My Outdoor Classroom

I went on my first hiking trip when I was ten. We just finished grade four, and our homeroom teacher, an avid outdoorsman, decided we were ready for a few days in the woods. To get to our camping destination, we took public transit and then walked for two hours or so. Most of us had never been camping before so our teacher taught us how to pack our backpacks, what to bring with us on a trip, how to set up a tent, collect wood and cook food over the campfire. We stayed there for three days, making short hiking trips into the forest and gathering medicinal herbs, which we later donated to the pharmacy. By the end of the trip I was hooked. Luckily, he remained our homeroom teacher till we graduated from school six years later, and those camping trips became an annual tradition. He would take us backpacking in the Carpathian mountains every summer and skiing in the winter. The trips would get longer, tougher and further away. And every year I would enjoy them more and more.

p2_1The tents we used were old army tents, extremely heavy when dry and weighing about a ton after getting wet. They were hard to set up, especially after we lost or broke all the poles and had to find suitable sticks on every trip. There were no zippers on those tents, just some loops and hooks, so they offered little in terms of protection from cold or mosquitoes. We didn’t have any pads, only sleeping bags, also heavy and big, and we used our backpacks as pillows. The backpacks themselves were nothing like sleek modern contraptions with padded straps and back supports. They were weirdly rounded, bulky and extremely uncomfortable. The straps were narrow, and after a day of lugging the backpack around felt razor-sharp.

Somehow none of those things mattered. When I think of those trips, my most vivid memories are of sitting around the campfire and listening to our teacher’s fascinating stories about his travels. Or one of my classmates playing the guitar and singing the same two songs (I think he only knew two) over and over again. I can still picture breathtaking views from mountain tops, which were even more special because they required so much work. I remember warm summer nights when we would decide to forego sleep altogether and stay up all night waiting for the sunrise. Morning haze over the mountains, the thrilling song of nightingales, and the hot red orb of the sun rolling out from behind the hills. Fresh smell of woods and multicoloured flowery carpets of high mountain meadows. Card games with my classmates on long winter nights. The excitement of flying down a toboggan hill on plastic sheets, and all the pain and aches afterwards because plastic offered little in terms of protection from bumps and gaps.


Most importantly, I remember the growing confidence and satisfaction that came from accomplishing something that hadn’t seemed possible before, the feeling of community and knowing that you can rely on your friends. While we learned a lot of practical camping and survival skills from our teacher, he taught us way more than that. We learned to watch out for each other and provide support when someone was tired or hurt. We learned to share by pulling all our food supplies together to make some weird but always delicious concoction and then distribute it between all of us making sure everyone got enough to eat. We learned that you had to keep walking even when the mountain top seemed too high up or the road way too long. We learned that even the longest routes seemed shorter with your friends around.

My teacher died a few years ago from a heart attack. I never got to tell him how much all those trips meant to me and that they inspired my lifelong passion for the outdoors. I can only hope he knew that while we enjoyed his Ukrainian language and literature classes, the most important lessons he taught us were outside the classroom.

The Nature of Freedom

Nature has always been a big part of my life. Even though I grew up in the city, I used to spend most of my summers at my grandparents’. They lived in a small village encircled by deep woods. Their house backed onto a large garden plot cut off by the narrow ribbon of a crystal-clear, ice-cold stream. On the other side of it was an orchard with apple and pear trees. I loved to spend my Sunday afternoons lying in the tall grass, munching on apples and pears I’d just found on the ground, weaving flower wreaths and watching the clouds floating above.


The orchard gradually melted into the forest. That’s where we roamed with my friends (long before we turned ten), foraging for mushrooms, wild strawberries and hazel nuts. The forest was not scary and unknown. I was a magical place full of life, beauty and tasty surprises. I still remember the sound of twigs  crunching under our feet, the joy of finding mushrooms under last year’s leaves, the sweet taste of wild strawberries and raspberries melting in my mouth, the smell of spearmint that I liked to pick along the stream and rub between my palms.

Some days we would scale cherry trees that grew in a communal orchard, saddle one of the highest branches and spend hours eating cherries and spitting out pits. Or we would find a mulberry tree, pick it clean and come back home all stained and full of juicy goodness.

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In the afternoon, most of the kids in the village would take cows to pasture. We would take turns watching each other’s cattle, start fire and roast apples and corn. We would stay in the meadow late into the evening, sometimes coming back as it was already getting dark, met by our grandparents and parents’ reproachful “Do you know what time it is? We still need to milk the cows.”

That was the thing, though. We never knew the time. Those summer days weren’t measured in minutes and hours. They were fluid, slow, and unhurried. When I think of those summers I spent at my grandparents’, the things that usually come to mind are the warm smell of the earth, the cooling breeze in the woods, not having to wear shoes for weeks in a row, and the feeling of freedom.


Now as I watch my kids grow, I want them to experience the same connection to nature and feeling of freedom I was lucky to have when I was little. I want them to know that it’s not us versus nature and that we don’t need to protect ourselves from it. That nothing they will see on a screen comes close to the fascinating sights, smells and sounds of forests, lakes, mountains and oceans. That mosquito bites and getting soaked in the rain are a small price to pay for all the benefits we receive when we spend time outdoors (plus getting caught in the rain can be quite fun).

I can see it working when they don’t want to go home at the end of each camping trip. When my 17-year-old son keeps asking where we are going next. When our 10-year-old refuses to wear shoes. When they stop to study a flower or listen to a bird. When they pick up berries in the woods and say those taste like nothing we could ever get in a store. When my younger son wants to wake up early and go canoeing with me. When my older son brings pictures of a sunrise from his, now independent of us, travels.

I hope this feeling of fascination and freedom stays with them when they grow up.

P.S. I took the pictures during my trip back home a few years ago. Unfortunately, the beautiful forest of my childhood looked much thinner due to excessive logging. As in other parts of the world, economic development is taking priority over environmental protection.

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