The mission of the Outdoor Wilderness Living School is to wrest today’s youths away from game consoles and cell phones and reintroduce them to the natural world by giving them skills to survive and thrive in the wilderness.

The camps offered by the school, founded by Thomas Elpel of Pony, engage elementary through high school-aged children in learning beyond the TV screen.

In a cottonwood grove near Willow Creek last week, seventh- and eighth-grade students from Harrison Public School spent three days learning to cook food in a stone oven, to stalk quietly through the woods, to listen for and identify bird calls, to build a fire using sticks and a shoelace, and to build warm and dry shelters called wickiups from downed tree branches and bark.

“I want to get them beyond the lawn grass to experience the real world,” Elpel, who began learning wilderness skills as a children from his grandmother, said. “I’m not so concerned that they can survive in the wilderness, but that they connect with the natural world. For a lot of people nature is just wallpaper, just something to look at.”

OWLS is in its 13th year and offers ancient skills introduction to children in kindergarten through fourth grade, ancient skills immersion for children fifth to ninth grade and ancient skills adventure for high-schoolers. Elpel and his small staff host students in half-day up to week-long camps near Willow Creek and at another location near Cardwell.

Elpel feels that children in today’s society exist in an almost entirely mental world – all math, science and reading with few physical education, art or shop classes – where very little of their education comes in the form of “body learning.”

“There is something innate and essential about interacting with nature — climbing trees, building forts and playing in mud,” Elpel wrote on the program’s website. “These activities physically connect us with the process of learning and are crucial to the overall development of the child.”

The ancient skills the children learn are skills that just a few generations ago were common knowledge, such as fire starting, plant identification, shelter construction and outdoors cooking.

Last week, the group of students, feet clad in primitive shoes made from hide, sat in the shade of the trees in quiet discussion about bird calls after lunch. They talked about where they heard the calls, and what they thought caused the birds to call out, whether in greeting or alarm. Above the students, tree swallows darted from branch to branch in twittering conversation.

After the talk about birds and being aware of the woods around them, the call of the cool creek was too much to resist. Most of the students donned swimsuits and took turns trying to cross a slick log across the swimming hole, or splashing each other.

A few other students practiced with atlatls and darts. An atlatl is a spear-thrower that acts as an extension of the throwing arm, which increases the distance and speed at which the dart, or spear, can travel.

Near the swimming hole, a couple of students practiced building a fire using the bow and drill method, which uses only two sticks and a shoelace to create an ember that can be used to light kindling.

“My hope is that they would get comfortable with nature and all the earth has to offer, and that they would learn the value of the skills of others,” said Linda Ehlers, who teaches seventh and eighth grades at Harrison Public School. “This opportunity probably isn’t available to 99.9 percent of the kids in the U.S.”

Ehlers said she and students she’s taught have participated in the outdoors survival skills for public schools camp since its inception, and it’s only become more fun every year.

“Think of the stories they can tell their children and their grandchildren of what they did out here,” she said. “I hope they learn to be willing to take a risk and to be discerning about the safety of that risk.”

Ehlers said her students come away from their three days in the cottonwood glen with newfound knowledge about how to identify edible and medicinal plants and with comfort in the ability to find their way in the forest.

“People care about what they know about,” Elpel said. “If you don’t know anything about the world we live in, you won’t care about it. You’ve got to get out in the world and connect to the world we live in.”

To learn more about the Outdoor Wilderness Learning School or to register for a class or camp, visit


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