Posted by: csdailyblog | September 10, 2011

Conserve School Students Prepare for Exploration Week

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In a week, students will be embarking on Exploration Week, with some students heading to the Sylvania Wilderness for a five-day canoeing trip and others heading to the Porcupine Mountains or the North Country Trail for a backpacking trip. Students were given the choice of canoeing or backpacking and then broken up for their trips into small groups of 6-8 students, each with 2 staff members. Students have been preparing for the trips in Field Instruction, where for the past few weeks they’ve been practicing canoeing and backpacking skills, as you can see in the accompanying photos and in photos published with the recent post “The Outdoor Classroom at Conserve School.”

Some highlights of this preparation included learning how to carry out two-canoe T-rescues in Field Instruction. Groups of students in pairs of canoes paddled out onto Big Donahue Lake and then tipped their canoes. Once all the paddlers were in the water and the canoes were upside down, the challenge began: students had to right both canoes and get each crew member back in the two canoes safely. This maneuver is challenging because the canoes are relatively heavy and awkward to handle, especially when full of water. They are also easy to tip, so students had to be extra careful not to roll them over again by accident as, one by one, the paddlers climbed back in. After a half hour or so of hard work in deep water, all the canoes and all the paddlers were finally back in their proper positions.

Teamwork is a key component of back-country canoeing and backpacking trips, so students discussed and practiced those skills, too, in Field Instruction. Once their canoes were righted, students worked on being intentional about communicating effectively with their canoeing partners while they tracked down puzzle pieces attached to buoys scattered throughout Big Donahue Lake. Once all the puzzle parts had been collected, groups collectively pieced together instructions that directed them to a prize: candy bars hidden on the lakeshore.

Students have been admirably supportive of one another as they’ve tackled these complex tasks. Even in calm lake water, dumping two canoes, wrestling them both back into an upright position, and then pulling and pushing everyone on board without filling the canoes with water again is not easy. We staff members practice these skills together every August, so it’s fresh in our minds that what we ask students to do is challenging. Women and girls tend to have trouble pulling themselves into the canoes because their weight is centered lower in their bodies, and when you’re in the lake, there’s nothing to push off on. Men and boys, on the other hand, tend to accidentally flip canoes more often than women, because their weight centers are higher in their bodies. If their head and shoulders move too far over to one side, over the canoe goes. Despite the difficulty and frustration inherent in this task, students stayed calm, problem-solved together, and encouraged one another throughout the process.

Some students are very comfortable in the water, while others have had little chance to be in a lake before and are tentative about swimming and canoeing. Students have been kind and respectful about these different ability and comfort levels. One student without much experience with water sports was particularly hesitant at the start of the lesson, when Field Instructors asked students to submerge in the chilly lake water to test the fit of their PFDs. One by one the students waded out into the cold water until they were in over their heads, leaving this one student standing alone in waist-high water. Watching the drama unfold, I held my breath, hoping that she could bring herself to plunge in and that the other students would be patient with her. As she hesitated and tried to steel herself to “just do it,” the rest of the students began to call encouragement to her. When finally she let herself go all the way under and joined her classmates in the deeper water, they applauded and cheered for her. A few days later, when we were reviewing highlights of the week, this student surprised me by volunteering that “getting in the lake” was the best moment of her week. What a testament to the power of community! I have no doubt that it was the sincere support of her classmates that left this young woman with such a positive memory of a challenging experience.

– Mary Anna

Conserve School is a conservation-based semester school for high school students. Read more about us at or on our Facebook page.


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