Joe Seagram, head of school at Rosseau Lake College, in Muskoka, Ontario, remembers the day a reluctant Ryan Benson arrived for an interview: "When he saw a clipping about our Ecuador leadership trip, his eyes went wide.A week later he applied to come here." It still meant that he would be missing his friends. But not for long.
At Rosseau Lake, a log cabin campus set among rock and white pine, the very first week back at school students are sent on a wilderness survival trip.
They learn to make out with little more than a piece of string and a knife, with a hard-boiled egg for breakfast and a few granola bars to see them through. When they got back to the school at the end of the week, "the food looked good," says Ryan, "and I had a lot of friends." He's had a lot of good marks, too.
For his parents, Seagram says, Ryan now "is the son they always wanted."
For schools across Canada, nature is proving the great teacher. Another name for it is adventure.
At Shawnigan Lake School on Vancouver Island, where outdoor education has been part of the curriculum for 30 years, wind and waves challenge students on sea kayaking trips of up to five days. "That's the nature of the beast," says athletic director Peter Yates. Sometimes the sun even shines.
At Rothesay Netherwood School, a small school in Rothesay, New Brunswick, a formal outdoor education program was introduced only two years ago. Now the school's 180 acres of grounds are one big classroom. "I think it's part of our responsibility," says head of school Paul Kitchen. "Until you have a kid out in the woods on a fine spring day, you don't know if that is what touches their soul. You might be lighting the spark that will turn them towards environmental studies."
City schools are also recognizing the educational benefits of wilderness learning. One example is Mentor College, in Mississauga, next door to Toronto. Every week, a busload of excited Mentor students, in Grades 5 to 10, heads north to the school's 500-acre lakeside outdoor education centre near Gravenhurst.
Rankin Middlebrook, 13, just like Ryan at Rosseau Lake, was a newcomer to Mentor last September. Luckily, his week up north occurred soon after school began. "Spending a week with people 24 hours a day, you get to know them," says Rankin, who especially enjoyed wall climbing, canoeing and hiking. "It helped me make a number of friendships."
For students coming from overseas - typically from Korea or Taiwan - outdoor education can be a revelation. "It's the first chance they get to see the real Canada," says Mentor outdoors teacher Wayne Bibby.
"It's so different for them," says school co-founder Ken Philbrook. "You can see it in their eyes. They are totally blown away by a pine tree 180 feet tall."
Call it reality education if you like, but outdoor experiences are more and more bringing history, geography and science lessons to life - and nowhere more than at Sedbergh School in Montebello, Quebec, an hour east of Ottawa. "Outdoor education is part of who we are," says admissions director Beth Steel. Students don't simply learn in books about Canada's exploration. "They make a paddle in woodwork and go out and experience the life of a coureur de bois - canoeing, sitting beside a campfirereading the journals of Hudson's Bay people. They learn," she says, "that history is not just about dead people. It's about people just like us."
On the science front, "we're training kids to be scientists and biologists right here in the valley," says the school's outdoor education director, Peter Grant. Under the school's environmental leadership course, they carry out soil and water tests, even extending their testing to the Adirondack Mountains in New York State on school trips.
Last March, Rosseau Lake head of school Joe Seagram was up at 6 a.m. and out hiking with 15-year-old Claire-Jehanne (C.J.) Weenan. The reason? The next day they, four other students and another staff member would be leaving on an expedition to Kenya to climb Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro.
"Nature is a great leveler," says Seagram, a disarmingly modest man. "C.J. knows I have to get fit, too, lugging a backpack." This, he admits, was the first morning he'd woken without being apprehensive about the trip. "I woke excited," he says.
C.J. is the kind of girl for whom this school, located on a one-time Eaton family retreat - the mansion burned down years ago - might have been invented. She spent summers with her family at a cottage nearby; she had wanted to follow her big brother to boarding school since she was five; she loves survival trips, and winter is probably her favourite season.
"There will be a lot of technical climbing," she says with relish of the upcoming trip, for which she saved from a summer job. "I don't expect to come back the same person."
Seagram sees more than a mountaineering challenge. "We will be experiencing every sort of ecosystem, from savanna to glacial," he says. "We may very well learn more in three weeks about geography, history, culture, politics and economics than we would in a whole year."
Rosseau, like many of the schools now making a name for that distinctly Canadian outdoor experience, is not just about special trips. It's a school where an evening study period might be interrupted so students can go outside to watch the northern lights - undiminished by the city's glare.
"We're always outside - sun, snow or rain," says Angus Murray, head of outdoor education.
Seagram insists that "academic performance is the bottom line." But that still leaves time for skiing, snow shoeing, canoeing and every other sort of wilderness activity.
And some kids will do just about anything to get it. Caitlin Cooper, 19, just graduated and Africa-bound, pressured her parents to move to the village of Rosseau Lake so she could attend the school on a scholarship.
She worked two jobs in the summer to pay for the trip, runs every day, went rock-climbing in the fall, and headed to France to work for the summer following the expedition. "I just prefer being outdoors," says Caitlin, captain of the whitewater team last year.
The irony is that, in many cases, outdoor education is turning students away from the career choices their parents made. Noah Timmins, 16, says dog-sledding is the activity he enjoyed most this year at Rosseau. "I want to be a mountain guide or work in a park. I want to like my job. I never want to work in an office."
Noah couldn't go on the March-break Kenya trip because he'd injured his knee. Instead, he was going on a school mountain biking expedition in the Western United States - more restful for his knee, apparently.
Rosseau Lake College students Brandan Partridge, who's in Grade 11, and Clark Matthews, Grade 12, climbed Kenya's Mount Kilimanjaro carrying packs that weighed 62 pounds.
What is outdoor education? "Setting goals is so important in all aspects of life," says Seagram. "In many respects, outdoor education is about setting goals."
At Lakefield College, just outside Peterborough, Ontario, where the outdoors has always been part of the curriculum, John Boyko, in charge of the program, says kids love it. "It makes school a lot more fun and interesting because kids are actually doing it, they are living it."
And at Shawnigan, Peter Yates suggests: "It develops kids in a special way. You can put a kid who is really fit and strong in a sea kayak with someone smaller, less physically able. But that smaller kid may have a wonderful voice, or be great in the kitchen. It's an opportunity for everyone to shine. And kids learn to look after each other."
Footnote: On his return to Canada, Joe Seagram reported the trip to Kenya was "a great success." They climbed both mountains, without injury, "and it was a wonderful cultural experience as well as a physical challenge."