What We're Doing in the Woods After School

North Branch Trekkers is an outdoor based after school program for children in grades 4 through 8.  It is run out of the North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier, VT and meets every Thursday, throughout the school year… really, it is me and a bunch of kids goofing off in the woods.  But that goofing off is important and when done in a thoughtful and safe way, it builds a communal love for the outdoors.

During Trekkers, we adopt an off trail mentality, using our local landscape to create opportunities to push our limits and go beyond our comfort levels.  We make it a point to venture away from the beaten path as we explore areas that many people have walked past but few have ventured into.  Stretching our limits together as a group strengthens our bond and sense of community.  It could be sledding down a 40 foot chute in the deepest recesses of Montpelier's forests, brushing past ancient hemlocks as you wiz by; or as simple as following a set of deer tracks as far as you can, leading you through frozen marsh and across steep ravines, post holing in snow up past your knees.  These are experiences that test both our mental and physical boundaries, pushing us right up against our comfort levels and beyond.  Sharing these experiences within the group strengthens our communal bond and utilizing the fields and forest in such a way makes the landscape as much of a character in our adventures as we are ourselves. 

As a part of our exploration of these unfamiliar areas, we take the time to observe who has been there.  One way that we do this via tracking.  Some kids are interested in taking measurements and analyzing the stride, straddle and gait to figure out what animal made the tracks.  Others want to forge ahead and follow the trail as far as they can.  Every now and then we come across something that stops everyone.  It could be a kill site,  some sort of predator track, or a particularly large pile of scat.  To monitor high traffic areas that we come across in our travels, we set up motion activated trail cameras.  Part of our weekly routine is checking our cameras to see what has come to visit.  In four years, we have captured photo and video of deer, grey fox, coyote, bobcat, raccoon, skunk, fisher, mink, red squirrel, mouse, and shrew, all within the boundaries of the North Branch Nature Center property.everyone.  It could be a kill site, a fresh set of coyote tracks, or a particularly large pile of scat.

With a group of young preteens after school, food is never far from our minds and often in our bushwhacking adventures, we come across examples of the great bounty that nature provides. Wild grapes, choke cherries, beaked hazelnuts, hawthorn haws, apples, wild leeks, and the sap of sugar maples have all played an integral part in our gastrological education.  We taste the seasons as they come and go; grazing on grapes and roasting apples in the fall, boiling sap and "taking leeks" in the late winter/early spring.  

Every season has its culminating feast and in the fall we hold a Thanksgiving dinner which we have dubbed "Trekkersgiving".  For Trekkersgiving everyone brings something that can be cooked over the fire and then shared. This past year, Trekker brought in what has become a critical addition to our community... a rock.  The rock's name is Hansel the Griddle.  Hansel is a flat piece of slate that one of our Trekkers found over the summer and thoroughly dried out to avoid cracking when exposed to direct heat.  A special nook was carved out in our fire pit for Hansel to preside over, where we can keep him warm by raking hot coals underneath.  He is often lathered in melted butter and fed delicious sliced apples and pancake batter.  This rock as  become an integral member of our gang and allowed us to truly expand our culinary horizons.

March is time for sugaring.  Cutting firewood, carving staghorn sumac branches into spiles, tapping trees and collecting sap, the Trekkers do all of the work themselves.  Using a pot suspended over the campfire with a tripod of three alder trunks lashed together, last year we boiled down enough sap to produce 3/4 gallon of maple syrup.  This syrup serves as the fuel for our most anticipated feast of the year... the annual Trekkers pancake banquet.  Pancakes are fried up in small pans over the fire.  Apples and bread are roasted on sticks, then topped with a drizzling of fresh maple syrup.  Just when you think it couldn't get any better, someone breaks out the Italian sausages.  They are boiled in a pot of maple sap, then skewered and held over the flame to caramelize the sugars from the sap.  The result is a juicy mouthful of meaty mapley goodness that will be forever etched into you taste buds.  The food is truly delicious, but the most important seasoning used during our feast are the weeks of hard work put into the preparing of the meal, starting with the first cut of firewood.

So why do we do all of this?  What we are really doing is creating memories.  These memories will be even stronger and longer lasting having been formed within a community of peers - friends growing up together, romping in the forest.  The groundwork for nostalgia is being laid.  When these kids are grown and look back upon this time spent in the woods, they will want to recreate it for their own children; passing down a love for the outdoors from one generation to the next.  This is how we create a culture that cares for and protects natural places... and it all starts with a little goofing off in the woods.

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