Local outdoor expert Pete Nelson taught students how to start a campfire using only fallen logs, sticks, a jackknife and a match. Using knives, students shaved paper-thin ribbons of wood and bark to use as fire starter instead of newspaper, which would not be available in the woods. ISLANDER PHOTOS BY BECKY PRITCHARD

Island 5th graders learn outdoor safety

MOUNT DESERT — Ninety fifth graders from area schools descended on Camp Beech Cliff last Friday to learn how to stay safe outdoors. Volunteers from the community and representatives of five local agencies spread out over the Camp Beech Cliff campus to teach students a variety of skills.

Through talks, demonstrations, and hands-on practice, the students learned how to prepare for a hike, what to do when they get lost in the woods, and basic wilderness first aid.

Maine State Game Wardens were on hand teaching water safety, including what to do if you fall in the water. Wardens Camden Akins and Eric Rudolph demonstrated how to make an improvised life jacket by removing and inflating pants, knotting pant legs together to keep the air in.

At one station, they learned how to light a fire with only the supplies they would find out in the woods, a match, and a jackknife. Students learned how to scrape paper-thin ribbons of wood and bark off logs to use as a fire starter, when lacking newspaper. Then they learned the old boy- and girl- scout method of building a pyramid of kindling and sticks and lighting the fire from underneath. Equally as important, they learned how to thoroughly put out a fire when done.

At another station, students learned how to build a lean-to shelter in the crook of a tree, using fallen sticks and brush. After learning map and compass reading, students made safety bracelets to take home, complete with a compass and whistle.

Though low-tech, a whistle is better to have with you than a cell phone, if lost in the woods. Camp Beech Cliff Director Debra Deal explained, “Fifth graders are part of a generation that relies entirely on phones. One of the values of Camp Beech Cliff’s outdoor programs is that we want people to be outdoors all day and not use their phones. We cannot safely rely on them for outdoor emergencies, especially in Maine,” where coverage is spotty, she said.

It was Deal who came up with the idea of outdoor safety training for public school students, for personal as well as professional reasons. Two years ago, her daughter fell through the ice while snowmobiling on Long Pond with friends. They managed to get out of the water, climb ashore, and were found by first responders. “It was a life and death situation,” Deal said of the experience, “and [it] came out okay in the end. We were lucky, very lucky.”

“It’s essential to equip our children with knowledge of how to deal with unsafe situations in the outdoors so that they will not panic but use common sense and training … to get themselves to safety,” Deal said.

To introduce outdoor safety skills to as many children as possible, Deal enlisted the help of Julie Meltzer, Curriculum Director for the Mount Desert Regional School System. They decided to offer a day-long program to all fifth graders in the district public schools of Trenton, Tremont, Mount Desert, Pemetic and Conners Emerson.

Meltzer explained that fifth grade is a good age to learn these skills. “Going forward, they will be more independent and be out in the woods, out on the water more and more as they get older,” she said. Additionally, she said they are old enough to engage in the hands-on activities and learn the information.

According to students who attended, these lessons were appreciated. “We learned to build shelters,” said Cora VanDongen from Conners Emerson. “We used a lot of Maine materials.”

Classmate Bree Yarborough continued, “So if we got lost here, then we would know how to survive.”

When asked if they feel more confident in the woods now, both students nodded. “It’s a lot of things to remember,” said Yarborough. “But, yeah.”


Becky Pritchard
Former Islander reporter Becky Pritchard covered the town of Bar Harbor and was a park ranger in Acadia for six seasons.
Becky Pritchard

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