Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Branch Hoppers - Shelter, Fire, & Play at North Lake Samish

The Branch Hopper’s final outing of the Fall 2015 season at North Lake Samish was jammed packed with skills, adventure, and play. As we congregated the boys stared up at the steep power line grade running adjacent the trail; the North Lake Samish Trail rises steeply out of the lake basin ascending up into the foothills of the Chuckanuts.
The boys were anxious to get on the trail, but before we headed out we needed to circle up to talk about jobs and the hazards that we might face in this location. NOAA had forecasted 20 mph winds from the south and driving rain. We talked about our motto BE Prepared and how we could approach the day with a preventative mindset for warmth and safety.
Once we were oriented to the landscape and weather we talked about another hazard that we’d been facing interpersonally throughout the season, the hazard of escalation. It is important to revisit this with the Explorers again and again.
Heading up the trail we entered into the forest canopy and were pleasantly surprised to find it quite sheltered from the rain. The land within the park boundaries is beautiful. Mature stands of Douglas Fir and Cedar growingly steeply on a bed of Sandstone rock and deep moss. Hiking along we discovered cascading waterfalls and exposed ridges of Sandstone.
Our goal was to make it to the top of the first crest, gaining roughly 700 feet of elevation. About halfway up we needed to stop and peel layers. On these drizzly and chilly days it is difficult to manage an efficient layering system. An efficient system requires a careful balance in regulating perspiration within ones layers and saturation from the rain. Snacking on our lunch underneath a big Doug Fir we watched the tops the trees sway lightly in the wind.
Once we had our clothing systems in order and our bellies full, we hiked up the trail until it petered out into a maze of social trails of both the deer and human variety. Following a fair well-worn path we ascended the ridgeline and made it to the top.  Looking around the forest was now quite different as we had left the park boundary and entered into logging land.
While scouting the forest the group noticed that there was hardly any under brush and the tree stands of fir were so dense they’d shed their lower branches. The group had some inspiration to play a game of Spider’s Web, but the mentors called a circle to focus the group’s energy before we started playing games. The mentors reminded the group that on our last outing to Clayton Beach we had postponed shelter building to carve, in an agreement to try and complete one on our last outing. With shelter as our core routine for the day we turned the leadership over to the tribal elder to facilitate a decision on how we could best use our time and accomplish what we collaboratively wanted to do.
Through a great effort from the tribal elder and collaboration and compromise from the group, the boys decided to delve into shelter building for the first half of the outing, then play Spider’s Web in our current location, and to end the day with a small twig fire and a circle of thanks.
With our minds set towards shelter we left the forest and crossed the power line clearing in search of deciduous trees that would offer the best resources for shelter building.  Our front scout found a stand of Big leaf Maples growing on the fringe of the power lines and led the group off trail to reach it. One the way they encountered a large patch of Stinging Nettle. It is wonderful to watch the boys track the land. They noticed that this nettle patch had just started sprouting and was not typical of the fall season. These nettles were quite potent and left painful stings on their arms and legs. Once we had literally grasped the nettle the boys tracked the land for an ideal location for shelter.
Finding a prominence on the hillside the boys scavenged for downed wood using a pack saw to cut a backbone and Y poles. Inserting the pole into the ground the group found our prominence was actually a buried rock and we would have to move our location somewhere with more forest duff. Finding another location the boys noticed that this spot would expose them to run off from the hillside, so once the frame of the shelter was completed a few boys immediately started digging a trench on the high side for run off. Their construction was incredible. They wedged sticks horizontally across the trench walls to act as rebar and divert the flow of run off to follow down the trench with gravity. The boys worked diligently as a group on the shelter, spending an hour and a half of focused energy on the construction.
It was all going well until one Explorer accidently stepped on another’s hand and it escalated into a small physical confrontation. Pulling the Explorer(s) aside it was important to allow each boy the time to process, reflect, speak their truth, and find what it would take build community again and find conflict resolution. After a heartfelt discussion with both of them they came to three clear agreements that I think we can all take to heart: “I will believe you when you say it was an accident”, “I will treat you with respect and care”, and “I will forgive your genuine apology with grace”. It is moments like these on the land where outside elements of wind and rain fade away and we deeply connect to our mentees and the heart of the work we are doing. I can’t thank these boys enough for their efforts towards building peace and trust amongst one another.
Wanting to hold to our commitment the mentors gathered the shelter builders and had them stand back to take a gander at their work. Although we did not complete the shelter, the group is about 85% on their way towards being proficient shelter builders. This is a skill that will not only provide them a firm foundation on the land, but deep knowledge of place.
Heading over to the dense patch of forest the boys set up the course and got to playing. As they played a lone mentor gathered dead Western Hemlock branches for a small twig fire to close our outing and season. The forest was so dark that the boys began to look like shadows as they crawled and crept through the landscape.
Scraping away the duff layer a mentor took out a bow drill kit and managed to get a small but hardy fire. After calling the game to a close, the cold and wet Branch Hoppers spirits were lifted around the warmth and glow of the fire. It was a dear moment. The group huddled together as they roasted their apples and gave genuine thanks around the fire circle.
Brian and I deeply appreciate the time we get to spend with your Explorers. Our outing was a reaffirmation of why we do the work that we do and it is our strong parent community that gives us the grace and trust to be able to walk alongside of the boys as they explore, learn, grow, and experience together in the woods.
For more pictures from the day please visit the Branch Hopper’s photo gallery.

The Branch Hoppers Explore Clayton Beach

When the Branch Hoppers arrived at the Clayton Beach parking lot they were greeted by mentors who had been splitting Western Red Cedar in anticipation for a day of carving with them. Circling up the boys introduced themselves to mentor Joey Christianson who was subbing for Brian and also our EMA for the day Jordan.
Jordan explained to the boys that his group, the Vespula Veterans, had harvested the Cedar he was currently splitting on their campout at Racehorse Falls. It was powerful for our EMA to make the direct connection with his knowledge and skill for harvesting the wood, and the service and nourishment it provided the younger Explorers.
At our first exploration of the season we focused on shelter building, but the boys had shown a great interest in carving. Following their inspiration our aim for the day would be to provide time during the outing for carving if we could all agreed to focus on shelter-building on our last outing to North Lake Samish.
We discussed the high impact of shelter-building at a location like Clayton Beach, which has high human use, determining that the skill was best left for the mixed-use forest and logging lands. Coincidentally the abundance of deciduous tree debris and down limbs is often much more prevalent in these areas making harvesting of materials a breeze.
Heading down the trail the to beach the boys started what would become the Branch Hopper’s challenge for the day. They asked if they would be able to stop and have a fir cone battle on the hillside. I think most of the boys already knew the mentor’s response to this question. The Branch Hoppers yearn for competition and that is healthy. In the Boys EC we describe healthy competition as trading courage. When the Explorers offer each other their best in games they play with honor and accept challenge as a form of growth. The mentors reminded the group that fir cone battles and other unhealthy forms of competition have led their group into conflict, escalation, and misuse of personal power.
As mentors we really encourage the boys to try and take a step outside their impulse to play games where violence is a focus, even if it deemed pretend or innocent. Our long-term aim is that the Explorers recognize that if they pretend to harm one another and choose to focus behaviors that reinforce it, the long-term effects can manifest either unintentionally or impulsively in harmful ways.
The ability to discern in the moment requires a great deal of self-awareness and maturity, most of which will develop later in the Branch Hoppers adolescent years. However it is our belief as their mentors that an immersion and experience with a culture that promotes healthy competition from an early age provides a firm foundation and moral compass from which to grow.
Arriving at the beach we let the boys squirrel out before we focused in on some carving. The boys roamed the beach climbing on the sandstone and doing acrobatics on the sand dune. Clayton Beach is an endless playground for the boys and outing after outing the boys continue to be enthralled by this location. We are fortunate in Bellingham to have this gem of a park so close to home.
Calling the boys back in we handed out the freshly split blanks of Cedar and the boys put in a solid hour of work carving. It was great to watch them relax leaning against the driftwood and settling into the sand. This group has shown a depth of character around our culture of responsible tool usage and it is exemplified their ability to recognize the difference between a tool and a weapon. They are developing a sense of craftsperonship and pride in their trades and it extends to their ethical use with them.
Packing up our carving projects we headed south along the shore following a set of old pilings. The farther we traveled the more we started to smell the aroma of something dead on the beach. Sure enough we came across a mostly decomposed harbor seal. With the help of a mentor and a stick we examined the skeletal structure of the Harbor Seal and learned about the natural decomposition cycle for this marine mammal. The boys stared at the carcass perplexed as to the notion that they were witnessing both a scene life and death simultaneously.
With that inspiration it was time for a sit spot. The boys spread out on the breakwater south of the point and listened to the calls of the Yellow-Billed Loons as they foraged territorially through their claims to the Eelgrass beds. It was truly magical.
After breaking our sit spot the boys roamed the beach skipping rocks and eventually some returned to their fir cone battle. Calling the group together the mentors asked the group what they needed in order to spend the rest of the outing with a little more structure. Through an impressive facilitation from the tribal elder and a great compromise for the group we agreed to play a game a Spiders Web throughout the rocks on the beach and then have a closing meeting back at the carving spot.
After our council the energy for the rest outing followed well and the boys were engaged. It was an important less for the mentors to be reminded thatwe are all leaders and it is important to ask the boys what they’d rather do than try and infer.
The game of Spider’s Web proved to be quiet a challenge but the group had a blast experimenting with a whole gambit of stealth and diversion tactics. Circling up on the beach the group gave thanks and shared apples.  What a wonderful and rich outing with the Branch Hoppers full of powers and challenges. We look forward to our last outing for the fall 2015 season at North Lake Samish trailhead. There we where we will focus on building a warm and comfortable shelter not only of the earthen variety, but also within the climate of our group.
For more pictures from the outing please visit the Branch Hopper’s photo gallery

The Daredevil's Club & Branch Hoppers Serve at Connelly Creek

The Daredevil’s Club and Branch Hoppers arrived at the Connelly Creek Service Site only to see the sky darken and the clouds open up with rainfall. Quickly adorning their rain gear the boys weren’t fazed at all. Doing a once over of the site the group noticed a lot had changed. The Reed-Canary grass had made a comeback, but not quite as much as years previous. The Blackberries were slowly creeping their way over the mulch and re-rooting. The Morning Glory vines had intertwined themselves with our caged Alders and a late summer storm had taken down a tree, scattering branches everywhere.
The group was slightly disheartened, but not defeated. After two and a half years of tending the site the boys are learning the valuable lesson that all relationships take work and maintenance. Their relationship with this patch of land is slowly and persistently testing the boys’ fortitude and diligence to their task, while cultivating their character.  
Our mentors have observed two very distinct character traits budding in our Explorers, as coined by Dr. Kurt Hahn, the famous educator and founder of Outward Bound, 
"I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion.” 
These “Five Pillars of Hahnism” are part of the core character traits we hope to cultivate and reinforce in the Explorers. Their “undefeatable spirit” for and “tenacity in the pursuit” of restoring balance to this patch of wilderness is a very real window in what their journey and struggle to be stewards of the land might look like in our modern age. The Explorer’s access and exposure to a plethora of information on environmental dilemmas that await their generation is enough to dishearten anyone. It will be their “undefeatable spirit” and “tenacity in the pursuit” that will enact monumental change in our world and in their own lives personally.
Circling up the boys were excited to begin working, but before they did we needed to cover a few things. With two boys in casts we thought it appropriate to get acquainted with one another by sharing our names and our “best” worst injury. This icebreaker seemed to derail our focus and Tim called the Explorers to bring their attention to the task at hand and remember why we were doing the work. The mentors often remind the boys that our explorations have an impact on the land, and that this service outing is our one chance each season to give back restore balance to the land.
Once we were acquainted the Mentors explained that our initial task would involve maintaining the work that was done the previous season, as Bellingham Parks & Recreation needed to drop a large load of mulch for next weekend’s work.  After an Explorer led demonstration of tool safety the Mentors pulled out a tool, which the group have previously not worked with, handsaws! An Alder had toppled that blocked the path for the Park Department’s truck to dump mulch and the boys would need to work together to limb it and saw up the trunk.
Getting to work the boys put in a solid hour of pushing back the blackberries at the front of the site, clearing and staking out the shrubs that we planted last year, and unraveling the Morning Glory off the Alders. While they worked the group vacillated between focus and distraction. I have to hand it to the boys in their ability to be creative and keep themselves busy. They created a verbal fantasy role-playing game without a board or dice. Their struggle however was to keep their hands working while they played.  This skill takes time to develop and most adults have not yet mastered it.
Their work may have come in waves, but the group got a lot done and should be proud of their effort. We would also like to commend the boys for using the saws with patience and to their upmost potential. Throughout the course of our outing not one Explorer joked with or misused the saws. It was powerful to watch the boys skillfully use these tools. As mentors our hearts lighten to see our motto Tool vs. Weaponempowering the Explorers. They are letting us know that they are ready for more responsibility and although they did much fighting and welding of weaponry in their theoretical fantasy game they can clearly differentiate between the two.
Finishing up our work the crew basked in the sun sharing apples and thanks. With a rainy start to the day the group unanimously expressed their gratitude for the warmth and comfort of the mid-day sun. Thank you Daredevil’s Club and Branch Hoppers for a strong start to our fall 2015 service project. With 1,252 of service hours worked there last year there is no telling what we can accomplish with our number at 169 strong. Parents thank you for your support and care for our work in the community. It is a pleasure to serve with your boys.
Click here for the more picture from the day in Daredevil’s Club orBranch Hoppers photo galleries. 

The Branch Hoppers explore Stewart Mountain & the Art of Shelter-Building II

This being their fourth year in Boys Explorers Club, exploring and connecting with the Branch Hoppers is as familiar as coming home. Being the seasoned Explorers that they are, the boys arrived on Sunday adorned in rain gear with high spirits. The Mentors were thankful to hear that no one from the group was seriously impacted by the storm. Circling up it was great to be in the presence of a familiar cohort and hear about summer adventures. Brian informed the group that instead of spending the day by the lake we would be climbing the lower flanks of Stewart Mountain in search of a good place to build shelters and to be sheltered from any hazards leftover from the storm.
On their last outing of the spring 2015 season the Branch Hoppers made a few outing location requests for their upcoming fall season. The group has spoken fondly of a previous excursion to North Lake Whatcom, in early September. Looking out the window Saturday morning with its ominous rain clouds and occasional gusts it was hard to believe this was the same time of year. The previous year’s outing had been sunny and warm as we spent hours swimming on Whatcom’s shore.
As outdoor guides our mentors are continually impressed by the power of the dynamic landscape in which we live. The Saturday before the Branch Hoppers’ outing now marks the strongest pacific summer storm on record for the Whatcom County area. This storm brought wind gusts up to 56 mph and took down large deciduous branches throughout the county. With much of the foliage still on tree limbs, coupled with brittle branches from the seasonal drought, it was indeed the “perfect storm” causing the Explorers Club to cancel all outings. The Boys EC mentoring team would like to thank the Girls Explorers Club and Wild Whatcom team for their quick response and attentiveness to the change in weather patterns and overall commitment to the safety of our Explorers and mentors.
The mentors told the group that the Alevin Explorers, who are only two years older, were scheduled to climb the west side of Mt. Baker on the Ridley Creek Trail. This difficult terrain required multiple creek crossings and unconsolidated riverbanks. Using this scenario as our frame, the group envisioned that they were the Alevin and had decided to go on the outing anyway, crossing the Ridley Creek in the morning only to find that with the heavy rain and debris flow during the day they were now unable to cross it in the evening. This is one of many scenarios in which a day hike can become an overnight survival situation in the blink of an eye. The boys’ task was to search out an ideal shelter location to weather the storm and take shelter until the creek flow decreased.  
As we hiked the boys looked for a safe shelter location. They were searching for a well-drained, mature stand of Cedar and Douglas Fir with relatively abundant amount of debris and downed branches close by. Scanning the landscape our senses attuned the sweet aroma of morning rain that brought a freshness about the landscape. The Sword Ferns had sprung back up with liveliness and Robins called out in song for the abundance of life giving water and the relief of the southerly wind.
Ten minutes into hiking the group came to a junction in the trail. We realized that no one had handed out jobs and there was no Tribal Elder to facilitate a group decision on which way to go. The boys took a vote and those that were the minority graciously offered to follow the rest of the group on the trail to the right. The Branch Hoppers are becoming skilled at considering transition times when there is a need to flex to each other’s needs and ideas in circle. Brain and I are inspired by their growth and maturity in this arena.
Climbing onwards we passed through second growth stands of Cedar and Maple that eventually gave way to a massive power line clearing. Steeping out of the cover of the forest the sky opened up with rain and we retreated under the dense canopy of Cedars. Pulling out some lunch we nestled ourselves under the umbrella like branches of a Western Hemlock. The temperature was warm and all the boys looked refreshed by the rain.
We then turned our attention to our skill for the season, the Art of Shelter-Building II. The group decided that they would first try to build their own shelters in teams without any guidance and then the group would build the frame and base layers of a freestanding shelter together. All the Explorer teams decided to use existing structures as the base of their shelters. The mentors later cautioned that although finding a lean-to under a tree or shrub can be effective time saver in an emergency, trees often drip water down the trunk and finding just the right shelter materials to fit the shape of the tree can be time consuming.
As the boys worked on their shelters half the group really engaged in the process while others attention dwindled. The mentors attributed the groups’ lack of cohesion and focus to the boys’ excitement to see each other and catch up about their hobbies. On one side of the coin, this behavior is exactly what we want for the boys. They have become so comfortable and relaxed in the natural world and amongst their peers that they carry on as though they were hanging out in their living room. Showing a deep sense of connection with place. On the other side of the coin, their cohesion presents issue when mentors are trying to have the Explorers hone in a specific skill and they are interest in following their own agenda.
Recognizing the need for cohesion and change the mentors stopped the shelter construction to play a few rounds of Hungry Hungry Martin to help break up the task. Once our focus had returned the group revisited and constructed the frame and inner workings of a simple, but sturdy freestanding shelter. The group started off with a strong push, but again half the group broke off in side conversations. In the end those that did participate learned a lot about setting up a shelters frame, matting, and insulation.
Our third outing of the season will provide the perfect opportunity and abundance of resource for the boys to learn the about the second step (insulation) and Final step (3 feet of debris!) of the shelter building process. In our closing meeting the mentors shared with the group that we have been tracking their maturity and see it as vital that they as seasoned Explorers deeply know the skills required for wilderness living. This will not only benefit them on day outings and in emergency situations, but on our backing trips that they will all be eligible for come Summer 2016.
Passing apples around it was clear to see that our core routine of giving thanks holds meaning for these boys. Before our circle closed an Explorer, who shall remain anonymous, gave thanks for the vastness of the wild spaces that is so close to Bellingham. He gave thanks for the vibrant wildland and mentioned that he did not think it would be there when he was old. After further questions and some elaboration he expressed that with all the change in weather patterns, population growth, development, and forest fires he feared this patch of land would most likely not be there when he was old. It was a great time for mentors to encourage the Explorer and group that the future of these and our front country wildlands relies on our ability to know these places deeply while advocating and serving them as a community. It was truly a powerful moment for the boys and a lot for them to hold. This is a conversation that we will continue to revisit over the course of the season.
Finishing our thanks the boys expressed gratitude for: the rain, exploring a new part of a familiar location, storms creating abundance of resource, a powerful start to the fall season, and for the sunshine that broke through the clouds halfway through the outing. Thank you Branch Hoppers for a strong start to the fall 2015 season.
For more pictures from the outing please visit the Branch Hoppers’ photo gallery

Branch Hoppers enjoy the wonders of Squires Lake

What do you get when you cross ten explorers, second growth evergreen forest, a 275 lb. English Mastiff, numerous tadpoles and at least twoleeches (yes, leeches) on a warm sunny Skagit County afternoon? Answer: the latest Branch Hoppers’ Boys Explorers Club outing, of course!

Our good friend Stubbs delivered us to the Squires Lake trailhead with the reliability of the atomic clock, so we quickly handed out jobs and struck out for the lake. The trail climbs pretty steadily for a third of a mile. When you arrive at the top, however, it is immediately apparent that your exertion is worth the effort: the land for Squires Lake park was donated anonymously and developed by park personnel and volunteers. The result is a picture-pretty park that can be hiked year-round and that has been preserved as an oasis of biodiversity a short distance from I-5. 

We decided to pursue our adventure by hiking clockwise around the lake. The park is showing touches of summer: robins and wrens are flitting about, frogs are croaking, mosquitoes are biting, and tadpoles are transitioning to frogs. This place is a biology lab for anyone who takes the time to slow down and observe. 

And what better way to learn about this biodiversity than by swimming in it? And swim in it the Branch Hoppers did! In a scene out of a Norman Rockwell sketch, several boys splashed in while a few others preferred sunbathing on the shore and yet others peered into the water from the near shore, observing tadpoles, dragon flies and frogs doing their own sunbathing. 

This idyllic scene was soon interrupted when a leech was spied on the leg of one of the swimmers. The uninvited guest was removed and returned to his freshwater environment while his temporary host received a little medical attention and became a bit of a celebrity (15, er... 5 minutes of fame?).  A few explorers began carving, a la Tom Sawyer, and quiet was restored. Enter leech number two. The doctoring was repeated, celebrity status was transferred to our new star and more boys decided sunbathing and carving were now more attractive than swimming.

Next, along came the English Mastiff. Three to four times the weight of the average explorer, this gentle canine was out for a Saturday stroll with his family. Oohs and aahs all around. 

Time for a change of pace. The group decided they wanted one more great game of Spider’s Web before wrapping up a strong spring season, so we packed up our gear and struck off for a suitable patch of forest. Evidence of long-ago logging was found in the form of several extremely large cedar stumps that this day served as cover for flies scrambling in pursuit of the prized “food source”. Abundant deer fern also aided the hungry flies, while the stinging nettle and devil’s club called for cautious movement. We had found an excellent location and enjoyed a fine game, although an ultimately frustrating one for the flies.

As we reversed our course for our hike out, enjoying the shocking-pink blossoms and juicy berries of the abundant salmonberry, it was tempting to reflect on the changes this spring has brought. Yes, there is the plentifuldicranum moss, water parsley and skunk cabbage the warmth of spring has nurtured. And, there are the tadpoles, visual evidence of nature’s constant metamorphosis. Most significant for us, however, is the change in these explorers. As they’ve examined the wonders of Clayton Beach, explored Galbraith Mountain, served the land at Connelly Creek, and now soaked in the splendor of Squires Lake, the Branch Hoppers have matured this spring to the point where they’re better able to collaborate and compromise to make decisions. They’re ready to deal with unexpected developments like our leech incidents with calm and perspective. Finally, the increasing depth of their friendships within the group expose a growing appreciation of the people and natural wonders around them. The tadpoles are growing the legs and developing the lungs they’ll need as adults: the Branch Hoppers are getting ready to transition as well.

Our departure was delayed by a bus door that wouldn’t close, allowing a symbolic lingering that many of us long for before a sometimes daunting transition. The boys took full advantage of the opportunity, as would most of us.

Many thanks for allowing us time with your explorers this spring. We are honored to play a part in their lives and look forward to continuing the journey in the fall. 

Roosevelt Elk Calves and Branch Hoppers do Service at Connelly Creek

The sun was not only shining but also full of warmth as the Branch Hoppers and Roosevelt Elk Calves circled up in the large field adjacent to the Connelly Creek service site. For most of the boys this was their first look at the site since our efforts the previous Fall. We all took a moment to be proud of our work last Fall and recognize the work that other Explorers groups had already done this season. After these moments of reflection and recognition of our work it was time to turn our attention to our task today.

In our large circle we talked about using the tools with intention and keeping in mind blood circles and safety as we worked. After discussing the tools we moved on to talking about what exactly needed to get done today. The main work that needed to be done today was to move the rest of the mulch out over the flattened Reed Canary Grass and continue to cut back the black bearies that seemed to continually grow closer and closer to our site. Despite two other groups putting in many hours of hard work the day before the pile of mulch still stood tall.

Armed with buckets, rakes, and shovels the Roosevelt Elk Calves and the Branch Hoppers got to work on the mulch. While part of the boys shoveled the other part moved the large buckets of mulch out to the places it was needed. This effort took teamwork and planning since each bucket needed; one or two Explorers to fill it, three or four Explorers to move it and another couple to spread the emptied mulch. Both the Branch Hoppers and Roosevelt Elk Calves showed great work ethic and group coordination as they moved the mulch. After a solid hour and a half of work the mulch pile was flattened and we all stood, sweating, as we admired our work.

The boys ran after Steve as he led the way down to Connelly Creek for a refreshing head dunk in the Creeks chilly water. Reinvigorated the boys came back ready for the next task. Our next project was to begin clearing the back part of our service site of the invasive blackberry vines. The boys got to work lopping the vines, stacking the vines and moving them into large trash bags. Again the boys quickly figured out the most efficient assembly line for this task and coordinated it gracefully.
Soon it was time for the Branch Hoppers to leave Connelly creek. After bidding the Branch Hoppers farewell the Roosevelt Elk Calves turned to the task of gathering all the remaining blackberry clippings into piles to put into trash bags. blackberry is an incredibly resilient plant that can replant itself from just one clipping so the job of cleaning up all these scrapes was very important. The Roosevelt Elk Calves buckled down for the last bit of work to clean the service site before we left it.
Our day ended with some time to just play and explore the site that we had been working so hard on. The hard work is important, but so is connecting with the place your are doing the service work at. Laughter filled the site as the Roosevelt elk calves ran through the creek; jumping along the bank, and sometimes into the creek, to see what was around the next corner. Parents be sure to stop by connelly creek sometime and have your Explorer show you all the work they have been doing, it is really impressive. Thank you Explorers for you hard work this weekend! Be sure to look at our Branch hopper photo gallery and Roosevelt Elk Calves photo gallery for more pictures.    

The Branch Hoppers Explore the West Flank of Galbraith Mountain

The morning began with a deluge of wind and rain; the Branch Hoppers arrived at North Galbraith Trailhead well layered and prepared for exploration. Heading up the trail a few of the boys made a beeline for the lower bike jumps. Following their inspiration the group ran and played on the jumps. For Explorers and mentors alike it reminded us just how vital it is to run and be free in the woods.
Circling up for an opening meeting the mentors told the boys it was imperative that we did two things on the outing. First that we explore a new section of woods that another group of Explorers had found and second that we begin carving chopsticks. The mentors had spent some time crafting Cedar chopstick blanks for the outings with the intention of creating more focus around their seasonal skill of carving. Handing the circle over to the boys we tasked them with passing out the jobs. This proved to be difficult for the Explorers, not due the difficulty of the task, but in their inability to focus as a cohort. As mentors we always look for the powers in the boy’s challenges and the challenges in their powers. The Branch Hopper’s challenge lies in their struggle to take responsibility for their own actions and disruptive behavior while the group is trying to make decisions or share in circle. The group shows great leadership in many areas on our outings, but this continues to be a theme.
Their power in this challenge lies in their ability to let go of and reign in their individual impulses and desires and recognize how their actions are affecting others. Often times the Explorers disregard for each other and what the group needs results in their peers and mentors feeling frustrated and disrespected. We recognize that these boys are growing and learning and it is their consistent engagement with group process that will help them develop skillful interpersonal communication. Our expectation as mentors is not for the boys do this perfectly every time, but that they make a genuine effort to try. The unfortunate consequence of this behavior is extended circle time, which cuts into our exploration time.
After fifteen minutes we were back on track and our Front Scout led us down the trail towards the new location. After crossing the power line clearing the group headed up a dried creek bed and over a few small valleys.  As we hiked we were struck with how beautiful this patch of land was. The tall stands of Cedar, Spruce, and Cottonwood mixed with a lush ground cover of Fringe Cup, Vanilla Leaf, Salmon and Huckleberries were fragrant with the smells of spring. It felt as though we had the entire area to ourselves, our own little private forest.
The Explorers scouted out an open spot along a ridgeline and we got to carving. The boys practiced the delicacy and technique needed to carve a chopstick out of the soft Cedar strips. The first step in the process is to turn the wood into a cylinder and then start to taper one end down. As the boys worked a mentor carved a chopstick and sanded it down into a fine point to demonstrate the process. He then proceeded to work on his Fire by Friction kit. The boys were anxious to try to make fire, but the mentors encouraged them to continue to make their chopsticks and embrace our motto slow is fast and fast is slow.
Carving takes patience, focus, and practice; parents we encourage you set up a safe space at your home for the Explorers to practice. These basic knife skills are the foundation for many of the other Earth Skills we practice with the older groups. Carving also encourages creativity and helps the boys slow down. Although their hands are occupied their minds still have time to process, reflect, dream, and wander in a mental state coined by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan as “Soft Fascination”. Handwork is a powerful tool and in a natural setting it helps contribute to the restorative and therapeutic qualities that nature induces in these boys. To read more about this topic check out this article by Stephen Kaplan from the Journal of Environmental Psychology on “Attention Restoration Theory” or a book also by him and Rachel titled The Experience Of Nature: A Psychological Perspective.
The boys did some excellent work on their chopsticks and after a solid hour of carving we set up a game of Spider’s Web in the valley below. The boys called for a mentor to be the Spider and choose Brian because they thought he was less experienced. Little did they know every mentor the Boys EC hires becomes an expert at Spider’s Web. Our course was challenging and required careful route planning and stealth. Many flies fell victim to the spider’s keen senses. The mentors would like to commend the Branch Hoppers for playing the game with such enthusiasm and honor. They embraced the difficult course as an opportunity and played with maturity and integrity. 
Calling our game a little early we circled back up for a closing meeting. Sharing apples and thanks the boys signed a thank you card for the staff at SOG Knives for their generous donation they had been carving with over the last two outings. The boys expressed gratitude for Galbraith Mountain, Cedar, friendship within the group, their ability to participate in Explorers Club, and the beautiful weather. Brian and I would like to express our deep appreciation for the opportunity to mentor these boys long-term; for the opportunity to grow and learn with them, they are our medicine and part of our own restorative experience. We look forward to our chance to serve the land with the Branch Hoppers and the Connelly Creek Restoration Site next outing. Branch Hopper parents, thank you for building a strong community with your Explorers group. It is wonderful to see this group sharing experiences and friendships both in and out of the Boys EC. 
For more photos from the outing please visit the Branch Hopper’s photo gallery

The Branch Hopper's Carve and Explore at Clayton Beach

The Branch Hoppers arrived at the Clayton Beach parking lot excited to reunite and reconnect. Once they had all arrived we circled up and passed out jobs.  The mentors explained to them that in the spring our Earth’s alignment with the sun and moon brings extremely low tides, and that today at 1:00pm would be the lowest for the day. But before we headed down to the beach we needed to go over a few things and make a few introductions. Bryce and Julian Lutz, who were joining from the Grey Fox Kits, introduced themselves and Sam Mallet made the group aware of his needs in trying to navigate the outing on a mending broken ankle. The mentors then took a moment to give some thanks for a generous donation the Explorers Club had received from SOG Knives & Tools. Last week SOG donated a set of thirteen high quality fixed-blade carving knives to the EC. On behalf of the Explorers Club the mentoring team would like to thank Chris Cashbaugh and Nando Zucchi at Sog’s marketing team, and the rest of the staff at SOG Knives for reaching out to Lisa Meucci and making this donation a reality. Thank you for supporting our Explorers, our cups truly overflow with gratitude. 
After making a plan for how we would help Sam, the group crossed Chuckanut Drive and descended down into the lush coastal forest. The boys quickly ran over to a trail that led to an epic location where we had previously played games ofSpider’s Web. After some trail assessment the group determined that it was not an ideal trail for Sam and instead decided to head down towards the beach. We hadn’t made it more than five minutes before some boys ran off the trail to climb on a steep hillside. Their play quickly manifested into a pinecone battle, which is quite typical of this time of year due to the abundance of Douglas fir cones. After letting the group decompress for a while, the mentors called the group together to try and focus their energy with a game. Circling up we played a few rounds of Head Honcho and Poison Dart Frog. After we had had our fill the mentors handed the circle over to our Tribal Elder for the day, in order for him to help facilitate a discussion on how we could use our time wisely on this outing.
Calling the group together the Tribal Elder tried his best to hold the circle and facilitate the discussion, but the boys continued to squirrel out. After ten minutes the mentors reigned in the group and again the Tribal Elder began. Within five minutes the group was in agreement that they would head to the beach to explore and carve.
As mentors we continuously track our mentees personal growth over time, asking ourselves where is the power in their challenge and the challenge in their power. For the Branch Hoppers their challenges lies in the ability to hold their focus in the process of group decision-making. On outings their personal frustrations and challenges often stem from lack of cohesion and engagement with their own interpersonal communication and desire to explore their own interests. Their power in this challenge will come with practicing this process and skillfulness in reading group dynamics. The Branch Hoppers are well on their way towards learning how to work and make decisions as a community.
Heading down the trail to Clayton Beach signs of spring were all around: flowing creeks bursting with recent rain fall, nettle and fiddlehead shoots breaking their way through the soil, Salmonberry and Big Leaf Maple flowers blossoms, and the beautiful and varied shades of green throughout the landscape. With some team work the group arrived at the beach and spread out over the land.
The low tides allowed for exploration into the rocky near shore intertidal zone and sand dollar beds. About half the group sat down on a smooth patch of Chuckanut Sandstone and got to carving some of the seasoned Cedar driftwood they had gathered while the rest of the group continued to explore and climb. The mentors our still holding to the intention set back in fall that the group all carve spoons and butter knives for this summers camp. Explorers, this is going to take some work, but don’t forget to work on some of these utensil projects at home. Parents, these Explorers showed a great deal on of care and consideration while using their knives. They respected their blood circles, sheathed their knives while walking, and practiced proper form and technique. The Branch Hoppers are taking the group’s commitment to use their knives as tools vs. weapons to heart. If you have any questions about our knife culture, safety, and technique when working with your Explorer(s) at home please feel free to contact a mentor or visit our EC Knife Use: Safety, Skills & Selectionpage.
Putting our knives away the group circled up to play a few round of Otter Steals a Fish. In order to play this game one needs a sandy beach and a lot of agility. The boys showed great honor while playing and accepted their defeats with dignity and really got into the spirit of healthy competition. We laughed and played together as the sun came out and reflected off the clouds, lighting up the water as though we were looking at a tropical reef. Ending our game we spread out over the beach for a sit spot. Silently we watched the sun’s light pierce through the clouds as three Bald Eagles carefully watched a group of Buffleheads fish for invertebrates in the Eelgrass Beds, it was spectacular.
Circling up for a closing meeting the group reflected on just how magical this location is. Passing around apples the boys gave thanks for the opportunity to carve and roam the beach. Branch Hoppers thank you for a strong start to our spring season and for answering the call to work with help fellows Explorers.
For more pictures from our outing please visit the Branch Hopper’s photo gallery

Exploring Chuckanut Creek with the Branch Hoppers

Spawning salmon, fire by friction, carving, and river rambling; what powerful way for the Branch Hoppers to end their fall season. Heading out from the North Chuckanut Mountain Trailhead the Branch Hoppers circled up at the first junction in the trail for an opening meeting. Now that the boys are a well-seasoned group of Explorers it is important for them to begin to track the different locations we explore and realize how they are connected geographically. Working together the group tried to orient to the cardinal directions and determine where the two trails were headed. They came to the conclusion that one way led to Chucaknut Creek and Lost Lake while the other led to Clayton Beach. Each time an Explorer makes a connection like this they can begin to construct a mental map of natural landscape, like a patchwork quilt. When a boy traverses from Clayton Beach to Arroyo Park, rambles up Chuckanut Creek, and climbs to Pine and Cedar Lakes he begins to understand the many important mountainous creeks which feed the lowlands, and in turn support us all. Our aim is for the boys to develop a deep sense of place and connection through this geographical knowledge. When they understand the landscape’s watersheds and topography they begin to understand how to take care of it holistically and fully.
Heading East towards Chuckanut Creek the group marveled at the damage the last storm caused and the abundant waterfalls and streams flowing off Chuckanut Mountain. The beautiful fall colors in the foliage and mild weather left the group in high spirits as we roamed. Arriving at Chuckanut Creek we gazed over the bridge and one of the Explorers called out Salmon! The boys darted off the bridge and leaned out over the creek, trying to get close. The Chum Salmon were large and could move with speed and precision up the creek.
In our opening meeting we talked about a woman who could catch salmon with her hands, not by chasing and overpowering them, but through patience and stealth.  This must have inspired the boys because some of them were quickly up to their waists in the creek! Some of the boys balanced patiently on logs and rocks, submerging their hands in creek and waiting, while others tried to chase the salmon. Soon half the boys were in the creek like a group of hungry bears. In the end one Explorer who had waited patiently pulled a twenty-pound salmon triumphantly onto the bank. Looking at it we could see that it was starting to deteriorate. We quickly put it back in the water and it was one its way.
The mentors and EMA’s grouped up and discussed the actions of the group from an environmental impact standpoint. In the end we decided this was the perfect way for the boys to understand the power of these salmon’s journey. As a few boys chased a salmon, it with only a few flicks of its tail that it was sixty feet up the creek and had disappeared under a log. The boys bared witness to the grace, strength, and technique of this master of survival. How wonderful to see the land living and thriving right in our backyards.
As we rambled up the banks of the creek a few boys connected the power of their knives to harvest salmon. They asked if they could harvest one and the mentors told them they were not prepared nor was it appropriate. They asked why, and the mentors explained that the harvest of salmon was something that needed to be done with the right tools and intention. If we came out with the specific intention of harvesting then we would do it. This carried into a deeper conversation about what ethical harvest is with a look at the many types of harvesting we do in the forest.  Addressing the case of the salmon, we needed to take into consideration that we had no fishing license nor did we know the regulations of the creek. One Explorer mentioned that no one would ever know if we took one, and it was a powerful teaching moment to talk about the concept of integrity. We stressed to the boys that integrity is most important when no one is watching and requires engagement in a constant search for truth and honesty within oneself. In the end the boys agreed that we were capable, but not prepared.  
Wrapping up the conversation some of the soaked boys started to look cold, and we decided it would be wise to build a small fire to warm up. We crossed over a Western Hemlock that spanned the creek. Climbing up the hill we found a secluded area and made it our base camp for a skills session. Peter found a downed Cedar and harvested some of is wood. The boys worked on their own carving projects while Peter worked on a small but hardy fire.
It was nice to see the boys get quiet and relax into the solitude of the location and witness the power that fire has to bring us together. As a small flame started to rise the boys gathered around it. Slowly we fed the fire with Hemlock twigs. Warming their cold feet and hands, the boys roasted their apples slices and gave thanks for the day. The boys gave thanks for carving, creek rambling, the power of salmon, the abundant resources which are all around us, for the ability to take resources and leave them for others, and for special locations like this one. We also revisited the conversation we had earlier about integrity and ethical harvest. Emphasizing that the only way we can live as humans is by taking, and its how we take and give back to the land that makes all the difference.
Recognizing that we had made a fire and needed to deal with it responsibly we took all the water that was left in our water bottles and put the coal and ash out completely. Peter taught the group and old Apache Scout method for burying ash. Once the ash was was buried we returned the duff to the soil and covered the area with debris. Scattering our carving shavings you could barley tell that we had been there. We may have caused a little impact, but these boys are establishing a relation with the wild spaces around them and need to be free to see the effects of their actions. This is the only way they will learn how to protect it.
The mentors are thankful for an incredible season with the Branch Hoppers and look forward to our upcoming winter season. We also would like to thank Logan and Jordan for being such great EMA’s for the boys. The Branch Hoppers really gravitate towards them and they can lead and teach in so many ways that we mentors cannot and for that we are thankful.
For more pictures from the Branch Hopper’s outing please visit their photo gallery.  

The Branch Hopper's Continue their Carving Journey

Circling up off trail we tried to track what had happen to the land.  After some investigation and observation we decided that strong southeast winds had blown through the area downing many Alders and Maples. The group decided that we would need to be on high alert for trees leaning precariously and branches waiting to fall. Once we were oriented to the land the group revisited knife safety, highlighting our motto A Tools vs. a Weapon and some of the carving techniques that we practiced the first outing. It is vital that we go over knife safety every outing because the second that that the boys get overconfident or careless with their knives will be the time when they cut themselves or worse another.
Passing a few items around the circle the mentors showed the group the utensil set that they had carved to try and give the group some inspiration for their carving projects. Handing out jobs and turning the meeting over to the boys, the mentors asked the group how they would like to spend their time. Through some collaboration and group process the boys decided they would search the area for some carvable wood and end their day with a round or two of Spider’s Web. We enjoy being able to hand the leadership over to the boys and follow their inspirations.
Packing up we headed down the trail and not before long we found a downed Maple branch. We took a couple shattered pieces of the Maple and made them into shims. We pounded the shims into a split in the Maple Branch and it quickly popped in half under the pressure. Then taking our knives at a parallel angle from our bodies we split the wood into a carvable size with a technique called battoning. Once the boys had their carving blanks they got right to work.  It is refreshing to see them settle into the land and get quiet. The boys leaned against the trunks of a few old Cedars and relaxed in the duff of the abundant nursing stumps as they carved. It is plain to see that they feel at home in the woods. Our aim as mentors is for the boys to slowly come to know the woods as a place of nourishment, feeling as comfortable on the land as they do in their own homes.
As we carved the mentors asked a question to the group, “What do we have in our homes that does not come from the land?” It was interesting to hear some of the boy’s responses: computers, steel, microwaves, clothes, cars, etc.… It was important to reiterate to the group that everything we have comes from the land. It is the force that sustains our lives and we are dependent on it. Connecting the boys with Earth Skills like carving helps them establish this connection. When we harvest a piece of wood and turn it into utensils and then eat and cook with them we can tangibly make this connection. Our hope as mentors is for the boys to have a reverence for the life giving resources that the Earth provides and start to build an awareness of what it means to conserve and take, in order to live.
We commend the Branch Hoppers for their careful awareness and respect for their knives. The boys carved for two hours straight and the whole time they made each other aware when they were in each others Blood Circle and slowed down enough the really practice proper form and technique that this vital skill demands. The boys ended up carving some beautiful forks and knives. The group has made a goal that by the time summer camp roles around they will all have hand carved utensils to eat with.
Packing up we headed to explore a new location. On our way over we played a few rounds of Hide. We came across a giant Western Hemlock that had cracked at its base and rested precariously on a small Maple. It had broken and fallen in a northern facing direction, confirming our assessment that the storm had blown in from the south. Hiking on Jake called the group over to a nursing log with hundreds of mushrooms sprouting off of it. We all agreed that it is amazing to witness the power of fungus to decompose such large organisms like a nursing log.
We closed our day with a round of Spider’s Web.The area that we played in was perfect for the game. With two giant fallen old growth Cedars crisscrossing the playing field the Explorers were able to get on their bellies and sneak the length of them. We held our closing meeting next to the base of a Douglas fir stump and shared some thanks. The boys gave thanks the multitude of ways they found to use their knives, for the time and space to be able to freely carve, for the storms which bring about an abundance of resource, for friends and family, and for the ability to learn new skills and still get the chance to play.
It was a great outing with the Branch Hoppers and they really rose to the occasion. As mentors we intend to hold a fine line between use and misuse of knives and the group showed that they were ready for the responsibility. We encourage the Explorers to continue carving in their free time at home.  Parents, we would love updates on how the boys have been doing with their knives at home. Modeling proper knife safety and skill should be practiced in every situation when the boys are using their knives. We would be happy to answer any questions that you might have regarding our culture of knives and safety. Together as community we can help transform the violence in our society by empowering the Explorers to become skilled craftsmen while keep good intention in their hearts and hands.
For more pictures from the outing please visit the Branch Hopper’s photo gallery