As a new employee at the District School Board of Niagara (DSBN), I find my “offices” at Woodend Conservation Area and Short Hills Provincial Park, guiding students of all ages across Niagara out into our precious and exciting forests.
During a taste of the job a year ago, I saw that the school board was emphasizing a more loosely-structured style of learning outdoors. It was less about facts, checklists, and curriculum. The emphasis is now about the bigger picture: nature appreciation, teamwork, and outdoor skills learned with peers. Thrilled to see experiential learning within the school board, I was equally thrilled to be hired last week as a full-time employee.
This type of learning counts for the youth. It’s amazing to see students from the city who have never touched a muddy log. Next thing you know, they are picking up a couple of logs at a time and curling them up against their body, carrying the wood over to their friends where they are constructing a storm shelter from natural debris.
I am excited not only about the style of learning, but also the big picture in terms of the education system. I have to give a big thumbs up to the school board, for providing youth across Niagara with opportunities to visit these properties. These open-ended experiences in the forest, where the chemistry of the environment, the students, and the programs collide, is invaluable when paired with the rigours of regular school work, and life in general.
They teach students the values of teamwork, patience, cooperation, and self-respect. They may also ignite an unknown fire within, perhaps for exploring outdoors with friends, or searching for animals. Older students get more inquisitive with the experience. Within the first week, a few students blurted out the question “is this your job? Can anyone work here?”
The flashbacks are vivid. The long yellow bus chugs along that long and infamous dirt road, each window containing a kid’s face and a toque. That was me, over the course of my elementary school days. I remember the sense of wonder beginning to stir as the bus hit the gravel and bounced its way through a forest. Little did I know, those “scary teenagers” would be me one day, and I would have my first co-op position in high school there. I was pumped.
Once a week, from Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School, a taxi would scoop me up and take me along that same never-ending road for my afternoon shift at Woodend. I’d help lead hikes and build storm shelters for plenty of curious eyes. The funny part is that I was barely older than some of the visiting students at the time. My dad would then conveniently get off work, and I would always excitedly repeat my day to him.
I got hooked on the property once I got to know it. The drastic escarpment features and old-growth forests are easily accessed by the Bruce Trail, Canada’s oldest and longest marked hiking trail. It kept me coming back for photography, mountain-biking, and general exploring. One day I snapped an innocent photo at Woodend, of the dark green trees doing what they do best: being super still and silent. That photo and a write-up of the property later got published by Firefly Books in a book called 110 Nature Hot Spots in Ontario, to my surprise.
Funny enough, the very piece of Bruce Trail I stood on to take that photo is the same stretch of trail I hiked for 37 days and 890 kilometres. I always picture a strange (and sometimes smelly) ghost of myself marching through those woods in 2014.
You can imagine my surprise when a a week ago, I found myself working as a new employee for the DSBN. A phone call had turned into an interview, and an interview had turned into a job as an outdoor guide. In disbelief, and very grateful, I soaked up my first week on the job, silently saying thank you to the forest and my previous mentors.
I continue to recycle myself through the forest, the same way it does its own elements.