Korby's Connections: Learning outside
January 5, 2024
Reviewing the recent home mailing from the Cloquet Educational Foundation, I recalled an exceptional environmental learning experience with my son at Wolf Ridge Center in Finland, Minnesota.
It was around Thanksgiving 2000. Fifth-graders from Cloquet took a bus to the center to experience being outside and hiking, looking at the stars, feeding birds, the infamous “ropes” obstacle course, staying overnight, and interacting with other students and parents. I was a parent chaperone.
Wolf Ridge is one of these “out of the box” schoolkid adventures. Jack Pichotta, the former Cloquet teacher and mastermind of the Cloquet High School 1970 SCARE (Students Concerned About a Ravaged Environment) program, helped establish the original Environmental Learning Center. Over the years, Wolf Ridge has hosted many thousands of kids, teaching them the importance of environmental stewardship.
Finland fit the definition of “boondocks.” When we pulled into the Wolf Ridge facility, I pictured a historical logging camp with a mess hall, plenty of bunkhouses, bathrooms, and a general assembly area. Kids had packed, from a provided checklist, their spare warm clothes and a sleeping bag and pillow for this adventure.
Cell phones were not yet ubiquitous and likely wouldn’t have worked in this vicinity anyhow, with no towers or signal. Most kids attended, but a few stayed back in Cloquet at the regular Churchill classrooms.
After students and chaperones unpacked and went through an orientation, we were given a map, separated into small groups, and assigned a time to attend various “stations.” Some of the other parents included Dave Pritchett, Pat Byrne and Greg Arras. We were all unsure of our role, but eager to help out.
Small group assignments that impressed me included:
Bird watching: Wolf Ridge had an ingenious place for feeding birds. There were mannequins placed on chairs with about every other space or chair open for students and adults to sit in. The sitting mannequins had their arms and hands by their knees with palms wide open. Real-life individuals were then asked to sit and mimic their posture. Wolf Ridge workers then put sunflower seeds in all the outstretched hands, human and otherwise. The birds ate regularly from this feeding spot and became accustomed to eating from all the hands.
Ropes obstacle course: Now popular in survival and group interaction training, this was the first time I had seen such a course.
Wolf Ridge’s obstacle was about 15-20 feet in the air. After a brief training, students and parents were shown how to put on a safety harness, mostly around the crotch, in the event you fall. Just great. Climbers clipped onto a safety wire above where you climbed.
I’m not great at heights. They assigned me a spot about halfway through the course to help with kids. The kids did better than I did. There were Indiana-Jones-type bridges to cross, wires to walk on with Sorel boots, large timbers to straddle, and the course concluded with a zipline. Fifth-grade boys and girls went around the 10-station course two or three times. I was very happy with once.
Night walk/astronomy: It gets very dark at Wolf Ridge. Very dark. The rules for the evening stroll were that only the chaperone could carry a flashlight and illuminate it in only an emergency. We had six kids and two chaperones. Our challenge was to hike on paths and side roads approximately a mile and end up back at the main lodge to attend the astronomy segment and view the stars and planets through a telescope. I asked my partner which way we should go and he just shrugged his shoulders. That’s how I felt, but we trekked on. After about a half-hour walk, I could see some kids were getting tired and even hot. They were unzipping their jackets. A young girl asked me if I knew which way was back to base. I truly had no idea.
She said “Boy, Mr. Korby, if you are pretending that we are lost, you are doing a good job.” At a path corner, I turned on the flashlight, no road signs to help us. I told the kids that I was going to use my Boy Scout Troop 173 skills and use the stars to guide us north and get us home. I don’t think they believed that Mark Twain fib. Long story short, the other chaperone saw a cabin light. Thank goodness, for it was the opposite way we were heading. We were saved. Our group missed the astronomy session, but had our own stargazing experience.
Wolf Ridge provided a great learning experience. The kids were good, and with all the outdoor exercise, they dropped like flies when it was time to sleep. Snoring (by adults) was an issue. I remember the food being ample and better than expected.
Both my kid and I enjoyed the trip and received a valuable and different kind of education than found in the classroom. I hope the Cloquet kids are still going there.