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Paddling the Big Sky Expedition: Mountains to Arctic 2005

Learning by listening
Teaching students to listen — really listen — to their natural surroundings is not an easy task, says Phil Mullins, a doctoral student in outdoor education at the University of Alberta, but it may be the key to changing how we see our place in the environment.

Last summer, Mullins and his team paddled from Hinton, Alta., to the Arctic Ocean at Kugluktuk, Nunavut, to develop a better understanding of the interaction between individuals and the outdoors.

The 100-day adventure, funded in part by the The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, covered 3,500 kilometres. For the first month, Mullins and two fellow instructors travelled with 12 students, teaching them to tear their eyes from their maps and hear the world around them.

At first, they resisted, says Mullins. “They would pick their lunch spot on the map before we would even leave camp.” But as the students began to take the lead down the Athabasca River, he says, they began to trust the natural cues. Being on alert for rapids and streams forced them to pay attention to the changing gurgle of the river.

The students left the group at Fort McMurray, Alta., and the instructors joined three others for the journey North.

Spring ice and high winds forced them to drive around Great Slave Lake rather than risk a shortcut across open water. It was a tough choice, says Patrick Maher, one of the team members, but “it allowed the group to finish,” he says. “Everyone wasn't a broken heap once we got to Kugluktuk.”

— Elise Stolte

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