A Case for Backseat Driving

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Kennedy Rd, Camborne Ontario

Not recommended, but one effective way to explore the brain’s complexity is to observe the changes which happen following a brain injury. Changes in brain functions invariably translate into changes in behaviour. At times the bigger challenge is lacking the vocabulary to make sense of the changes. What is mental flexibility?

Recently, while being assessed by an occupational therapist I was asked about my mental flexibility. Following her explanation I realized how my altered mental flexibility was impacting many different activities. I had not understood the connection between seemingly disparate activities. Why did activities that seemed unrelated present problems? This has baffled me for some time. It would be comforting and simplify things if similar compensatory strategies could be employed in these seemingly dissimilar situations.

Character trait

My general nature is one of being flexible and accommodating. I am usually fine in rolling with a sudden change of plan. It keeps life interesting. I am beginning to realize that my willingness to change plans no longer matches what I am able to do. The spirit is willing but the brain won’t stand for it.

Helping a friend

I had arranged to give a friend a hand with his flooring one day. We had discussed the arrangements the day before. I had organized the tools I needed. I had an overview of the work. And I had thought through some strategies for doing the job. When I arrived the next morning he asked me to give him a hand with something totally different. Within an hour and a half I was in trouble. I was experiencing increased fatigue, I was finding it difficult to focus and my body was giving me signals that I was approaching sensory overload.

Had I gone ahead with the original plan, I would have been good for about 4 hours. Because of the sudden change in plan, my brain was still on the original track. My body meanwhile was doing something quite simple and physically quite easy. However, my brain was out of sync with my body.

Driving a car

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Northumberland County Rd. 9

The first few months after the accident, driving was a real challenge. I decided at one point that my reaction time wasn’t quick enough to make it safe to drive. I remember one particular trip into town. As I approached the intersection the light turned red. I saw it turn red. I knew that a red light meant stop. I knew where the brake pedal was. But it took several seconds before I realized that I needed to apply the brakes. The incident made me realize it took my brain too long to switch gears when processing real time information.

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Rice Lake Dr. Gores Landing, Ont.

I am able to drive safely again. However, I often find myself a passenger in the car. My endurance does not allow me to drive longer trips. At other times I don’t drive because I’m dealing with other symptoms that could interfere with my driving.

Riding in a car

Being a passenger in a car presents mental flexibility challenges. The problem is drivers that have different driving habits than mine. With some drivers I get nauseous. With other drivers I develop fatigue. Getting headaches is also not uncommon.

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Jamieson Rd, Camborne, Ont

 

After having driven for more than 45 years, even as a passenger I am fully aware of traffic when I am in a car. I can’t ignore the driver’s habits. I notice lane changes, the change of speed, the space between me and the vehicle ahead, traffic slow downs, merging traffic, left hand turns at intersections and other aspects of driving. Each habit that doesn’t match my habit causes mental jarring.

Did I say my driving habits are better? Unfortunately for my wife her driving habits are more courteous than mine. Often enough she accuses me of being a backseat driver.

To my defense, I’m not a backseat driver. I make driving suggestions to avoid mental fatigue. Time and again I need to decide which is the lesser of two evils, being accused of backseat driving or dealing with a buildup of mental fatigue. Even deciding that is difficult because my ability to problem solve has also been compromised.

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Lander Rd. Gores Landing, Ont.

As tough as it is on the driver, my backseat driving should not be taken as a judgement of their driving competence. It is a commentary on my ability to cope.  I see myself as the navigator riding shotgun.Somehow that defense doesn’t get much traction with Jane. But it’s actually me navigating my own mental fatigue.

Things have been improving. I don’t think it is Jane’s driving habits. (Why would she be taking notes on my backseat driving commentary?) My mental flexibility might be improving a bit. I think most of my improvement is adjusting to her driving habits. My brain is being reprogrammed.

Working with an Itinerary

Recently Jane and I made a trip to London. That’s a trip of about 3 hours. Since my daughter is aware of my mental flexibility challenge she sent us an itinerary for the three days we would be there. She described where we would be sleeping. She explained what part of the packing she wanted me to do for their up-coming move. She gave a breakfast and supper menu for each day. It was more than I needed but the thought was much appreciated.

Despite the advanced planning, which was much appreciated, the time visiting and the couple days after returning home were a challenge. Being in a new location for a few days means the brain is working overtime because it cannot rely on familiar routines. (More on that another time.)

Playing Snakes & Ladders

A new challenge presents itself when I play Snakes & Ladders with my grandson. After finishing a game he will want to switch each player’s colour as a four year old is wont to do. It’s not easy talking a four year old out of an idea. Now I’m in a double conundrum. Either go along with t20160407_093538he colour change at the risk of added fatigue or use my problem solving skills which have been compromised. I need to find some novel reason that appeals to a four year old that it’s better to keep the same colours. Appealing to his sense of humour is the best strategy.

Observations

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Oriole Beach Rd. Gores Landing, Ont.

 

Dealing with mental flexibility is like driving down a road that’s as straight as an arrow. When the road suddenly makes a turn I keep going, hitting the gravel, going through the ditch and possibly into a rough field. Needless to say, that is hard on the car. Living like that is hardest on those closest to me. It requires them to be more flexible, compensating for adjustments I can’t make. Having a label is both reassuring and makes the experiences seem less problematic. It also helps when sharing with others.

The ability to be mentally flexible is just one of many fascinating functions which the brain regularly performs, seemingly effortlessly. There are so many other subconscious, involuntary vital functions that the brain performs continuously. When the brain functions according to its design, the subconscious functions don’t need to communicate with the conscious decisions a person makes. The subconscious functions simply manage to keep everything running smoothly.

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Beaver Meadow Rd, Plainville Ontario

It’s amazing that our brains don’t run into hiccoughs on a regular basis. No regular night time updates needed to address faulty functions that were overlooked in the original design.

 

The conundrum of dealing with a brain injury is that there is no backup system that can step in to make sense of what is not working properly. It’s as effective as lifting yourself up by your bootstraps. That is why support from family members and the community I live in make a big difference.

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Good Friday or My Day in Court

Puslinch Township
Ellis Chapel 1861

My wife was taken aback when a police officer delivered a summons requiring me to appear in court. I assured her I hadn’t been up to any mischief lately… as far as I could remember. My memory being what it is since I had a brain injury did not give her much comfort.

I was surprised to find out that I was to appear as a witness to my own car accident. I found it rather strange, since I was the so called victim in an accident, to be called in as a witness

for the defense. The other driver was being charged since she hit me while I had the right of way when I approached the intersection.

I was wondering what good my testimony would be. Off course the light was green when I went through the intersection. Of course she made a dangerous left turn, going into the on-coming lane without being able to see if it was clear. That’s why I didn’t stop.

When I showed up for court and introduced myself to the crown attorney. She asked me only one question. What colour was the traffic light? My obvious answer was, “Green.” She told me we were going to trial as the other driver was contesting the charge against her. Her defense was that I had run a red light. She asserted this despite the statement from a disinterested witness who had a clear view of the whole scene unfolding in front of her.

After some formal introductions and statements being read, the driver pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. In the end the judge levied a fine of less than $50 and no demerit points. I was not called to take the stand since the accused had been convinced, just before the court went into session, pleading guilty to a lesser charge would service her interests better. Once the judge had issued her judgement the crown attorney came over to me, apologized for the light sentence and told me I was free to go home.

Some Thoughts

This conviction left me with a strong sense of injustice. The other driver’s poor judgement, or impatience, or inattentiveness has had a huge impact on my life not to mention many people I’m closely connect with.

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My Good Friday Tree

My initial thoughts about the reduced sentence, being like a slap on the wrist was, “unfair”. On the other hand, a harsh penalty like a heavy fine and several demerit points would not have changed my circumstances. Further, I reasoned, she had not intended to cause bodily harm. However, I did take offense to her claim that I had run a red light. However, that was only in discussion with the crown attorney. That statement never came to the judge.

The crown attorney, in dealing with the matter, had no idea whether I had been injured in the accident or what kind of injury I had sustained. That was never part of the discussion. I had no reason to inform her. Though, my injury would likely have impacted my time on the stand if I had been called to witness.

I had been advised before going to court that the key issue was to have this matter settled in my favour. As long as the other driver was given a guilty verdict the court would have served my interests. The light sentence had no negative impact on her insurance. The guilty verdict has direct positive impact on my insurance. You could say that the greater injustice was done to the insurance company. They would not be able to collect a higher premium for the costs the other driver has incurred.

In the end, the court appearance was a bureaucratic exercise, not a place where justice would be meted out. Had I gone into the court feeling vindictive, I would still be unsettled about the plea and verdict. There have been court cases where the failure of the courts to decide a suitable sentence have been much more momentous. Good Friday historically not excepted.

Telling the Story

I had opportunity to tell the story of my court appearance several times. Needless to say, family members and friends found the ‘slap on the wrist’ sentence highly unfair. Understandably so.

In one conversation a woman was particularly outraged about the light sentence. She just couldn’t see how our court system would allow that. I then mentioned that the driver who ran into me was in her mid 70’s. That completely changed her opinion of the judge’s decision. Somehow the driver’s age had a huge positive impact on her sense of what is a fair sentence.

I reflected on that with her and suggested that if the driver had been a 21 year old male, her outrage would have been greater. She agreed. Then I took the discussion a step further. I asked her how she thought the conviction might have played out if the driver had been an aboriginal Canadian.

It would be pure speculation. However, based on the incarceration rates among the Canadian population a different verdict could have been very likely. Our biases run deep. Our biases have a way of blinding us to what is a fair conviction and sentence.

When someone messes up we are quite judicious before giving the benefit of the doubt. We will first size up the person. It seems like a person needs to earn the privilege of being judged less harshly. If we are through birth or other factors part of the right demographic we are awarded that privilege much more readily.20151012_122052

In a recent CBC discussion a rather telling and powerful phrase was shared in reference to the aboriginal population in Canada. One spokesperson was adamant that when it comes to aboriginal Canadians, they are over policed and under protected. It isn’t the lack of policing that is necessarily the problem. It is the manner in which they are treated, by the police, by the court system and by the prison system.

How often don’t we speak before we check our biases? Our biases have a way of colouring what we do and say.

I’m a Different Person

Snakes & Ladders
Snakes & Ladders

I was listening to a story about a gentleman in his nineties who had recently died. Despite living in poverty he regularly bought birdfeed for the wildlife that visited his yard. He had one reason. When he was a young man he had been imprisoned in a concentration camp. From his cell the only thing he could see through the window near the ceiling was the occasional bird flying by. It was these birds that gave him hope. They helped he dream about freedom. They helped him imagine himself beyond the immediate circumstance he found himself in.

When he was liberated from the concentration camp he kept his one promise, his promise to never fail to feed the birds. And so, despite his meager means, he always kept the birds fed that visited his backyard.

As I heard the story, I was not able to contain my tears. I had to pull over to the side of the road to give myself time compose myself.

Later that day, I shared the story and my own reaction to it with a friend. In retelling the story I was once again overcome with emotion. I explained that I rarely had this type of response to stories prior to my brain injury.

In response to that, my friend asked if I hoped to maintain this level of sensitivity. I’m not sure. On the one hand I see it as a good thing. I mean, can one be too empathetic? On the other hand it seems rather disruptive to be hyper sensitive.

If I listen to a similar story but with fictitious characters, my response is very neutral. It’s just a story.

The stories or situations that touch me deeply usually involve someone dealing with a personal struggle or someone reaching out with compassion.

Recently a niece of mine was dealing with a serious health situation in which her child had been put into an induced coma. My heart went out to him. Each time I heard an update on how he was doing I was in tears.

churchyard
Percy 1997

Last week I walked through the church yard with my grandson. We were looking at different grave stones and commenting on some of the people, different neighbours we I had known from the last 30 years. When I saw Percy’s grave stone, dated almost 20 years ago, I was moved to tears. I had known him for a number of years. He had come to Canada as a Bernardo child. His disability limited him to working as a farm hand. He had been badly treated as a farm hand for many years. The memory of the struggles he had gone through and the compassion that the last family had shown him touched me deeply.

These experiences and many other similar situations make me realize I am a different person from a year ago. In addition to the brain injury, I could no longer continue my job. As a result I no longer identify myself by my job title. I now realize that the job title coloured my view of myself more than I realized. I no longer carry the responsibilities or the demands on my time. Life has slowed down considerably. I now have more time to focus on other matters.

I now have time for people who live right around me. The half hour or forty-five minute commute, twice a day, are behind me. In the past year I have spent more time with people in the neighbourhood and have met more new neighbours than I did in the previous 29 years that we have lived on Minifie Rd.

I also found out recently that we no longer live rural but now actually live in the hamlet. No, we did not move our house. The hamlet now includes our property through some invisible shift. Not that the change gives us any additional municipal services.

My familiarity with fatigue and headaches makes me take my time when completing chores or running errands. I have no need to hurry. I’m not living with goals that have firm or urgent deadlines. That part is rather enjoyable. At the same time I am finding things to do that are meaningful or rewarding on a different level.

My slower pace is particularly noticeable when I am experiencing fatigue. I have become that annoying driver on the road that is driving at the speed limit or, oh horrors enough, even below the speed limit. I can’t believe how hard it is to push that gas pedal down a bit harder. If I think of it I switch to cruise control for the sake of the traffic behind me.

One of my slowed down activities that I’m actually enjoying is playing Snakes & Ladders. It’s not the Snakes & Ladders that exciting, but watching my four year old grandson’s excitement when playing the game. He’s excited when he gets to go up a ladder. He gets twice as loud and excited when he goes down a snake, because then the game will take longer.

I’ve made the game more interesting by suggesting that he not count out the moves after he rolls the dice but to simply add the numbers together. It’s fascinating seeing his number sense grow. Soon he was telling me which numbers to not roll to avoid the snakes. Recently he did some subtraction to figure out how many spaces a particular snake would set him back.

I’m starting to acknowledge the reality of what I read recently. An experience with mTBI means I will never be the same person again. In some ways I’m okay with that. Some days.

Walking More Than a Mile in Different Shoes

Compost Heater Prototype
Compost Heater Prototype

 

This isn’t how I would have chosen to learn about mTBI (mild traumatic brain injury). I have often wondered, while visiting with a friend who has partially recovered from a workplace brain injury, what is holding him back from taking on his previous responsibilities. The public face makes him look quite capable. I couldn’t figure out what I was failing to see. My understanding did not extend to what was really going on. I lacked the perception to recognize the non-public face of his disability.

Now that I am dealing with a very slow recovery from mTBI, I have been asked similar questions. The questions do not surprise me. In my experience the questions have come from a caring heart. The questions have been very well-meaning. At heart people want to know, they want to understand. If it’s not asked as a question, it comes as an observation. The comment might be, “You seem to be very capable.” Yes, at times I am very capable. In many ways I am very capable.

Dealing with mTBI does not mean I’m an invalid. However, at different times there are a variety of things that I am just not able to do. There are times that I am unable to run. There are times when I have difficulty with balance while walking. There are times that I cannot focus my attention on a task. There are times when I have minimal physical endurance. There are times when it is impossible to find a solution to an uncomplicated situation. There are times when I just don’t know how to finish my errands and get back home.

When I experience times of inability that’s when you won’t see me in public. At times when I’m in public, situations do develop when I gradually or even quite suddenly find myself in a situation of inability. When I can’t maintain my public face I choose to quietly retreat. When a quiet retreat is not possible I am compelled to put more and more of my energy into maintaining my public face. The longer it takes to retreat to, the more effort and energy I expend. This comes at a cost.

In one surprising situation about six months ago took it took me four days to recover. I had gone to the dentist for a scheduled appointment. I had explained to the dentist my situation and felt I was okay to go ahead with getting a filling. As the dentist was freezing, drilling and applying clamps he would check in with me. At first I would nod or grunt indicating I was fine, and I actually was doing fine. Gradually I began to realize I was not doing okay, but I still kept nodding. At a certain point I didn’t want the dentist to quit. How could he quit having drilled out the cavity but not being done the filling? After he finished he stepped out of the room. When he stepped back in a couple minutes later he noticed that I was in no condition to leave the office on my own, let alone, drive myself home. A family member was called to rescue me. I am not ready for another dental appointment.

I avoid places where I can’t retreat easily from a public place. At first that was difficult because I did not recognize any of my early warning signals or symptoms. Now I know the symptoms but don’t always recognize them before they overpower my ability to function. If I’m with a family member, they are able to help me in two ways. They can help me retreat and assure other people that things are under control. Secondly, they often recognize the early symptoms before I’m aware of them, so I can retreat in a timely manner.

Another challenge of dealing with mTBI is that often I find myself in denial. Sometimes I wake up with minimal symptoms; minimal headache, no fatigue, reasonably alert, able to move around well. That’s when I think I could be doing the things I had previously been doing. Maybe I’m ready to assume more of my previous responsibilities. It’s a wonderful sensation and one that gives me hope.

If the sensation lasts all day it’s a real bonus. More often the sensation lasts the first hour or two of the day. Sometimes it lasts a half day. The most predictable part of waking up each morning is that the day will not be the same as the day before. Sometimes the day begins with rather severe symptoms which then gradually diminish. Most days, the symptoms gradually escalate as the day progresses. Usually the symptoms subside sometime during the evening.

Aside from a couple of extreme events there does not appear to be a clear cause and effect association with the symptoms. My wife and I have tried to surmise some possible cause and effect scenarios. We’ve discussed the intensity of activities the day before. We’ve looked at different stress factors. We’ve considered changes in the weather, drastic changes in temperature or changes in barometric pressure. The symptoms could be a reaction to a situation or activity several days earlier. If there is a pattern or a cause and effect it has eluded me so far.

The unpredictable nature of each day makes it difficult to plan events and some visits. Even if I’m having a difficult day I will keep my appointment to visit friends. It’s helpful to remain connected and it also serves as a distraction from the symptoms whether they are building or gradually subsiding. My level of engagement during a visit will vary. That’s why friends are special.

When I am having a good day or when I need a distraction from the symptoms, I will find opportunities to do something. This could mean helping a neighbour for a couple of hours, or working on a project at home. When I’m looking for a distraction from the symptoms it helps to do something physical. Having something not too strenuous, somewhat repetitive and moderately familiar is the most helpful.

Last fall I completed a project at home that normally would have taken me a week or two to complete. With my slower and off again on again pace it took me five months to complete. I would work on it on the days I was able. I had no fixed deadline so there was no urgency to complete it. On completion there was a sense of accomplishment. (See the picture of the compost heating project above.)

I am always on the lookout for projects that bring healing. Outdoor projects, ones with no firm deadline, ones that involve a certain amount of repetitive movements, ones that engender a sense of accomplishment.

I share this to help bring about greater understanding for people who have someone in their life who is dealing with mTBI. While the nature of each person’s experience will depend on what part of the brain has been affected, there are likely similarities in seeking answers and finding understanding.

When Measuring is Helpful

Outdoors opens up the healing process
Being outdoors opens up the healing process

In my previous post I had shared how my life had been different in the past 12 months following a motor vehicle collision. Despite the drastic changes, the journey of healing has left me feeling surprisingly hopeful and positive. That is not the trajectory that my family doctor had cautioned me about. Some of this optimistic outlook is possibly from having been forewarned about the possible serious side effects that accompanies an mTBI type of injury.

Two years ago I presented a workshop for a group of peers on Daniel Pink’s book To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. The concept of measuring progress creates encouragement. When progress is slow, erratic and at times things seem to move backward it’s important and helpful to measure or compare change over time to recognize progress.

While there are many things I would like to be able to do now, but can’t, there are areas where healing is clearly. There are many areas where I am hopeful that I will see improvement.

What has improved?

  1. Last June, after writing a 7 minute graduation speech it took a full day to recuperate. I can now complete a blog entry without experiencing fatigue.
  2. Last spring after walking a kilometer I experienced such extreme fatigue that it took me an hour to walk the kilometer back home. (Note to self – carry a cell phone when going for a walk.) Now I can walk ten kilometers and tire out a jack russell before I experience extreme fatigue.
  3. Last spring, if I needed to do 3 things I would be lucky if I remembered to even do the first task before getting distracted or walking back into the house. Now, when I get distracted and I am able to recall what I had planned to do. Friends my age tell me they have the same problem.
  4. Last September it took me a day and a half to recover from listening to 40 minutes of live music. I can now listen to live music, wearing musician earplugs, for 30 minutes before experiencing sensory overload. If I forget to monitor myself, and go into sensory overload, my recovery time is anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours.
  5. Last summer it would take me a day to recover if I drove a half hour away from home. Recently I have occasionally driven two hours, sometimes needing only an hour to recuperate and sometimes needing a day to recuperate.
  6. Last spring, if I attended a church service, the sensory overload would set me back a full day or more. I am now able to participate in about half of the service, making a point of stepping out for most of the live music.

Some of the improvement might not seem like a big change. But I am seeing progress. As long as I measure my progress over time it is easier to deal with temporary setbacks.

One interesting, yet not surprising thing I have noticed is that being outside is more healing than being in a building. More about that another time.

A view from the other side

Willdup_130815_00299

Two and a half years ago I participated in 1400 km of the Sea to Sea bike ride. In drumming up personal sponsorship, I had focused on developing awareness for people who live in poverty due to hidden disabilities.

Little did I realize that 18 months later I would be counted among those with a ‘hidden’ disability. A year ago I was involved in a motor vehicle accident that left me disabled. A disability that was later diagnosed as mTBI (mild traumatic brain injury) leaving me unable to perform my work duties as an elementary school principal.

Being that is was an acquired injury, I did not realize to what extent it was and would affect my work. During the first several weeks my symptoms continued to worsen. After struggling to work part time for a few weeks I was persuaded that I needed to stop working.

The disability has changed my life style dramatically.

I would normally go to bed because I was sleepy, not because I was tired. Now I often experience fatigue throughout a significant part of the day.

Headaches for me was a very rare occurrence. Now I’ve gotten used to it being there almost on a daily basis.

Two years ago I had the endurance to cycle 135 km in a day, doing 50 km on a unicycle. Now I feel good if I manage 5 to 10 km at a moderate pace.

Each year on Labour Day weekend I would join my family at the Shelter Valley Folk Festival for 3 days of music. Now I can’t listen to live music longer than 30 minutes without having my brain shut down.

It’s an injury that is hard to measure. In one area the specialist gave me a general indicator. After completing a battery of assessments one of the things that was determined is that my memory is now function at about 50% of what I was capable of pre-accident.

The injury continues to affect me physically, behaviourally and cognitively. If I attempt an activity that leaves me cognitively challenged, it takes me from 1 to 4 days to recover. During the recovery time I experience a wide range of physical challenges. It’s amazing how the brain and the rest of the body are so closely connected.

If you see me in town on a good day, you can’t tell that I’m dealing with a disability. A colleague told me recently that I seem to function normally. She was right. When there are no demands and pressures a day can seem quite normal. However, that is not how a day normally goes, whether one is at home or at work.

What has been very clear in my experience is the incredible level of support and understanding I have received from my community; that is my church community, my school community and my family. Jane, my wife has been incredibly patient, understanding and supportive, day in and day out. I can’t begin to list all the extra duties she has willingly taken on.

In response to the support I am experiencing, I would like to explain what the personal challenges are. The problem is I lack the ability to explain it, because I don’t really understand it myself. It’s just how it is. It’s not headaches that happen – it’s the underlying issue that partly shows up as a headache, among other symptoms. The headaches are a gauge. But it’s like a gauge that hasn’t been labelled or even calibrated.

My initial goal following the accident was to still go ahead with my plan to cycle from Jasper Albert to Montana in July of 2015. I realized after a few months that I would have to abandon that plan. I couldn’t even manage a 2 hour ride in the car. How could I even get to Alberta? My goal at this time is to cycle all or part of the 2017 Sea to Sea. That’s a year and a half from now.

While recovery seems to move at less than a snail’s pace, the encouraging thing is that there is improvement. While this experience has made me empathetic to other’s with brain injury, I don’t think I am anywhere near being able to understand how people fare when dealing with a severe brain injury. What I have experienced is that an understanding and supportive community goes a long way in managing one’s disability.

 

Four Days of Backpacking – reflections about the ride #2

Algonguin Lookout
Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a 4 day backpacking excursion with sixteen 12 year old students. We started out with ideal fall weather, cool nights and daytime temperatures in the low 20’s. Being outfitted for 4 days of backpacking is more challenging than a walk in the park. You can’t go 4 days unless you have a good supply of food, tents, water purifying equipment, rain gear etc.

Preparing young students for living in today’s society requires educational experiences that go beyond the walls of the classroom. Bringing 16 young students away from the supports of home requires them to make some adjustments. Being away from running water, away from ready cooked meals,  away from clean drinking water on demand, away from a house that protects them from the elements, creates some memorable learning opportunities.

On a more superficial level, though no less important, the backpacking trip creates an opportunity to learn skills such as fire building, basic first aid, packing and fitting a backpack, orienteering and map reading. While these would be considered survival skills, they could probably be taught equally well in a classroom. However, when some of these skills are taught ‘in the field’ they take on a greater urgency when it is on a ‘need to know’ basis (though we hope it doesn’t come to that).

The backpacking trip extends to teaching the young students some essential life skills that would be applicable in many other situations. The skills relate to living in community. While in the bush, the students realize they need to depend on each other. That requires them to look out for each other and offer assistance when needed. (The adults are there to guide them, not bail them out.)

The first evening was an interesting situation. The students were sitting around the campfire pit, talking and laughing. However, it was approaching supper time and no one was making a move to gather firewood and get a cooking fire started. On the urging of one of the adults to get firewood and what was needed for kindling an interesting thing happened. Two students stood up to begin gathering firewood. The other eight students just sat there. They seemed to expect that the camp fire thing would somehow happen. Only after a very pointed instruction that everyone needed to help get firewood, did the rest of the students get up and being the job of gathering.

A similar lesson needed to be learned for preparing for cooking, getting the bear bag ready for the night, setting up tents, putting backpacks away so personal effects wouldn’t get rained on, taking down and packing the tents in the morning and so on.

The students gradually began to realize the importance of planning ahead, seeing what they could do to contribute to their own needs and to the needs of the whole group.

The goal was to bring the students to the undertanding that they needed to initiate the next step. The students needed to come to the point of realizing that an adult, whether a parent or someone else, wasn’t going to necessarily tell them what needed to be done.

Part of the learning process was having a couple of student leaders assigned each day to take charge. The student leaders would be briefed on what needed to be done that day. It was then their job to organize what needed to be done and then delegate the various tasks to the other students.

The student leaders were faced with a number of challenges, the least of which might have been getting fellow students to follow through on what they were asked to do.

The backpacking experience offers opportunities to create object lessons. Students were reminded to distribute the food and cooking utensils when they were packing up so that the load would be distributed evenly. One day, after asking students whether this was happening, we asked all the students to line up, drop their packs, take a step forward and pick up their neighbour’s pack. The next 20 minutes of hiking was an eye opener for some of the students.

In taking a  group of young students on a hiking excursion there are some interesting observations that can be gleaned.

1. Empowerment: There are skills one would expect a 12 year old to have mastered. When the opportunities to learn those skills are taken away from them there is a learned helplessness. It might be more efficient for an adult to do a particular task, but what is lost is the opportunity for a student to learn a new skill. What is lost is the opportunity to empower a child.

2. Contributing: At age 12, children are capable and in a position to make valuable contributions. Through words of encouragement students begin to realize and appreciate the difference they can make when they contribute to the needs of a group.

3. Empathy: Learning to recognize the need to lend a hand or help someone comes from learning to observe what is happening. From there developing a sense of empathy and understanding leads to specific actions.

4. Accomplishment: It is interesting to watch a student struggle with their pack over a four day period. In that time suggestions were made on how to balance a pack or make adjustments on the straps. However, when the same student was met on the trail by another adult who offered to carry the pack, the student chose to complete the last kilometer of the hike carrying his full pack. The sense of accomplishment was clearly evident.

Poverty relates to a loss of community and each person’s place and role. The experience of a four day backpacking trip helps students experience a variety of elements that makes for a community. When all they have to depend on for 4 days is each other, some real learning and growth begins to happen.