THE WISDOM OF WATER: Reflections of an Outdoor Educator

About the Author

KatieAnn Vogelian is a writer, surfer and singer. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she works for Voyageur Outward Bound School. Currently she meditates on peace, and laughter, and how to grow green things where green things no longer grow.

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A few years back I worked as a surf instructor, ocean lifeguard, and marine science teacher at YMCA Camp Surf in San Diego. It was a brief stint, just the spring season of  March through May. But it was enough to make a big impact on me.

Located on the south end of Silver Strand, San Diego, Camp Surf is a haven for students and staff alike. When you exit the streets of Imperial Beach and enter the gates of YMCA Camp Surf, you feel something wonderful happen to your body, mind, and spirit.

On this camp’s property — the marsh, the dunes, the beach, the ocean — I have fond memories of teaching 12-year-olds about the water cycle by building sand castles on the beach and flooding them with buckets of water, or introducing them to the marine ecosystem flora by instructing them to find the biggest piece of kelp they could find and wrap it around their classmates’ shoulders like a feather boa. As instructors, we worked hard to give our students a safe, engaging and unforgettable ocean experience.

Here’s a secret of the trade: it’s pretty hard to mess up a positive ocean experience. Just set up rules and safeguards, then let the kids play, and they’re in heaven. We stepped back as much as possible, let the kids ask the questions, and let the ocean provide the answers.

Something I’ve learned over the years as an outdoor educator is that nature is truly a better teacher than any human.

Nature can be sweet and enticing: a slow, gentle wave lapping at your feet, inviting you in. That works for some kids, and they could stay in the shallows the whole day, poking into the littoral zone like sandpipers, learning about hermit crabs and sand dollars. Nature can be wild and punishing. Overhead waves come crashing down on you, rinsing you “washing machine style” until saltwater is flowing out of your nose and ears. That playful punishment is what keeps me coming back.

The ocean, although sometimes rough and unforgiving, is an endless playmate, always ready to match my energy and fill me with more. No matter my mood, the ocean meets me there. My eagerness or epithets reflected in the water — a giant azure mirror — showing me my best or worst self, or more likely, something in-between.

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Step lightly on the starry walkway,

Enter through the broken window.

Collapse on the floor, greet your demons,

Raise a glass and smash it.

On your knees, gather the shards,

Take them to the shore…

I returned to San Diego for a recent vacation, staying with a surf camp friend and his family — Imperial Beach locals, the real deal. I envisioned we’d spend the weekend like we used to spend the weekends during the spring season: biking in circles around IB; hitting a round robin of taco shops; pedaling to the beach to catch a nice break; then off to the taco shops we hadn’t hit earlier that day.

We’d start out just the two of us and, as we rolled around town, friends would pick up bikes and join us, or our friend with the truck would roll up and we’d ditch our bikes and hop in the back, picking the bikes up at sunset after we’d cased the town for tacos and horchatas.

This might sound like some childhood reverie, but this was all of two years ago and we were all in our mid-twenties. There’s something so easy about life by the sea. You can leave all your worries in the water and just cast about town like a sun-dappled acrobat, weaving, spinning, laughing, playing like you’re seven years old.

I haven’t quite been able to replicate that carefree ease back home in my Minnesota life yet. But I’m angling for it. I’ve been working summers in Minnesota as a canoe and kayak guide since I was 19. At 29, I find myself trying to craft a more “dignified” career, but really, is there anything so dignified as spending a summer’s day on the water? In my estimation, no. And as soon as I figure out how to make a little more money guiding people down rivers and across lakes and oceans, I’ll be doing it year-round.

Here, too, in this life journey, I’m letting the ocean be my guide. I know I’ll figure out my path if I’m easy like the sea, go with the flow, no hurry.

I often find U.S. citizens (myself included) tend to be in a hurry. In this wonderful country, we’ve allocated space for ourselves to revel in the beauty of such places as Yosemite, Big Sur, the Everglades. But, too often, we don’t allow ourselves the time to enjoy it. In our culture of nonstop digital office work, we’re modeling something rather awful to our children: your time is not valuable and is best spent indoors. NO!

The best of life happens outside — in the wild — whether the wild is a beach in southern California, or the park in downtown Minneapolis near the Mississippi River.

I’m proud to be an outdoor educator and guide. I work every day to be a role model for children, letting them know that they can choose an outdoor lifestyle, that they can advocate for themselves and their own health and happiness, and that the ripest fruits of life cannot be tasted through a computer screen or tablet. To eat the sweet fruit, you have to touch the tree outdoors. Soon I’ll be founding my own arts and adventures school in Minneapolis, and I’ll be able to offer classes in outdoor education. My tide is flowing, I’m riding a lovely wave all the way home.

It’s our job as adults to protect nature for kids. More importantly, to give them the time to play in it. Whatever your profession, it’s important to show kids a balance of professionalism and play. Don’t over-schedule yourselves or your kids, it’s unhealthy for everyone involved.

When’s the last time you went out for a 3-hour bike ride with no destination in mind? When’s the last time you let your imagination be your guide? Take the world in with all your senses. Go play today. Do it for your kids, do it for yourself.

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… Wade through seaweed tendrils,

Allow the sea to take your soul,

Plant your fragments, wait in silence.

Watch them grow.


Additional Reading & Resources from C&NN
LOVE & SLUGS: A “How To” on Fostering Love for Nature, Slimy Parts and All
THE RIVER SHARKS: Ríos to Rivers Inspires Young Nature Stewards
CONNECTING WITH NATURE & OURSELVES: Reflections from Colorado Legacy Camp
MAKING FRESH TRACKS: Natural Leaders from the Arctic Circle and Urban Los Angeles Partner Up
NATURAL LEADERS LEGACY CAMP: One Young Man Decides to Give Back the Way His Father Did
BEYOND LEGACY CAMP: What C&NN’s Natural Leaders Do When They Get Home
WE’RE READY! C&NN’S Natural Leaders Pledge to Support National “Every Kid in a Park” Initiative
THE LIGHT OF NATURAL LEADERS: Young People Move the New Nature Movement

Additional Reading & Resources
Learn more about the interpretive, educational, and outreach programs provided by Texas State Parks
Natural Leaders Initiative

Top Photo Credit: Pixabay

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