Roughing It Feature

by Julie French

In the hills of Earth Teach Forest Park is a bear den that will hold 19 campers and counselors sitting should to shoulder. After getting their faces painted with black stripes, they crawl in one at a time and form a ring around the fire pit. Instructor-in-training Amanda Smith leads them in a slow, chanting song, then asks, “Do you want to howl like a coyote” Let’s howl like a coyote.”

On the count of three the den erupts in howls, the hole in the ceiling fills with light, and the students reach a consensus that their howling woke up the sun.


This is the Coyote Trails School of Nature, a summer camp that teaches kids, their parents and grandparents skills for primitive forest living. Over the course of a week-long day camp, campers learn how to build a shelter similar to the bear den using no artificial materials, start a fire without the aid of a match, track animals and find safe drinking water and food. The most advanced campers spend a week in the woods with only a wool blanket and the meager supplies they make themselves – smoked salmon, a gourd canteen and a bag made from animal hide.

“At Coyote Trails, we don’t teach that you have to conquer nature,” said Director Joe Kreuzman. “It’s very easy to live at one with our natural environment.”

Kreuzman started the camp three years ago to give kids the contact with nature he longed for when he was growing up I Ohio. His teaching philosophy focuses on developing an awareness of self and surroundings and is largely experience-based.

To develop awareness, campers spend up to an hour a day in their “sit spot,” observing how one are changes over time and developing a familiarity with the spot. The instructors ask more questions than they give answers to help kids “know what they already know,” and give them skills that they can apply when they return home.

By mid-week, the campers have changed, moving at a slower pace, Kreuzman said.

After the visit to the bear den, he pointed out how quietly they walked up to the campfire, where they made ash cakes for a snack.

Instructor Alex Carney leads the kids through a litany of questions, asking how bread is made, where flour comes from, what else would be used in place of wheat. Then he demonstrates how to shape today’s ask cakes – made from cornmeal amaranth, red clover flowers and berries – and set it on the coals to cook. “Why is it called ash cake?” he asked.

“Because it has a lot of ashes,” came the chorus of replies.

One the cakes are finished cooking; the campers blow off the ashes, drizzle them in honey and start munching.

“These are definitely better than s’mores,” said Karan, 8. “Or a marshmallow!” he added.

Karan said he definitely wanted to return to camp, and Kreuzman and the rest of his staff want kids like him to be able to return throughout the year. They are creating a nature curriculum in conjunction with Oregon’s state mandated curriculum and host field trips during the school year.

Jennifer Wahpepah, a special education teacher at Ashland High School, took her class in the spring of 2006, and said the lessons her students learned out in the woods helped them back in the classroom.

“Anything that helps with their self esteem or problem solving, overcoming obstacle, taking risks, all apply directly to city life and also in the classroom,” she said.