His face is screwed into a twisted mask of determination. With the final tree less than a metre away the slight Grade 6 student strives to maintain his balance on the thin wire cable beneath his feet — tongue sticking out hoping to gain an extra ounce of balance. With eyes as taut as the cable, he teeters on the edge… hovering over the musky, damp ground. Then, all at once everything stops, the cable quits quivering and as time seemingly stands still he pulls a short, calm pirouette and touches the tall cedar tree which marks the end of the famed Ropes Course at the Coast Mountain Outdoor School — a well-fought victory.
Often attempted, rarely completed and famous for its ability to challenge the balance of even the steadiest pre-pubescent prestidigitator, the CMOS Ropes Course is a tough test of equilibrium-busting fun. Students grunt, gasp and giggle as they wage a two-minute battle with gravity that includes suspended tires, swinging ropes and a teeter-totter log that requires a bit of ingenuity and a touch of pure luck at the final crux of the challenge -— the taut cable.
For the past two years the Coast Mountain Outdoor School has been teetering on the edge of nowhere, poised over an abyss that involves a facility too costly for the cash-strapped Howe Sound School Board to run, too priceless for local users to appreciate and too political for teachers in the Sea to Sky Corridor to support. Late last month the ingenuity ran out and the luck ended for CMOS, as the school board promptly and without ceremony shut the 20 year old facility down.
The last class to chafe their hands on the CMOS Ropes Course on a misty afternoon Oct. 27 was a feisty gang of 25 Grade 6 students from Garibaldi Highlands Elementary . The careful balancing act that had been underway at CMOS for the past two years was over as the school board, faced with a $199,186 bill for a deficit accrued over the school year that ended June 30, 1995, passed a motion to mothball the venerable outdoor education facility.
Meanwhile in Victoria, the Ministry of Education was lauding the virtues of its newest initiative — a province-wide commitment to environmental education. The plan, entitled Environmental Concepts in the Classroom, integrates the study of the environment in all subject areas and helps students understand the relationship between their daily lives and a sustainable environment. The first learning tool foisted by the new plan is "direct experience," says Richard Kool, environmental education co-ordinator with the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks.
"What this does is it lends an air of legitimacy to environmental education," says Kool. "The government is realizing that environmental education is the extra-curricular thread that links many other educational aspects."
According to Kool, it is a "sad coincidence" that CMOS closed three days after the "Ministry of Education recognized that facilities such as the Coast Mountain Outdoor School are good tools to achieve the goals they have set out."
Nestled on the bank of the Lillooet River 26 kilometres up the rolling, verdant valley from Pemberton, the Coast Mountain Outdoor School was one of three public facilities in British Columbia dedicated to environmental and outdoor education. There now are two. The North Vancouver Outdoor School in the Squamish Valley and the McQueen Lake Outdoor School, run by the Kamloops School District, are the last bastions of hands-on education in a province where experiential education is being overrun by fiscal cost-cutting and undermined by a back-to-basics readin’, writin’ and ’rithmatic movement that is garnering support from parents and teachers across B.C.
New barn stalls are being sought for Arnold the portly Vietnamese pot -bellied pig, Pride the mare, Freckles the sow, Daisy the cow and a host of chickens, donkeys, rabbits and goats who were part of the CMOS farm. The sprawling 314 acre grounds are home to a vintage log cabin village, Pemberton’s first school house, a salmon hatchery, camp ground, swimming hole and the $1.5 million Fougberg House — the main dormitory and classroom facility.
According to Howe Sound School District superintendent Doug Courtice, the school board trustees felt they could no longer financially support potential cash shortfalls at CMOS. The board had already depleted a $230,000 CMOS Trust Fund gathered over a period of years through private donations and the benevolent gifts of Slim Fougberg, the Pemberton Valley resident whose generous land donation gave rise to CMOS two decades earlier.
"Two years ago the board gave strict directions that revenues had to equal expenses for the outdoor school to remain open," says Courtice. "When the board saw that was not the case, to the tune of almost $200,000, they had to act quickly to ensure the deficit did not continue to accumulate." The revenues listed on the CMOS books totalled just over $106,000 — split between outside groups and Howe Sound bookings — were a little short of the expenditures. With yearly CUPE and teacher union salaries totalling $200,000 and annual operating expenses of $100,000 CMOS, home of fond memories for thousands of students in the Howe Sound School District, suddenly ceased to exist.
Victor Elderton, principal of the North Vancouver School District’s outdoor school, says it took 12 years of solid programming, full-time staff and a financial commitment from the North Vancouver trustees to pull the facility from the brink of closure to a viable educational entity and conference centre, with a yearly budget of $1.2 million and student visits of 5,500. Through the dedicated NVOS Alumni Society, some innovative corporate partnerships and a stern rule that states 80 per cent of the visitors to the North Van outdoor school had to be North Vancouver students, Elderton says he is "$15,000 to $20,000" away from breaking even at the outdoor school.
"You hate to say it, but it looks like Roy McLean and the rest of the folks at the Coast Mountain Outdoor School were set up to fail," Elderton says. "The teachers weren’t taking their students there and the board of trustees didn’t back the facility with the money it needed to become a viable business."
Gone with it are the opportunities the facility offered — a chance to learn, teach and grow through hands-on, experiential education. The two-dimensional education offered by textbooks and flashcards will replace learning in 3-D at CMOS, where one day can include peaceful morning paddling beside beaver lodges on Oxbow Lake, a hike up the Tenquille Lake Trail after lunch and a late-afternoon lesson on camping safety and the art of cooking Ichiban noodles on a one-burner white gas stove.
Hello math books, good-bye to the fun and physics of canoeing.
The first budgetary axe fell on CMOS in the fall of 1992 when the Howe Sound School District Board of Trustees had to pare over $1.6 million to keep the district budget out of the red. The annual cost of running the school hovered around $250,000 and trustees felt the outdoor school was too much of a financial load to bear and CMOS was deemed "non-essential."
The ensuing scramble included frantic teachers, worried parents and a few distraught trustees as everyone had to quickly come to grips with the fact that, despite kind words and moral support, the school district cash that had kept the chickens fed, the larder stocked and the teachers paid was no more. A group dubbed Friends of CMOS, was hastily organized to drum up support for the threatened facility. After a couple of meetings, the group faded into the woodwork and Delores Franz-Los, long time CMOS administrator was let go.
Business manager Roy McLean was brought in and given a mandate to make the facility self-sufficient or the plug would be pulled. What followed was a series of events that, although loosely connected, helped pound the final nails into the lid of the CMOS coffin. Howe Sound teachers, upset at the new capitalist focus at CMOS and the removal of Franz-Los from the bosses’ chair, stopped bringing their kids to CMOS. The time and energy commitment required of teachers was too much to ask as they wrestled with increasing class sizes — a day trip to the planetarium or the Vancouver Aquarium was easier than a 72 hour sojourn into the wilds of CMOS — a place that the school board had already stopped funding.
The school board’s hands were tied by a constricting budget and its attention occupied by $45 million worth of capital projects in the district, including major renovations in Squamish and new high schools for Whistler and Pemberton. Local parents, many of whom live in wilderness settings very similar to the CMOS grounds, had a hard time justifying the $67 a day fee for CMOS programs and the energy from the first few Friends of CMOS meetings soon fizzled.
The pieces for the damning formula were now in place: No school board support plus no teacher support plus parental support only recognizable in a crisis equals no Coast Mountain Outdoor School.
Paul Fletcher is a Grade 6 teacher at Garibaldi Highlands Elementary is Squamish. Fletcher, who had the dubious honour of bringing the last class to CMOS, says some students thrive in the outdoor learning environment.
"There are some kids that you just can’t seem to reach in the classroom," says Fletcher, pointing to the Ropes Course whiz. "Get them out here and the inherent social skills that may not be necessary in the classroom are evident. You realize the student that has had a hard time with the concepts of the classroom just gets by a lot better outside than most of the others."
When Fletcher first started bringing kids to CMOS, 50 per cent of the teachers at Garibaldi Highlands Elementary were taking kids to the outdoor school — now about 25 per cent of teachers book their kids into the facility.
As the sun sets on the Coast Mountain Outdoor School, the Howe Sound School board has budgeted $25,000 to mothball and maintain the facility. Although no plans are in the works to sell CMOS Superintendent Courtice says there have been a number of interested parties looking at offering programming at the facility. In the meantime, the canoes will sit idle on the shores of Oxbow Lake, the barn will sit cavernous and empty — the sounds of farm animals past creaking in its stout timbers. Every fall the coho salmon will return to spawn in the small creek, but one thing will be missing…
The squeals of excited students, cheering for their determined friend tottering precariously on the almost-impossible Ropes Course are gone, the shrill sounds of social skills learned on the trail and refined in the canoe are over. The walls of the Coast Mountain Outdoor School remain standing, waiting for a possible cash infusion to open the closed gates of experiential outdoor education in the Howe Sound District.
Today, this place of fun and excitement is silent and the cacophony of lively, learning sounds emanating from deep within the Pemberton Valley have ceased — only the echoes of lessons learned there remain. If the Coast Mountain Outdoor School does open, the only way it will have a chance is if everyone has listened to those sounds — and learned.