Good Activity, Poor Planning

good-activityMany times as teachers we try to find engaging activities beyond the classroom to motivate students and increase their desire to grow and learn. This is especially the case with students suffering from social, emotional or behavioral issues.

One such activity I used in my intensive self-contained classroom was to take my students on two and three-day wilderness backpacking trips. This was a way to get them away from their families for an extended period of time and help teach more acceptable social interaction with peers and adults. For the most part these trips tended to be very positive experiences for both the students and the staff. I say mostly positive, because even the best-planned and prepped outing can turn sour.

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I recall a late spring wilderness outing that involved about 15 students and three staff. We packed up all of our group and personal gear this Tuesday afternoon and loaded it into the vehicles without incident. The kids were generally excited and the two-hour ride to the trailhead was mostly uneventful except for the few arguments and the whining you would expect a family traveling together for some distance would encounter.

We reached the trailhead in later afternoon just before sundown, unpacked our gear and began to set up base camp for the night.

One of the learning experiences on these trips was for the girls and boys to build their own shelters for the night. They were provided with a tarp, some rope and a knife. Each group needed to pick their shelter spot then build their protection with the understanding the boys’ and girls’ structures could not be too close together.

As the groups were building their structures it began to drizzle so I went up the hills about 50 feet, gathered some stones and wood, then began making a fire. I got the fire started and it was going pretty well, but the drizzle turned into a steady rain, which progressed into a cloudburst, which doused the fire.

We needed the fire for warmth and cooking so I called over four boys and handed them a tarp to hold over the fire pit while I restarted the fire. The logs underneath were not too wet so I was able to get a small flame going. One of my autistic students holding the tarp became so engrossed in the fire building process he bent down to get a closer look and all the water that had accumulated in the tarp spilled into the fire and doused it once again, this time soaking all of the logs.

Knowing that there was no other dry wood to be found in this downpour I decided to take the can of white gas and put a small amount on the fire just as an accelerant to help get the flames going again.

Now those of you who are familiar with white gas know it is extremely combustible.

As I began to pour a small amount of gas on what I thought was a dead fire, the gas ran down onto some smoldering embers, which created a mini explosion. The explosion blew the tarp out of the boys’ hands and the gallon can out of mine.

As the gas can hit the ground it splashed a bit into the now active fire as it began to roll down the hill. The flames found the trail of the gas, jumped out of the fire pit and began chasing the tumbling gas can down the hill. I realized that if the flames caught the can it would explode, sending hot metal flying everywhere. So, trying to think fast I ran down the hill and kicked the can expecting it to stop the outpour of fuel and end the flame’s chase. Not only did it not stop the oncoming flames, but my kick redirected the can right toward the girls’ tent. I screamed for the girls to get out of the tent, scaring them half to death.

Luckily the hill took a slight bend to the south, the can veered right, emptied before the flame caught it and an explosion was averted.

The rain was still falling, we had no fire for warmth, we had no gas for our camping stoves to cook and since the tents were downhill a small stream had developed, which meandered right through the boys’ tent pretty much soaking their sleeping bags.

We ended up packing up at about 8 PM, driving back to the school and having a campout in the gym. It felt more like a slumber party and for most of these middle and high school kids it was their first one ever. They ended up playing games in the gym most of the night and had a great time.

I was just glad I didn’t burn down the forest! The best laid plans!