Myself, my co-teacher Brett, and one of our long-term students, Simon, set off into the wilderness the other day on an orienteering adventure.
Simon is from Norway, and like many Wisconsin visitors, is awed by the beauty of the northwoods and the great inland sea we call Lake Superior. This day, however, we ventured through forests of birch, observing chaga mushrooms, hearing the distant calls of sandhill cranes and the ear-splitting songs of spring peepers calling from their vernal pools.
While on such adventures, our students use their training to try to get us to a distant goal — in this case a small, odd lake sculpted by beavers. With bogs and lakes and swamps between us and the goal, it’s not an easy adventure. And though Simon did his best, by mid-afternoon we were quite misplaced, with the strange lake nowhere in sight.
This is the stuff of adventures. Simon had some decisions to make, and decided to use a combination of his compass skills and his tracking skills to try to guide us back before dark. We scared up a heron from a woodland pond, saw our first spring snake, and collected materials for making a fire.
Simon’s return journey was perfectly executed as he followed the faint impressions our feet had left along the way and we spotted landmark after landmark. Finally, on a tiny island just big enough for all of us to sit on, Simon got out his tinderbox and without matches or lighter, coaxed fire out of mushrooms with a piece of steel and a sliver of stone.
Surrounded by water and nearly assaulted by a beaver who repeatedly warned us off with huge splashes of his tail, we cooked sausages over Simon’s fire as the sun drew low on the horizon.
Back to nature
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Simon, who is fresh out of high school and was addicted to playing video games just three months ago, looked out over the lake.
“This is like a fairy tale,” he said in his accented English. “The kinship, the creatures we have seen, the swamp crossings, and that slight fear that we might be very, very lost. It is so much better than any video game I’ve ever played.”
These sorts of adventures are becoming rare these days. As a teenager longing for adventure, it may seem like the only options are video games and movies and the internet, which give us other people’s imaginings of adventure as we sit, motionless.
Yet here in Wisconsin, we have vast areas of wilderness where real adventures can be had. With training in orienteering (or even with the aid of a GPS) and natural navigation, these wilderness areas open their doors to any adventurer who wishes to explore them. Out there await challenges, and tears, and victories, and beauties so breathtaking that words can never capture them.
These are versions of adventure that, instead of deteriorating our bodies as we lounge on a couch, strengthen our limbs, sharpen our skills, and hone our minds and emotions. Once we experience this, those movies and video games are seen for what they are. Just pale imitations of real adventure.
By the time Simon returns to Norway a month from now, he’ll be a capable survivalist, will have built his own wilderness camp using stone tools he knapped himself, and will have firmly set that spirit of adventure into his heart.
He’ll return to his friends, still addicted to those games, and will ask them to accompany him into the mountains of Norway. Will they choose to follow him? That remains to be seen, but Simon has told me that the spirit of adventure is so amazing that he knows he needs to share it. Hopefully his friends will have the courage to strap on a backpack and a knife and accompany Simon into the wilds!