Category Archives: Scottish OE

This scenario just got REAL.

The Isle of Rum is an island seated across the Isle of Skye, with the jagged  red and black Cuillin Ridge rising above the skyline.  This island reminds me of my own magical days as a child, dreaming of fairies, gnomes, and hobbits.  Scotland has a way of instilling a sense of imagination and even the possibility of believing that fairies are real.  Rum is also home to some of the most perplexing conundrums I have ever witnessed.  The epitome of this  statement is embodied by the deer on Rum who eat the nesting shear water birds.  Deer that eat birds…Wait, what?  I remember thinking that there was no way that could be, not in this world.  Deer eat grass and other green things, right?  The answer lies in their need for calcium from the bones of the birds to supplement for the lack of calcium that cannot be found on the island due to its geological history and also because the other source for calcium is their antlers which they shed, which are collected by tourists and saved by deer researchers.  Now you are probably wondering what this has to do with the title of this piece…and with that the story begins.

I have never witnessed a sunset as gorgeous as the one I saw on Rum the night of our hike to see the shear water bird population.  Rum is home to 1/3 of this sea bird population and going on a night hike to observe them was a part of our course: Ecology and Field Studies.  That night, we had a forecast that was supposed to be dry but given the Scottish weather conditions, it was wet. Very wet. We began our hike to the top of the mountain at around 9:30pm and it was completely pitch black at about 10:30 once we were almost half way up.  The mountain trail was partially maintained and the rest was navigating through heather, milenia grass, and over slippery rocks. The darkness was exciting and gave way for luminous views of island mountain ranges in the distance.  Their forms and peaks were the only visible skyline and our headlamps dictated where our feet must tread.

We arrived soaking wet at the research hut below the final ascent to the top.  It was a small wooden hut that was filled with small amounts of provisions and fuel for bird researchers.  Squashing into the corners and nooks, we all began to get warm…slowly.  Our professor spoke to us about how the shear water birds fly all the way from Brazil every year, just to nest on the Isle of Rum.  His voice echoed as eyes struggled to stay open, for it was almost 11:30pm at that point.  Then he opened the door and said, “Right folks, time to make our final ascent…nearly there.”

Manx Shearwater Call  That’s when the noises began.  We had finally begun to reach the level that the birds were nesting in small holes and burrows on the sides of the mountain.  Their guano had created the greenest of grasses that lined the outside of each burrow.  Flash. One flew right over our heads making the scariest bird call I have ever heard.  Flash. Then another.  The next  few flew past us in a flurry.  Our professor called out, “Oh here we go! Our first shear water in a burrow!”   Gathering round we all anxiously peered into a burrow to see a small chubby bird with small wings and short feet peering out at us.  These birds could not fly away quickly and they looked like small penguins trying to scatter away from us on their bellies.

Two of my friends and I decided we would huddle together in the rain and listen to the sounds because by that point two of us were frightened and one was loving every minute of it.  It was raining, we were freezing, the birds were loud and I was scared.  Out of nowhere  popped another one of our equally wet friends, “Hey guys! Want some Doritos?”  We all laughed really hard and said that sounded like the most random and delicious treat at that moment.  Avoiding making the crisps soggy he quickly handed them to us.

Those moments atop the mountain were scary because it was so dark and wet, but the scariest moment of all was yet to come.  Hiking down from the trail was treacherous, since the mountain was slippery and wet.  My headlamp had begun to die and my walking stick named Gandalf was helping me to avoid slipping.  Turning the scary-ness of it into fun, my dear friends began to sing with me and we then of course were laughing and in bits the whole way down.  It is always wonderful being surrounded by such positivity when faced with a difficult situation out of doors.  We had reached a trail again – yay! Just as we all relaxed and began walking briskly I fell.  I still don’t quite remember exactly how it happened, but somehow my right foot missed the narrow trail and I fell off the side of it.  POP. I heard that noise and immediately knew something wasn’t right.  Of course, the waterworks began and I was in agony, along with being utterly frightened to be on the side of a mountain trail at 2am in the rain, freezing and going into shock.  My dear friends immediately were at my head and at my feet checking me to see what was wrong.  I sure picked the right people to go hiking with – outdoor ed. master’s students sure know their first aid and rescue skills!  Once I calmed down a bit, I began to feel really cold and I started shaking.  Immediately they pulled out a sleeping bag and emergency blanket and covered me in them while feeding me chocolate raisins and  again, “Want a Dorito??” So great.  The main obstacle we had was how I was going to get back to the road and into the castle we were staying in.  We still had a long hike down the mountain and there was no way I could walk. AT all.  Needless to say, three of the men on my course (including my professor) carried me on their backs down the mountain while I went through my many phases of laughter, tears, silliness and grateful-ness.  Once I could no longer hold onto their necks, they made a stretcher out of walking sticks and backpacks, thus creating a seat for me to sit on and be carried the rest of the way.  Once we reached the bottom of the mountain, with everyone’s help spotting, navigating, comforting me, etc. we all felt a huge sense of relief…we were back, safe and sound.  Those scenarios that we had practiced in First Aid courses and WFR certs. had just gotten real.

I have never had an injury like this one before that has rendered me incapable to doing all that I love on a daily basis.  I think it has really taught me a lot about being so grateful for everything that most people can do on a daily basis.  Being able to walk normally, run, explore, climb are luxuries that not everyone has and I think it is important to be mindful of all the many things we are gifted with as human beings.  Never have I been more scared on a mountain and never have I ever felt such gratitude for the amazing people that helped me that night, and always.  I truly feel so blessed to be able to have these experiences, as scary as they might be sometimes, and grow from them while maintaining positivity and learning lessons as I go. 


Norway in a Bottle

The night sky in Norway gives way to insurmountable numbers of stars, so many that once the day turns to night, you may begin to experience the realization of how small we really are.  It is a place of peaceful moments, which can be as simple as being able to close your eyes for a second just to feel alone in the silence of being away from it all.

For one week during the month of March I participated in a cross-country ski tour in Norway with eight fellow Master’s students and two outstanding professors and teachers in the field of outdoor education.  Before this trip, I knew relatively nothing about Norway, or Scandinavian culture.  To (what I assume) every Norwegian, the word Friluftsliv is not just a word, but a way of life.  I remember when I saw the word Friluftsliv in an article before I even knew how to say it.  I spent many moments trying to think of how it would be pronounced, almost spending more time on its pronunciation that what it actually meant.  If I was to write out how this word is pronounced for those who may be struggling as I did, it would be: free-looft-sleef.  Needless to say, once I learned how to pronounce this word its meaning unravelled before my very eyes.

If I were to sum up this word in one short statement it would be ‘nature is life’, as portrayed in Bob Henderson and Nils Vikander’s book Nature First.  I had the privilege of having Bob on this trip to Norway as one of our instructors, along with my programme’s director Simon Beames.  Much can be learned on a trip such as this when you are surrounded by such sources of never ending knowledge and wisdom.  Norway delivered a glowing experience through its effervescent sun rays that perpetually burnt our skin, to the moments that we all will never forget.  Here is a little story I wrote about our ski tour in Norway:

Surreal it seems just sitting here, in a valley full of snow.  As huts are perched and sun rays reach all the way to my toes. Snowy mountains in the distance, ungulate soft and gently.  As my skin soaks up the happiness, so real these thatched roofs grow.  Friends make this experience real, as we laugh and smile and sing songs true.  Norway’s trails line the landscape, with a skye so very blue.

Packs on, skis on, sun cream double on, and as the Norwegians say, “God Tur!”  To the trail we went and as the snow slowly began to thaw from its original icy condition, the bodies stopped falling and sliding off the trail.  Falling was one of the things that happened most on this trip, other than eating endless cans of peaches at the end of each day.  Luckily, falling in snow doesn’t hurt that bad, unless you fall on your face or into really soft snow, in that case you sort of flail about like a confused penguin.  Needless to say, I was that penguin many a time.  Besides the comedic moments of each day, our group was traveling through the Norwegian hut-to-hut system, of which there are over 200 huts throughout the country.  Some of these huts are self-service huts, which are fully stocked with the necessities of food, drink, and cosy beds, and of course, a wood burning stove.  They emanate the smell of wood and candle wax, a setting for reflection and moments of bonding with your fellows.  After a long day of tough skiing these huts and the people I knew waiting inside getting the fire started and the snow melting for water, is what tugged at my heartstrings the most. 

Our nights were spent by candlelight, telling stories and learning more about each other.  It was these moments that I keep in ‘my bottle’ of Norway along with the breath-taking views of snow capped mountains luminously standing far in the distance, the sun shining through the day, and the moments of weakness supported by an incredible group.  These moments of weakness during many of the expeditionary trips I have taken are always great sources of bonding afterwards; I even find this in everyday life as well.  A recent visit from my family reminded me of this as we were all stuck driving on the opposite side of the road to Invernesshire, Scotland and knocking off peoples side view mirrors with our car. Needless to say we learned that day to never let Americans drive rental cars overseas, especially in the UK.  These experiences can possibly provide the opportunity for the bonding of participants in these situations.  Just as my family and I were able to laugh about it after, expedition groups may become stronger in challenging times because they must work together to make through them.  

I think that the ‘icing on the cake’ of this experience was the group and the way we all were able to work together and make it through over 70K of cross country skiing, blistered ankles and all.  Through this experience in Norway, I have learned many things that I will never forget. One of those things is that everyone, and yes I mean you as well, should travel to Norway and experience what they mean by ‘nature is life’.  For, it wasn’t until I went to Norway that I truly knew what they mean when they say the word Friluftsliv.  Oh, and one last thing.  When you make it to Norway and you are skiing along the trails remember the names of the huts and trail signs you see, because if you ski past a person or a group and you turn to your friend and combine the trail/hut names and say, “Ohh Jaaa, Storholiseter Oskampen Skrirusten, God Tur!” They will basically think your Norwegian, which is pretty cool if you ask me. Cheers for now, until next time…

Mountains Have A Way…

Luminously jutting from the surface of metamorphic beginnings, Mountains have a way of testing a person.  Harsh weather gives way to incredible views, as the small parcels of snow slowly melt.  The melting snow then creates small burns and streams that flow through the landscape of heather and various moss varieties.  If you were to close your eyes for just one second, all you would hear would be silence and the slow churning and flowing of mountain water.  Brushing hands across and through its surface creates small concentric circles which reach to the edges of the small streams.  I feel at home when in the mountains, not as much for the challenge of reaching the top of them, but the pure and real nature of reality that they instill in me.  Be it the silence or the beauty, there is something about them that brings me peace.

5 years ago in Barcelona

If you had told me five years ago that one day I would be sliding down mountains backwards, headfirst and saving myself with my own strength and an ice axe, I would have said you are crazy.  It amazing to think back in time and realize how much can change.  As a human being who happens to be a woman, I have been met with many of my own doubts of my strengths and capabilities.  I think that this reason is not to do with my “gender” or “sex” but because of the ways in which I critique myself and what I truly am capable of.  I wonder, can there be a greater message in all of this?  For when I am in the mountains and having my body and mind tested to the brink, I can close my eyes for one moment and be at peace with the silence of it all.  I have been thinking a lot about all of this due to a recent injury/realization about the situation of my right knee and how it has really put things in perspective for me.  Being unable to participate in days on the mountain has a way of inciting reflection I guess.

As a developing outdoor educator, I feel that the benefits of nature and the outdoors are endless.  Whether it is by bringing kids outdoors to experience walking off the beaten path for the first time, or seeing a grown adult smile when they accomplish something they did not think they were capable of, nature and the “outdoors” can present a powerful message and even make us question what is it to be truly alive.

I think about this question a lot, which for those who know me, is not a surprise.  Being a persistent dreamer and thinker, I find myself getting lost in my own mind and especially so when I am outside of the city.  For me, being truly alive is something that I feel is a work in progress and it is up to the person to embrace the life that they have.  For some, being truly alive might be dancing every day to the beat of their own music, singing to share their voice with the world, or devoting their life to fight for a cause, an issue or for the rights of others.

No matter what it is for you, I beg to ask the question:  how will you continue to live your own work in progress if we don’t take care of the world we live in? There have been many philosophers and poets who have spoken of the power of nature, the necessity to appreciate its beauty, and maybe once we all learn and understand what they have said, we will also realize that we are taking care of it.  For, with a heightened sense of connection to the beauty of nature – do you think people might feel invested in saving it?  I leave you with this quote from John Muir, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

Experiencing a Solo

This month I am working at the Kilbowie Outdoor Center in Oban, Argyll and Bute.  This center runs weekly programs for over 100 kids from the North Lanarkshire Area of Scotland and the instructors here teach activities such as kayaking, canoeing, rock climbing, skiing, gorge walking, mountain biking, and hillwalking.  As an assistant instructor here I have weekends off, thus I looked at my new tent and backpack and thought, what the heck it’s about time I went on a Solo.  It has taken me a few days to reflect on my recent experience going on a short solo…

The ferry took me to the Isle of Kerrera where I began my journey.  As it pulled to the ramp accross the Sound of Kerrera, I hopped of and speedily took to the trail.  Bright, green, lush hills surrounded me as streams and brooks trickled through their cracks.  The hillsides looked painted, as if an artist had dusted them with some ashy orange heather tones.  The sheep dotted the landscape as maggots dot the inside of rotting wood.  Their teeth chomping up any trees that were even remotely beginning to form.  As I summitted hillsides and crossed muddy tracks, I found small hidden cottages nestled and glowing of white stucko and brick laiden walls.

Then, I turned around the last bend of the trail I had been following for about an hour and there it was.  The castle stood before me on the ocean cliffs and was glowing against the falling sun. Unreal it felt, so unreal.  I found myself yet again brought to tears at how grateful and lucky I truly am to be able to experience such beauty.  I breathe it in.  Inside the castle I stare at the hundreds of years that have passed its walls.  Brilliant and green the moss hangs closely, as if it never wants to let it go.  Gazing out upon the ocean, I think about my friends and family far and wide and how I wish they could be next to me and talking about life, love, and adventure.  I realize that I am truly alone – with noone for miles around me.  The closest civilization of any kind was far, far away from me.  Realizing this I morph into a child. Prancing around the grasses below the castle, setting up my tent in a fury and playing with my knife amidst the stone cliffs.  If anyone had seen me, they would have thought I was a proper crazy person.

Once I had settled down a bit and taken some photos, darkness fell.  My tent became my new home and safe place away from it all.  But then, loneliness set in.  Along with lonliness came fear.  And for the first time in my life, these feelings and emotions were truly and utterly entering my body.  The nervousness that I was experiencing took over my night.  Jolting at every sound, I prayed for rain, Please oh please let it rain, I thought.  For, I thought if it did rain I would be able to sleep.

Pitter-Patter…Pitter-Patter.  The rain began and my fear seemed to be drained a wee bit, but it still lingered.  I would fall asleep for a few hours and then wake up, having to talk myself back into sleep in order to make it through the night.  I kept thinking, is it because I am a woman that I am scared? Is it because I am fearful that something will come and try to attack me? Ridiculous thoughts entered my head and those are only two of the thousands.  But, it is only until you are truly alone that you are able to realize how much you actually think – when everything and everyone is away from you. No distractions, no people, nothing. Just you and your mind.

This experience was one I will never forget. I am still trying to understand it and I think it will be that way for a long, long time.  All I know is, it is something everyone should experience at some point.  I will say that even now when I think of that night alone, I can actually feel the pangs and emotions in my stomach, as if I was there again.  Strange it is indeed.  After a calm day of teaching canoeing to kids and having a canoe lesson from a fellow instructor, I feel rejuvinated and absolutely grateful to be able to test myself in such ways in this breathtaking place that is Oban, Argyll and Butte.

For pictures from my solo, view my online slideshow on flickr:

First Aid Course

30 to 2, 30 to 2, 30 to 2…This last week’s First Aid instructor David Craig‘s echoed these numbers, thus embedding them in my mind.  What are they? 30 to 2 is the ratio of compression to breaths for CPR and probably one of the most important things that every person should remember.  In actuality, most people do not know how to give CPR or let alone any first aid for that matter.  The numbers are slowly beginning to rise of those of us who have been trained in first aid, but the truth is…It is not something you can do just once, you must re-cert. or keep taking classes to improve your skills and abilities as a first aider.

Why is First Aid so important?  Well, in outdoor education if you want to be involved in leading or assisting on any trip, excursion, etc. you must be First Aid certified.  In some countries even if you are a classroom teacher you must go through a First Aid training course.  First Aid is so important because it gives you the basics to save a person’s life if faced with a critical situation.  Whether in the depths of mountains or the streets of a city, you never know what you will be faced with and for those reasons it is incredibly important to always be prepared.  But, what do you need to know to be prepared in any situation that you may face in the outdoors or in a more urban situation?

One of the most important things to remember in first aid is always look after yourself first before the victim.  Making sure the scene is safe and that you are safe could mean the difference between life and death for the both of you.  Keep in mind the three P’s when faced with a critical situation:  Preserve life, Prevent the condition from worsening and Promote recovery.  Follow the procedures for accidents which are: 1. Check for Danger 2. Check for level of responsiveness of victim 3. Check their Airway 4. Check their Breathing (further procedures are dependent on the consciousness of the victim).  Whilst these procedures are all critical in the effectiveness of promoting the recovery of the victim, I think one of the most important techniques of first aid in the outdoors is having good judgment as a leader.  Whether it is good judgment to evaluate risk or good judgment in assessing the abilities, fitness, and physical condition of those you are leading.

One thing that I have been left ruminating since this course is the use of scenario’s in teaching first aid courses.  I have mixed feelings about the way in which scenario’s are taught and how those who are treating the victims are assessed.  Personally, I know that the only way I will learn is through the perpetual and constant experiences of treating first aid (scenarios or real life).  For some, scenarios can bring up memories, emotions, past trauma, etc.  Thus, I question how are ethics interwoven into the teaching of first aid?  This question will remain in the back of my mind for a while I am sure.  Finally, this course cemented my desire to be able and capable of helping others in any situation for, “To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, that is to have succeeded” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

Turning a New Leaf

A new year has begun here in Edinburgh.  The final leaves are falling from trees scattered throughout the city, and the buzz of new year resolutions, new motivations and sporadic smiles are spread amongst the many streets.  Hikes up the extinct volcano of Arthur’s Seat inspire reflection amongst others, including myself.  This new year has much to offer as it displays itself, giving many the chance to turn new leaves.

This idea “turning a new leaf” is one that fascinates me, for I feel that I can see the spirit of some people become excited when this thought is brought to the surface.  In this new year, I can hope that many people will embrace this idea and begin to take each day as a new experience and opportunity for growth.  I myself, am quite excited at the prospect of a new year filled with my own resolutions as well as my idealistic dreams for the world.

In my past studies of Latin America, we would once in a while discuss the concept of “2012” being the end of the world, so the Mayans had predicted.  This used to make me really anxious and worried that they could be right and that the world as I know it could end in a matter of months.  It also invoked a sort of hysteria within the thoughts of many I know because it is a frightening concept.  I have no definitive answers on this subject and I hope that we have more than a year on this earth, so that all of the amazing people and projects worldwide can keep  growing and changing the world (for the better I hope).  All that I know, which is not a lot, is that I can actively choose to live a full life and enjoy all of my time whilst on this planet.  I constantly am reminded by my amazing mother to live each day like its my last and to always experience new things.  This thought is constantly in the back of my mind because every time I am walking in this city, my mom will pop up in my head and her cute little face will say, “Honey, you need to do something you have never done before today.”  Every time this happens I think, thank you mom for reminding me, no seriously thank you.  For, if it wasn’t for her and my father, I would not have been pushed to do all of the things I have done up to this point.

In the next month I will be embarking in a First Aid Course and a Personal and Social Development in Outdoor Education Course.  While engulfed in these courses, I will be finishing papers that I am very excited about writing and which will segway into my month long work placement in Oban, on the west coast of Scotland.  If you have never seen pictures of Oban – check them out, I am so excited! I will be assisting the teaching of outdoor skills such as rock climbing and I will also hopefully get a chance to be taught more about orienteering and mountaineering.  The next few months are full of adventure, from Mountaineering, Ocean Kayaking and Skiing in Norway, I will have a lot to share – so keep reading!

What is Outdoor Education?

As the first semester of graduate school came to a close a week ago, I found myself thinking of what Outdoor Education means to me and why it is that we do what we do in this field.  After learning about social theories in outdoor education, concepts that trace back to Aristotle and of course interpreting different landscapes, my mind and heart are full of inspiration and motivation.

Outdoor Education is so much more than most people might think it is.  It is about educational theory, and understanding the writing of theorists and philosophers such as Bourdieu, Goffman, Naess, Lovelock, Freire, Beames, Higgins and Nicol.  It is about inspiring the educational systems around the world to emphasize the need for all people to learn outside of the classroom.  It is about stepping out of the educational box and encouraging self expression, bonding, bridging and creating “community.”  It is about awakening a critical consciousness of environmental awareness and the need for humans to reconnect with nature.  It is about advocating the recognition of outdoor education as a integral part of all education systems.  It is about so much more than we even are aware of.

These are just a few of the things that I think of when I think of why outdoor education is so important to me.  Finding inspiration, motivation, and passion in this field is not hard, for it is filled with some of the most incredible people that I have had the pleasure of meeting in my lifetime.  I am left dwelling on this question: What is Outdoor Education? With this question perpetuating my every day, I am constantly reminded to be critical of the work we do as outdoor educators. As Andy Goldworthy said, “We often forget that we are nature, nature is not something separate from us.  So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, what we are truly saying is that we have lost the connection with ourselves.”