by Scott Underwood, M.D.
Health is more than the mere absence of disease. Rather, good health demands integration of psychological, physical, social and environmental components into a coherent whole. In fact, individual people cannot achieve good health alone. We are all part of larger of systems. We are all connected. To loved ones, to our community, to the larger human society, and at every level embedded in and dependent upon the “natural” world, the world that existed before humankind, and which will exist long after we are gone.
So how do we promote good health in its fullest sense? One of the most effective ways is to challenge our minds and bodies, in groups, in Nature. There is compelling scientific evidence that Adventure-Based Learning (ABL), professionally conducted in an atmosphere of respect, trust, and safety, facilitates the kind of integration and health promotion we are seeking.
One particularly powerful example of ABL is Ropes and Rafting, a program developed at the Mother Lode River Center that combines challenge ropes with whitewater rafting. Over a six-year period, in six different groups of 200 students, Ropes and Rafting was proven successful in promoting healthy outcomes for students at Golden Sierra High School in Garden Valley, California.
Ropes and Rafting begins with group challenges on land that emphasize life skills such as problem solving, cooperation, leadership, courage, flexibility, communication, resilience and appropriate risk taking. These group exercises are followed by a unique whitewater raft trip designed to apply and hone these skills. Acting as a team, the students learn to “read” the river’s currents and work together to guide the rafts through whitewater rapids.
At every opportunity, students are encouraged to ask questions and improve their powers of observation. With each new question, students learn to to creatively frame, logically refine, and then actively seek the answers to their questions. This process of overcoming real challenges in Nature connects the students to the river, to each other, and to their inner sense of self.
Are these programs reserved for the privileged few? Far from it, the students in this study live in a rural area suffering high rates of drug and alcohol abuse and unemployment. Yet, as a result of a six-year program that included Ropes and Rafting, their community was named as one of the “Top One Hundred Communities for Youth in America.”
If you would like to learn more about this program, simply follow the link below and read the academic paper that resulted from it: Rationale for Adventure Based Learning.
If you are interested in bringing students from your community to participate in programs such as Ropes and Rafting, contact us. We are anxious to share them with you!
The newest addition to the Malode toy box is a 370’ zip line. This Ropes course element will be used to enhance our outstanding High Ropes programs as well as an addition to any of our rafting trips. For example, you are scheduled for a whitewater raft trip; you could add a ride on the Malode zip line for a nominal fee making your adventure on the South Fork American River even more memorable!
The Mother Lode staff will get you into your harness and helmet, go over the safety precautions then get you attached to the zip-line. The Mother Lode zip-line starts at the top of our property under majestic Blue and Valley Oaks. From this point you will launch into space and soar over the campground and through the trees reaching speeds close to 30mph! At the end another staff member will assist you onto the platform then lower you gently to the ground.
Zip line Pricing:
1 Zip: $30
2 Zips: $50
3 Zips: $60
Call for availability
Surfing the Internet I discovered something new the other evening: “virtual environmental education and teambuilding”. Apparently you can catch some pretty wild rides and achieve some serious bonding without leaving your couch!
Unfortunately, my old buddy John McKinstry never got to see it, the Internet that is. He had to settle for the real thing. Forty years ago we used to sit together on our boards at sunrise, waiting for the surf to come up. John was among the first to surf the big waves at Ghost Trees in my hometown of Pacific Grove. He had the courage to charge down the face of those massive forty footers, long before jet ski pull ins, or rather, pull outs. John pushed the limits of the possible and was an astronaut on a surfboard. Like many American pioneers he paid the ultimate price doing what he loved most.
I miss John, and a lot of other things that we enjoyed together, many of which are now paved over, but I particularly miss his questions. Once, as we passed a used car lot with a banner advertising “transportation cars”, John asked me: “What other kind of cars are there?” In this age of human induced climate change, that remains a great question.
So if we could ask John whether the experience of wild nature, or bonding with your fellow human beings, can really be replaced with virtual reality, what would he say? For that matter, let’s ask ourselves that question. But before we answer, perhaps we should ask our kids to tear their attention away from their video games, TV shows, computers and cell phones and ask them too.
Neuroscientists can now offer multiple reasons why the answer would be, at least for now, no. Memories created in the natural world are particularly vivid, long lasting and multi-sensory. Although humans are biased toward sight, memories resulting from sensory input from auditory sources generally last longer, and olfactory sources even longer. When I remember John dropping in on one of those monster waves I don’t just see him, I hear the thunder and feel the vibration, taste the salt air, and smell the rotting seaweed on the beach.
Something else happens to me. I get butterflies in my stomach, as though I too was falling, suddenly weightless, down the face of the wave. These are my “mirror” neurons, the one that specialize in giving us our ability to understand how other people feel and which lay down particularly long lasting, complex and nuanced memory tracts. I still care about and empathize with John on that wave, just as I did forty years ago.
I think we have just summed up the essence of experiential learning. Even if we could create an “app” for environmental education and teambuilding, I doubt it would be as powerful as the real thing. Repeatedly we hear from our participants, “that was the most amazing thing I have ever done and I will never forget it!” Right on, the surf’s up. See you on the river.
Scott the RiverDoc
The dark-haired teenager, Shawn, stood on a platform located high up in the Ponderosa pine and gazed down. Far below, just over a dozen faces stared up. He moved cautiously to the edge then broke into dance of exuberance.
“Pterodactyl, pterodactyl,” came yells from below.
Shawn raised his arms, flapped them several times like the ancient dinosaur taking flight, gave out several convincing shrieks, and launched himself into the air.
He was not committing an act of juvenile irresponsibility, responding to peer pressure but, along with his fellow campers, achieving a goal for which they had trained all day. He had just met the “Leap of Faith” challenge.
His rope harness caught him before he could fall, and while he was gently lowered to the ground he continued his dance of delight midair to the cheers of his friends.
The group was attending Mother Lode River Trips outdoor adventure course, based at the company’s campgrounds along the South Fork of the American River in Coloma. On June 7, 2010, they were taking part in the Ropes Course.
The 12 teenagers, along with their two councilors, were spending the final few days of a two-week expedition organized by Camp Tawonga, a youth organization headquartered in San Francisco, at Mother Lode. They were there to learn about self-confidence, teamwork, the environment, and the river. They were also having a great time.
The day had been spent preparing for “The Leap of Faith.”
The morning started off with “low ropes” activities, led by Mother Lode guides Mary Maliff and Emily Underwood.
One of the first games was the ball toss. The object of the game was for a baseball-sized ball to be thrown to each member of the circle until it was returned to the original thrower as fast as possible and without being dropped.
“There are only three rules,” said Mary. “Be kind to each other, be kind to each other and be kind to each other.”
As the ball zigzagged across the circle, faster and faster, the group also discussed plans for how to improve their time.
“Move in closer,” came one suggestion. “Each person take a step back once they’ve tossed the ball,” was another. “Call out the person’s name.”
Then, unexpectedly, more objects were thrown into the circle; another ball, a stuffed animal, a toy. Some started hitting the ground amidst peals of laughter.
The game was not only an exercise in communication and planning, Mary explained to the group, but also to show “plans change,” she said. “We all have lots of stuff going on.” When circumstances change and the original plan no longer works, she urged the group to come up with ideas for new plans.
Another game was called Norbert’s egg. Emily explained the rules as the group gathered in a grassy clearing with the sounds of the rushing river in the background. Somehow, she said holding up a golf ball, poor Norbert the pterodactyl “egg” had been separated from his nest and needed to get back. Each person was given a length of V-shaped metal bar. “Don’t use them as swords,” cautioned Emily with a smile. The “egg” could not be touched, had to always be moving down, and could not be rolled backwards.
After a brief planning session, the ball was placed on the first bar and began its journey. The group formed an interlocking chain with their bars, guiding the ball down the trough toward the “nest,” a hole in the ground. The ball was carefully passed from person to person moving closer and closer.
And fell just short. A collective “Awww,” arose from the group.
Undeterred, and drawing from the lessons of the previous games, the group came up with new ideas and new plans. Very quickly, they became proficient at saving Norbert the pterodactyl.
Emily explained the game demonstrated both personal and group responsibilities. They had to work together to accomplish their goal, but at some point each person was individually responsible for getting the ball safely to the next.
“You can control your own space, but not what others do,” said Emily.
Additional games followed at various locations around the oak-studded campground. Some of the games emphasized trust, others personal perspectives and how everyone views the world differently, leadership, and communication and teamwork.
“Humor helps,” said Maayan, her red hair shinning in the sun.
Julia was complimented for coming up with the idea of a “talking rock,” where the person who held the rock was the one to speak during planning stages so everyone could be heard.
Charlie, a Camp Tawonga councilor, praised the group for staying positive. “There was no ‘oh, you dropped this, oh, you did that’ kind of thing.”
Return next week to see who actually makes the Leap of Faith
Today we facilitated a low-ropes course here at Mother Lode. This time, our group is from a nearby community, a class of at-risk teens. Our goal is to help create a better working and team environment for them. They naturally arrange themselves by gender; the boys stand by themselves on one side of the grass, the girls on the other, as though there’s a line of fire between them which only they can see. By and large, they are all strangers to one another, and our course is being used as an ice-breaker to move forward with for the next few months of class. We start by asking them to take the hand of the person next to them, and immediately the boys, who were so comfortable a moment before, suddenly shift away from one another, now unsure of the boundaries which were so apparent moments earlier. It’s challenge by choice, of course, but they press forward and (with only a little cajoling), take one another’s hands. The course begins; hand in hand we press forward to meet the concerns of the larger group need.
Through the duration of our courses we find that the group dynamics can shift even in a few hours with the creation of a safe and expressive space for our students. Everyone from troubled kids to corporate groups can benefit from the ropes course, and our courses can make working together a less challenging space. Successful groups walk away from Mother Lode understanding each other better, and with tools for better group interactions in the future.
As an organization and workplace, we constantly strive to bring the best out in each group, and as a result, the types of groups that find our program successful vary widely in their backgrounds, but not in their results. In the past our Ropes Course participants have included small companies looking to create better team dynamics, at-risk youth groups, and private school Montessori students among others. Each team has come to Mother Lode with a simple but essential task: how to work together better. For some, this has meant that we have focused on team building activities through incorporating our low-ropes programming, which for many activities does not require leaving the ground! For other groups the team building element has been intertwined with the individual and group trust required for climbing the higher elements throughout our course.
As always at Mother Lode, safety is the bottom line, both physically and emotionally. Through group initiatives, problem solving, and leadership in our outdoor classroom, we develop a pathway for participants to see potential for themselves even through the challenges that fear can create for them. Our ‘challenge by choice’ philosophy allows students to stop at the point which works for them individually, within the group dynamic. After each activity we debrief, allowing both the students and the facilitators a chance to further discuss and identify the particular focuses of the exercises. This creates an environment where ideas ‘click’ into place for all participants.
The Ropes Courses at Mother Lode provide an outdoor group experience that benefits all creating a safe and effective learning experience, and we look forward to leading you and your group here sometime soon!
Another High school came out to join us at Motherlode for a day of challenges on the Ropes Course. The group spent the morning learning team building and problem solving and then challenged themselves in the afternoon on our high elements like the climbing wall shown below.
Today we were joined for a 1/2 day of challenges and pushing limits on our high ropes course. The boys spent the morning on the climbing wall, catwalk, and burma bridge. After lunch, each boy really pushed and tested their limits as they climbed 40 feet up to attempt to catch the platform on the Leap of Faith.