw an atlatl, I proved that I am not any good at throwing. Many people were able to throw clear out to the box, while I could only get it to go a few feet in front of me. Needless to say I didn't receive any mints, unless someone felt bad and gave me one. After we were done with the atlatls we packed up everything and cleaned out the wickiups.

      Whitney: I was sitting by the wickiup with Shayla, and a spider dangled down from my armpit. She said "Oh my gosh! There is a spider hanging down from your armpit!" and I screamed bloody murder!! They heard me down at the fire. Then Shayla and I walked down there and everyone looked at me. I explained to them about the spider, and they all started teasing me. It was great to have such a laugh.

Students writing in journal.       Whitney: One of the things that was excellent was how well the class got along in nature: telling jokes, laughing, and full of positive energy and willing to do things. Everything was just so amazing... the weather, the swimming, the games, and the education of course. We learned so much and had a blast at the same time!

      Saxton: The walk out was short. Instead of walking with the guys on the way out I walked with Shay, Ashley, Felicia, and Whitney. I carried all four of them back across the creek. When we got to where the bus was supposed to be we worked on our journals for a while. We waited for about two hours until we realized that the school bus had forgotten about us.

      Tom Elpel: It was a Friday evening and there were so many school busses out on sports trips that the school forgot about us out there on the ranch. We borrowed a phone, but there was nobody left at the school to call. We dialed the home numbers for all the administrators, teachers, and bus drivers we knew, but they were all away to the games. Finally we tried Connor and Tanner's dad Scott. He and another parent came to the rescue. A half hour later the entire class of very tired kids was finally on their way home. The class is already looking forward to their next adventure of fun and learning.

      For more information on classes for kids, see Outdoor Wilderness Living School.

Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.
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