Answering the Call of the Urban Wilds


“Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, water-lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of education.” – Luther Burbank (1849 -1926), American botanist/agriculture pioneer 

If Burbank lived today, and strolled through the snowy woods of Bloomer Park last week, he may well have added a sentence or two after stumbling upon exuberant children scurrying through the woods with branches, and creating fire with flint and steel. Perhaps this is what Burbank would have written: “When winter snows swirl, every child should head to the woods and discover wisdom in the building of a shelter designed by squirrels. And every child must make sparks fly from flint and steel and warm their hands at an outdoor fire.”

The children, a handful of adults, and I were all participating in “Snow Fort and Campfire”, an Outdoor Engagement adventure created by Rochester Hills Parks Department. Here’s the way that it was described on their website: “Come dressed for the weather and ready to work as we build an igloo-style snow fort! No Snow? No problem! Create a fort made from all natural materials instead. We will also deconstruct our fort at the end and talk a bit about “leaving no trace.” A campfire and hot chocolate will also be provided to help keep us warm. This is a family program so bring the kids and enjoy the day off school!”

The prospect of creating fire with flint and steel stirred excitement in the adults, as well as the kids. There was a hush as Park Naturalist Lance DeVoe explained the process with a demonstration, and then it was time for sparks to fly. In the wilds, a small bundle of dry tinder is used to catch the spark. However, for this event, held under a picnic shelter, tiny cotton balls saturated with petroleum jelly served to catch the sparks and accelerate the process. It took a bit of practice, but when sparks landed and tiny flames emerged, the excitement was contagious.

Girl Scout Troop 76855 from Rochester/Rochester Hills answered the call of the wild to partake in the adventure. After they honed their fire creating skills, it was time for the snow fort, but the snow was not deep enough to create igloo style snow forts. No problem. Naturalist Lance DeVoe and Outdoor Interpreter Lauren Oxlade smoothly shifted gears to teach the principles of a “debris hut” instead of the survival snow fort. The debris hut is an easy to build emergency shelter that bears similarity to the construction techniques used by gray squirrels. The purpose is the same: a safe place to sleep sheltered from the elements. After a few minutes of watching the kids scurry about gathering their building materials, I gave in to the calling of my ‘inner squirrel’ and joined in the construction fun.

The huts are simple to build and one need not be a skilled woodsman or survivalist equipped with all the latest high-tech gadgets to build one. They are constructed from easy to find natural materials. Bloomer Park presented an abundance of dead white pine boughs and dry detached tree limbs of every size, making it an easy task. No special tools were needed, just a bit of knowledge as to the purpose of the hut, and basic instruction on the best way to build it. The beauty of the project is that variation in design and building materials is acceptable. It’s all about adapting to what nature offers.

It started with a hunt for sturdy branches about eight feet long that would become the ridge poles. One end rested on the ground and the other end was placed in the crook of a tree or on an upright forked branch about three feet high. Shorter sticks were placed along the ridge pole on both sides leaving room for a doorway. Small dead branches that held pine needles were added for insulation and another layer of protection from the elements. That was topped off with handfuls of leaves, pine needles and more small sticks to hold them in place. The “floor,” of course, was lined with insulating pine needles. A few broken, but still green, spruce boughs were added to the roof and gave the hut the scent of the wilds. Everyone took turns burrowing in like a squirrel, creating the perfect setting for photo documentation.

The two hours of “Outdoor Engagement” in the woods went by all too fast. As the warming fire died, snow intensified, and hot chocolate was consumed, it was time to wrap up and say goodbye. After returning home, I contacted Troop leader Jessica Pitelka Opfer and asked how she became involved in this great kid-friendly adventure on the wilder side of Oakland County. Her response left me smiling.

“We’ve decided to pursue the Outdoor Journey badge this year, which will include many of these activities and will culminate in a troop tent camping trip this spring or summer. The girls will plan the trip themselves and learn “Leave no Trace” principles and basic survival skills along the way…which brings us to today’s workshop. It was a great opportunity for us to get outside for a couple of hours and learn some basic fire starting and shelter building techniques. I think the girls had a blast and now they are excited to build more skills that they can apply when they go out into nature. We also plan to learn map-reading/orienteering, basic wilderness first aid, outdoor cooking, etc. so we will be looking for additional classes and workshops to help us with these skills.”

Lauren Oxlade was equally happy with the outcome and emphasized the educational value of working as a team. “With the day off school, children were able to enjoy the snow and winter chill by learning how to start a fire with flint and steel, fire building basics, and general outdoor survival. They also worked as a team to gather natural materials and build an outdoor shelter. Kids and their parents were excited to learn about outdoor survival, fire building and master the art of flint and steel.”

I asked Lauren what was coming up next. She reminded me that the department’s Outdoor Engagement program offers year-round events and added specific details. ”Some of our upcoming winter programs include Fly Tying, and a program about Urban Birding in February, the Sap-To-Syrup Pancake breakfast in March and the Antler Amble in April. Watch for upcoming programs in RARA magazine, on our Facebook page and on the city’s website, including the Outdoor Engagement page.”

Bloomer Park never sleeps in the winter. Its 200 acres of land includes primitive, hill-hugging mountain biking and hiking trails that overlook the Clinton River, making the trails a favorite site for adventures on the Wilder Side of Oakland County. It’s a great four-season destination to answer the restless call of your “inner squirrel”.

Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County, Michigan Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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