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Minneapolis students head outdoors to make academics concrete

From fall canoeing to winter quinzee-making: High-school students head outdoors for learning and team-building.

From the outside, a quinzee looks like nothing more than a squat snow hummock studded all over with brambly sticks.
Courtesy of Wilderness Inquiry/Greg Lais

The hardest part of building a quinzee, it turns out, is protecting it from the pokes, jabs and boot-taps of curious passers-by. From the outside, it looks like nothing more than a squat snow hummock studded all over with brambly sticks. Like a snow fort as re-envisioned by Salvador Dalí or a preternaturally enormous porcupine that slept through a snowfall.

It’s a good idea, then, to station a sentry outside to plead for caution and to explain the magic, which is on the inside. Math, science and condensation from the breath of the winter campers sleeping inside transform the crystals in snow into a sturdy, warm structure.

It’s both exceptionally primitive and very high tech — and a mind-blower for a kid whose family doesn’t have the resources or the background for outdoor recreation.

On Saturday at Fort Snelling State Park, a dozen students from Minneapolis’ Edison High School took turns excavating the shelters where they were to spend the night, and answering questions from curious families that turned out for REI’s annual Winter Trails Day.

Courtesy of Wilderness Inquiry/Greg Lais
On Saturday at Fort Snelling State Park, a dozen students from Minneapolis’ Edison High School took turns excavating the shelters where they were to spend the night.

The winter camping trip was held at the same time as the outfitter’s popular event so that both groups could take advantage of staff and volunteers from the National Park Service and state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) who were on hand to facilitate skiing, ice-harvesting, fishing and snowshoeing.

The Edison students, all but one of them Hmong, were members of one of three outdoors clubs that are the first phase of a novel partnership between Wilderness Inquiry and the St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts. The other schools are Minneapolis’ North High and St. Paul’s American Indian Magnet.

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Thanks in large part to a $1.1 million grant from Minnesota’s Legacy fund, Wilderness Inquiry hopes to expand the clubs to every high school in both districts over the next three years. According to the program’s director, Chad Dayton, it will eventually serve 15,600 students.

“We wanted to get depth and develop relationships with the students themselves,” said Dayton. “The idea is to provide a series of experiential opportunities all over the metro area, and to expose them to activities with other organizations.”

Participants, a majority of them from low-income families, learn the practical application of their classroom academics via hands-on “place-based” experiences that also teach teamwork, tenacity and mastery.

Quinzees are a case in point. Unlike an igloo, which is made of blocks of hard snow, they are constructed by piling snow on flat ground and allowing it to “sinter,” a process in which the moisture in snows of different consistencies redistributes itself and the crystals bond.

Building a quinzee

Sticks are sunk all over 12 to 18 inches into the berm, which is then excavated from the inside with a hand tool that looks like a cross between a scythe and a trowel. When the sticks are reached, the digging stops to ensure the walls are thick enough and the interior is smoothed over. 

There’s a small entry on one side and a ventilation hole on the other. When two or three people crawl inside into their sleeping bags and cover the doorway, the temperature inside can climb to 45 degrees.

Instead of the warmth melting the snow, however, the moisture from the occupants’ breath creates an icy lining. By morning the structures will be so strong all of the campers will have to jump up and down on them to bring them down.

Photo by Haylee Irwin
Students learned the tricks of ice harvesting.

Wilderness Inquiry was started by Executive Director Greg Lais and two friends in 1978 as an effort to make outdoor adventures accessible to people from all walks of life, regardless or age, ability or background. Operating out of a small warehouse in southeast Minneapolis, it has the equipment and staff to help virtually anyone experience nature in pretty much any setting and on its own terms.

In 2008, it joined with the National Park Service and a host of other partners to begin offering Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures. Since then 50,000 people — many of them Twin Cities students — have paddled the Mississippi in WI’s signature voyageur canoes.

If it’s hard to think of canoeing as a life-changing experience, frequently urban kids come from families where generations have feared water. Forget spendy outdoor gear — swimming lessons are out of reach. Throwing a teen into the deep end, albeit metaphorically, can have surprising results.

Canoeing on Lake Snelling

Last fall, a warm September afternoon found a group students a few hundred yards from the area where the quinzees would go up in January. North High’s entire 10th-grade class was supposed to go canoeing on Lake Snelling, but a number of nervous parents told their kids to stay back.

MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
Students from North High prepare to canoe at Lake Snelling.

The portion of the class that was present was overcompensating like crazy. Most of the excitement concerned the planes overhead headed for landing at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. One boy announced he’d flown on one, to Chicago. The others demanded details. 

As the trail guides passed out life vests and paddles and began issuing instructions the tone turned from macho to edgy. No one had to so much as get their feet wet to get in the canoes, but the walkway of stepstools was still intimidating to the teens.

One student was mostly paralyzed. The guides made a hammock of their arms, lifting him from his wheelchair into a fixed seat in the center of one of the canoes.

The first few dozen yards of the trip out into the lake no one listened to the guides. Paddles dipped and swung randomly and the paddlers didn’t seem to understand that they literally might rock the boat.

When some minor shoving by two kids in the front threatened to destabilize the canoe with the disabled participant, the guide in the stern lowered his voice an octave and barked a couple of firm commands. In a heartbeat, the teenage bravado was gone. 

Paddling in sync

The moment — nowhere near swamping the canoe, but the teens didn’t know that — had an amazing effect. Immediately all 10 of the novice crew members were paddling in sync and asking questions about everything from the beaver dam on the far side of the lake to the protected status of the lily pad.

A few weeks before the trip, Wilderness Inquiry took North’s faculty out on the same trip. Many of them were as nervous as their students, the guides recalled. They went back to school sold on the concept of engaging with the outdoors as a way to make abstract academics concrete.

In addition to its Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures, Wilderness Inquiry has drawn on a number of local providers of outdoor activities to engage the clubs. Students have gone skiing with the Loppet Foundation, climbing with Vertical Endeavors and ice-skating with Minneapolis Parks & Recreation.

‘Pyramid of engagement’

Wilderness Inquiry uses a “pyramid of engagement” to explain its long-term vision for its youth programming. At the top are outdoor careers. One in 20 U.S. jobs are now outdoors, yet students are rarely urged to consider them. 

Courtesy of Wilderness Inquiry
Wilderness Inquiry will eventually serve 15,600 students.

And for most of the youth the group interacts with, an outdoors career isn’t the point. Students come back from short adventures, like the half-day canoe trip, more engaged and working as a team. Overnights, like the winter camping, deepen those bonds and generate independence.

Those who come out of multiday camping trips with an interest in continuing to spend time in the outdoors are helped to find internships, summer jobs and, for maybe a few hundred, careers.

In addition to the expansion of the school-based outdoor clubs, Wilderness Inquiry is using its Legacy money to make grants to pairs of teachers from its three pilot schools to write “place-based” curriculum aligned with state education standards.

Working to reshape summer school

It’s also working to reshape summer school, the time when teens who are behind work to recover lost credits. When legacy money runs out, ideally there would be a line in the state Department of Education budget for outdoor education.

“This really puts Minnesota at the forefront of district-integrated, place-based experiential learning,” said Dayton. “The money and the partnerships put this in position to be replicated nationwide.”

But for now, one victory at a time. After a snug overnight in the quinzees, Dayton reported, the Edison students cooked breakfast and then restored their campground to its original state.

They crushed their structures and carried the sticks that had become part of the frames back into the woods. By mid-day, everyone was on their way back home.