Wild Whatcom Blog

Wednesday
Feb252015

Coed: The Art of Fire by Friction at the 100 Aker Wood

The Explorers met at the 100 Aker Woods ready delve into the Art of Fire by Friction. This outing would mark the EC’s first ever coed skills day. It was exciting to witness the elder Girls and Boys of the program standing side by side. Unwavering they stood in the rain; they were neither discontent nor uncomfortable. These individuals have cultivated a deep resiliency and appreciation for the landscape in all its seasons. They welcome the rain and wind because they understand its connection, its importance, and the opportunities and growth it offers them.

Heading into the woods we sought shelter under a few Cedars and Doug Fir. Looking around there was a need to break the ice and bring our group together. We played a couple of rounds of Name Tag and began to bond over laughter and goofiness. Once we were acquainted we headed to a tarp shelter that the mentors had set up earlier and focused our attention towards fire making.

Under our tarp the mentors explained that the first step in making fire is to understand its importance in our lives and in our history as a people. Fire has allowed us to make tools, cook, purify water, warm our shelters, regulate landscapes, and provided a harth for us to gather around. Fire comes with a great responsibility and it is our job to pass down this ancient skill from generation to generation. It demands focus and attention, and if we let our guard down or allow ourselves to get careless we have the potential to do great harm.

With strong intention set the mentors pulled out a bow drill and hand drill kit and passed them around the circle. The art of making fire is a hard skill to wrap your mind around until you see it in action. Once the group was oriented to the components of a fire kit they gathered close as the mentors demonstrated the process. Slowly through the friction of the spindle a small coal started to form as the smell of smoke rose into the air. Dropping the coal into a Cedar bundle the mentor gently blew the coal into flame. There was a resounding “awe” around the circle.

At this point the group couldn’t contain themselves any longer, anxiously awaiting the chance to start working on their own fire kit. Passing around pieces of Cedar and Red Alder the Explorers started to carve away on spindles and top boards. The group must have carved for an hour and half straight, creating some amazing spindles. Some sat under the tarp and others planted themselves right in the rain, too focused on the task at hand to even notice that they were getting wet. When some had finished with their spindles we searched the surrounding area for downed Vine Maple and Cedar limbs for our bows. The Explorers modeled excellent EC culture by using their knives as tools and respecting each other’s space. One of the older boys was even able to get a small, but hardy fire going with a flint and steel method and a tinder bundle!

The group gathered around the fire and relaxed into its warmth and glow. Listening to the Explorers laugh and share stories around our work area made it clear together they are creating a community of balanced, engaged, and caring youth. As mentors we provide the container for this experience to happen and the Explorers do the rest.  Watching the many groups practice and share traditional skills and stories showed us that it clearly fulfills a deep need inside of them to create. Being out on the land for these skill days is crucial because it provides a environment that is free from distraction and offers the Explorers a chance to refocus, decompress, connect, and process.

As our fire smoldered we made sure to put it out, bury the cold embers, and return the duff over the mineral soil. After some lunch we packed up and headed out to play a few games and search for a shelter that one of the girls had built seasons ago. We found the shelter in good condition and examined its inner workings. Circling up the Explorers tried to make a decision on which game they wanted to play. The decision-making process was tricky to navigate because both the Boys and Girls EC model it just a little bit differently. It was not until our first game of Hide that the group found that decision-making process was not the only thing they did differently.

Apparently the rules to our EC games of Hide and Spider’s Web are quite varied.  As we played it was powerful for the Explorers to recognize that each other’s versions were not better or worse than one another’s, just different. The mentors encouraged the group to learn from each other’s variations and look at the new rules as a welcomed challenge. Being flexible and adaptable is a skill that will continue to benefits these Explorers throughout their lives. As they played any tension about the rules faded away and the Explorers ducked, darted, and dived trying to escape off the spider’s web.

Navigating back to our tarp shelter we sat down again to work on our fire kits. The mentors passed around a few bow drill kits and the group got to test their skills with the spindles they made. As they oriented and adjusted to the process the mentors reiterated our motto Slow is Fast and Fast is Slow. The mentors explained to the group that it took us a few months to learn how to properly harvest the right materials, craft the tools necessary, and learn to make and harness fire.

In the end the Explorers walked away with a lot more knowledge and appreciation for fire, as well as some partially finished kits. Circling up for a closing meeting the group gave thanks for the opportunity to learn and grow, for the rain and winter, for the boys and girls joining forces, for warmth and shelter, games, and all the resources that it took to make our fire. It was the mentor’s pleasure to co-guide this group of elder Explorers in the 100 Aker Wood. They are maturing and growing into exceptional leaders and skilled craftspeople.

Parents, if your Explorer is searching for more information and/or guidance in the Art of Fire by Friction please see the document attached on the Outing Report Posted email. For more pictures from the outing please visit our winter photo gallery.

Monday
Feb232015

BEC: Spotting Frogs and Salamanders at Squires Lake

Please don’t blow our cover,

Trying to complicate the process, as mentors might do at times in an effort to impart and inspire, is a fool’s errand. Rather, the mentor’s “secret sauce” is to let the land reach out and capture the young boy’s soul, then play off the magic that can follow to capitalize on the connection with nature that simply happens. So, feel free to tell your friends and family about the Herculean feats of the Boys Explorers Club mentors; we both know the reality is that this work is a joyful privilege that, done well, requires simply guiding and encouraging while the boy’s talents and the land’s gifts do the heavy lifting. 

That was never more true than the middle of our Squires Lake outing on Feb. 8. Unlike our fall and spring outings in which we focus on skills, winter outings offer the serendipity and improvisation of more unstructured activity.  We had established our “base camp” on the shore of Beaver Pond and had some lunch. Tim, Brian, and EMA (Explorers club Mentors Apprentice) Logan then set the 10 boys to the terribly arduous task of “free time”. The boys self-selected into mostly three types of activities: looking for creatures (mostly amphibians and beavers), carving, and exploring the steam that connects Beaver Pond and Squires Lake.

A few of the boys who were very interested in carving hadn’t had the instruction we provide in the safe use of knives, so mentor Tim sat with a circle of 4 or 5 boys to instruct on proper technique. “Safety first” is a principle Explorers Club motto; Tim spent a lot of time patiently explaining the relative advantages and disadvantages of folding, locking and fixed-blade knives and the safe handling of a knife while carving. Click here to learn more about choosing a knife. The beavers have nothing on the wood working that followed.

Speaking of the beavers, we were unfortunate in that we weren’t lucky enough to see any, but we saw many downed trees that reflected the work of these industrious creatures. Beavers are a great example of the interplay of various players in nature. Their dams create habitat for many other animals and plants of the region. In winter, deer and elk frequent beaver ponds to forage on shrubby plants that grow where beavers cut down trees for food or use to make their dams and lodges. Weasels, raccoons, and herons hunt frogs and other prey along the marshy edges of beaver ponds. Migratory waterbirds use beaver ponds as nesting areas and resting stops during migration. Ducks and geese often nest on top of beaver lodges since they offer warmth and protection, especially when lodges are formed in the middle of a pond. The trees that die as a result of rising water levels attract insects, which in turn feed woodpeckers, whose holes later provide homes for other wildlife. Click here for more on beavers. Vestiges of their efforts formed a porous dam that regulated the flow of water from the pond into the stream leading to Squires Lake.

It was that stream that was the focus of attention for several boys who explored the riparian environment along the stream. While the mentors wouldn’t have objected to a careful study of the flora and fauna of this rich natural environment, my conscience requires that I report that the focus was the enjoyment of building or “discovering” islands, bushwhacking through the underbrush, and searching for hidden treasure. Guess those other lessons will have to wait.

Getting to the base camp did involve a lesson. We began at a map at the trailhead by planning our route to the beaver pond. Several boys sketched the map from the display and used their drawings to help us decide which direction to choose at various intersections. One created his map as we walked along, making it reflect our actual experience. Creating their own version of the map prompted them to internalize the features of the land and gave them a personal reference as we moved through the landscape. Frequent map checks and the need for instruction in the Boys Explorers Club culture for the wait-list boys (about half the group) meant we spent a few hours navigating to our camp.

Following the free exploration described above, we slowed the pace by stringing along the Beaver Pond for a sit spot. These times of quiet observation and reflection can be quite profound. 13 males silently blending with the natural environment for 15 minutes is an experience we can all use more of. The immediate payoff of this sit spot was the soundtrack of frogs croaking into the afternoon air.

We returned to the trailhead by hiking around the other (East) side of Squires Lake. Along the way, we stopped to give thanks during our closing meeting. Like sit spots, this E.C. tradition comes naturally to the boys who have yet to find a spot in a regular group, facilitating their quick integration with the more experienced explorers.

Great weather, excited explorers, and beautiful land made for a memorable outing!

Click here for more pictures from our exploration.

Monday
Feb162015

BEC: Birding at Semiahmoo Spit

We all gathered at on the side of samish way to load stubbs and began our journey out to Semiahmoo spit for a day of birding and exploration along the shoreline. We all loaded the bus, out excitement rising as Tim pulled out onto the freeway. As we moved North leaving the city limits of Bellingham we had clear views East toward Mt Baker and the Sisters, And north up into the Canadian peaks. Between the bright sunshine and our contagious energy it was already proving a great day.

We arrived at Semiahmoo spit under a dense fog layer that had not yet burned off the coast. We circled up on a patch of grass to talk about our plan for the day and play a short name game. It was really great in these Winter outings to see new friendships form between boys from different groups as well as boys reconnecting who have not seen each other all Winter. Down on the beach we spread out and began exploring what this new landscape had to offer. Groups of boys made their way through the fog; Exploring the fringe of trees along the beach, finding shells, throwing rocks, pushing logs, and letting our imaginations run wild. A few of us had a fun and difficult time trying to spot sea birds through our binoculars as the fog rolled in and out and the birds dove and resurfaced elsewhere. We identified a pair of Surf Scoters making their way slowly through the water and witnessed an immature bald eagle sore just above our heads. The fog began to lift slowly and then all of the sudden cleared, revealing a large city just across the water. We were all surprised to realize there was anything outside our little bubble of fog let along a giant city. As the sun warmed our bodies we ate lunch and continued to spot birds or explore the shoreline.

after a mild conflict over a stick we all circled up to discuss and resolve the misunderstanding. Conversations like this can take a while and I was really impressed with many of the boys insight and eloquence when talking about hard concepts like fairness, honesty, and respect. These are hard things for adults to talk about and this group did a great job resolving the issue and moving forward.

We decided to make our way to the other side of the spit out of the wind and explore what the other side had to offer. This East side of the spit was much calmer and warmer providing us a relaxing place to spend the last part of our outing. We all began combing the beach finding interesting rocks, bones, mud, trash, shells and all kinds of other treasures washed up with the debri.  handful of boys decided to make a raft. Watching them try to drift out into the calm bay aboard it i was almost convinced that this was a summer outing until my gaze lifted to the still snow covered peak of Mt Baker in the distance.

We finished our outing as we always do with a circle of thanks and made preparations to load back onto stubbs for the journey back. A few miles from the park the bus began to slow and finally ground to a halt on the side of the road. As Tim and I discussed the logistics of getting back to town the Explorers watched a several Bald eagles soared above and swept in to grab a fish. Thank you explorers for your patients while you waited on the bus and thank you parents for your flexibility to come out and pick up your boys. Despite the breakdown the outing was a great success with plenty of bird actions and great shoreline explorations.

Click here for more pictures from our exploration. 

Thursday
Feb052015

BEC: Fragrance Lake Traverse

“Let’s race to the top!” When faced with a high, steep hill, Logan, the Explorers Club Mentor Apprentice (EMA) for our Fragrance Lake traverse, displayed qualities of an experienced explorer - leadership, spontaneity, fun, respect, daring and caring.

It was an eclectic group for this Winter exploration - 6 experienced explorers from several different groups, 1 wait-listed explorer-to-be, the afore-mentioned EMA and two mentors. The participants in this outing ranged in age from 8 to...well, many times older than 8.

After a bumpy ride to the trailhead, we played a name game to get acquainted, then headed down the trail. It wasn’t long before Fragrance Lake came into sight and we began to look for a good spot for games. Down to the lake we went and about half around before we heard that most treasured exclamation - HIDE! Following that game, at an explorer’s suggestion, we played a more complex version of the game called Incoming. Incoming involves repeated “incoming” dashes to slap the hand of the person who is “it” before finding a new hiding spot. Fun and challenging. Several boys also explored a hollowed out cedar stump that is big enough to fit 3 or 4 explorers.

Soon it was time to move down the trail in search of more fun. It wasn’t long before we came abreast of the hill mentioned above and the race was on. It matters little who won the race (spoken, not surprisingly, by one who didn’t win); the key was that each member of our little band took on the challenge and triumphed. More than one noted that it looked higher from the top looking down than the other way around. Strange, no? But true.

Once we caught our collective breath, we ventured across the hill we had climbed and were rewarded with an interesting, hillside location for Spider’s Web. With ridges to form natural boundaries and ferns aplenty for cover, we decided on a structure for the game, selected a spider and got under way. Well, several of us got under way; others realized they still hadn’t eaten lunch and took hold of this opportunity to rectify that situation. Before long, most everyone was actively involved in a low-key contest. Mentor Brian, the spider, was feeling pretty smug about how he was going to eat well when he heard a victory cry from the “flies”. Apparently, your strategies are only as good as your execution and his was wanting.

As sometimes can happen, the group’s diversity proved an advantage, thanks primarily to the strength of character of the explorers. With Logan providing savvy leadership and the 6 seasoned explorers sharing their experiences and offering a helping hand to our newbie, the 6 hours passed quickly enough that we almost forgot our closing meeting! It is gratifying to see the boys take time to coach another on the safe use of a knife, to watch them compromise as they work to decide their priorities for the outing, to listen to the engaged chatter and laughter during down times. The mentors planned the outing around a few club mottoes: “It’s about the journey, not the destination.”; “Leave no trace.”, and “Attitude of gratitude.” These boys nailed them all as they demonstrated respect for each other, for the land, and for all the gifts they’ve been given. After the holiday break, it was refreshing and restorative to be out on the trail with a band of great lads!

Friday
Jan302015

BEC: Building Snow Caves in the Mt. Baker Wilderness

Gathering at Samish Woods Montessori we boys climbed aboard our rental van and headed out into the Mount Baker wilderness for a day full of exploration and adventure. As we winded up 542 East the mentors told the group to be on the lookout for Bald Eagles, as a healthy population of these magnificent birds spend their winter roosting and fishing in the tall Cedars and Fir that over-hang the North fork of the Nooksack. Using our tracking skills the boys were able to spot over thirty Eagles on the ride up!

Pulling into upper parking lot of the Mount Baker Ski area we were met with cool temperatures, stable avalanche conditions, and moderate visibility. Gearing up we double-checked our packs and circled up at the backcountry gate. We worked on orienting to the landscape by trying to identify the environmental hazards. When traveling in the mountains it is very important to stay together as a group, carefully track the weather, temperature, and stability of the surface your walking on. The mentors told the group to be on the watch for another risk, tree-wells. Together we learned how to identify them, and since it had been a low snow year, the wells were the perfect size for the boys to utilize for games of Hide!

Once we were oriented we headed out following one of the many boot packs that crisscrossed through the snow like the tracks of a heard of Roosevelt Elk. Coming over the first rise the boys spotted a snow shelter and quickly ran over to it for further investigation. As the Explorers climbed on and around the shelter the mentors stressed the importance of not climbing on the shelter while another Explorer was inside. This shelter proved to be a prime example of what not to do; the structures entrance was much too large and the walls were quite thin leaving little insulative qualities.

After a little more travel we stopped for a lunch. It’s important in cold weather landscapes to drink abundant amounts of water and keep well fueled. We explained to the group that fuel is what keeps us warm and water is what helps to distribute heat throughout our bodies. As we ate, some of the boys got involved in a snowball fight and a game of King of the Mountain. Their well-intentioned game soon escalated into some roughness and it ended in some tears. This was a great time for our group to circle up and talk about what had happened. Debriefing the event we focused on what escalation was, and how we could call it out to defuse these situations from escalating further. In the end the group made a commitment to respect each other’s requests and space.

Shifting our focus to something a little more structured Peter drew a giant circle in the snow and we played a few rounds of a game called Otter Steals a Fish. Feeling that the characters in the game were a little out of place with our current landscape Peter changed the natural history background to coyotes steal a deer leg from a cougar. The snow provided the perfect cushion for the boys to dive and roll, trying to steal the prize from the hungry cougar. By the time we had finished most of us had a good amount of snow inside our gear and clothing. Looking around it was clear that we needed to move and build our heat back up. As we collected our gear the mentors encouraged the group to be present for games and exploration, but to also to continually track the weather and landscape.

Taking some observations the boys noticed that visibility had dropped considerably and the snow and wind had picked up. One of the mentors asked the boys what the land was telling us. They identified that we needed to find a place out of the wind with good visual landmarks and a spot to dig our snow cave. We pushed onwards in the abyss of white and grey, regaining our warmth and happening upon a deep snowdrift that was sheltered by a grove of Mountain Hemlock, Sub Alpine and Pacific Sliver fir. We set up a base camp and some of the boys got to work digging their first attempt at a snow cave.

Gary, our snow cave expert and guest mentor for the day, explained that the process of digging a cave begins with excavating a large amount of snow in the area just before the entrance of the cave. Failing to do this results in the diggers eventually trapping themselves inside the cave while trying to excavate the interior.  He went on to say that the next important step is having a stair-like feature just within the entrance of the cave. This traps the heat inside the cave, which is then insulated by the snow. Once the cave is completely excavated the diggers can smooth the insides of the cave walls, which prevents water from dripping down onto the dwellers. Using snow saws and shovels the boys put in a valiant effort clearing enough room for four Explorers to sleep comfortably.

Our basecamp proved to be the perfect location for our group. While some boys dug caves others glissaded, jumped, and rolled down the steep slopes to our west, exploring all the way down to the Bagley Creek drainage. At the bottom of the drainage all sounds of the ski area faded away and the boys re-oriented to sounds of the wilderness in the winter. Silently we hiked together, attuning our senses to the calm and stillness, the trickle of half frozen Bagley Creek meandering through the snow, the low drone of the wind whistling through the wind swept mountains, and the increasing shadows of the fading light behind Herman and Table Mountain.

Heading back up the drainage we practiced our climbing skills, choosing difficult routes to scramble and climb up, and we even came across a set of Lynx tracks! It was so wonderful to see the Explorers roaming and playing. Although many of them were from different groups they really bonded and rejoiced in spirit of exploration.  Circling up we held a closing meeting and gave thanks for the day. The Explorers gave thanks for the recent snowfall and perfect conditions for our exploration, for all the lessons that this land and its inhabitants had to offer about winter survival, for warmth and shelter, food and friends, snow caves and snowballs, and for the chance to be together in such a special place.

The mentors would like to thank the Explorers for Stretching their Edges and meeting the challenges that winter exploration brings. We would also like to thank Gary Keller for his skill, inspiration, support and care for the boys. Finally, we would like to thank parents for your trust and support, without this we would not be able guide the Explorers as they grow and mature into the stellar individuals they are becoming.

For more pictures from outing please visit our winter photo gallery.