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Winter Survival Lesson, Wittenbach-style


Courtney Cheers addressed the small group of Cherry Creek Elementary fifth-graders gathered at her feet.

“What are some things you would bring with you on a trip into the woods?” asked Cheers, director of the Wittenbach/Wege Environmental Agriscience Center.

Members of Michigan Search and Rescue demonstrated to students how trained dogs help find missing people (courtesy photo)
Members of Michigan Search and Rescue demonstrated to students how trained dogs help find missing people (courtesy photo)

A sword for hunting — for food, offered Braden Bierling.

“And if you get that food, what are you going to do with it then?” Cheers asked.

“Take off the skin and cook it,” answered Corey Bennett.

“How will you cook it?” Cheers asked.

“Start a fire!” answered Hope Kilbourn.

“How?” Cheers asked, in a reversed rendition of every seemingly never-ending adult-child conversation.

“These are all things to think about before you go into the woods, or any time you leave your house,” she told them. “You should ask yourself, ‘Do I have what I need?'”

All district fifth-graders — about 200 students — visit the center this time of year for a day of winter survival lessons.

From left, fifth-grader Kahari Sprague, parent Jessica Rogers, and fifth-graders Christopher Rogers, Peyton Rike, Andrew Leet and Hope Kilbourn (front) with the lean-to they built
From left, fifth-grader Kahari Sprague, parent Jessica Rogers, and fifth-graders Christopher Rogers, Peyton Rike, Andrew Leet and Hope Kilbourn (front) with the lean-to they built

Though it was hardly the frozen wonderland it typically is outdoors, they still had ample opportunities to learn how to build a fire to keep warm with and without matches, how to use a compass and how to build a temporary shelter.

Cheers said the annual lesson aligns with fifth-graders’ physical science curriculum, as well as with English. Most classes are reading the book, “Hatchet,” about a 13-year-old who survives in the woods for nearly two months on his own.

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Wittenbach/Wege Center

Sophia Dommer, left and Ava McPherson arrange kindling for their fire in a teepee configuration

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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