Posted on September 6, 2012 by Tia Lalani

In the last two weeks of August, some Augustana and Japanese students spent their time white-water canoeing and hanging their food high enough to dissuade marauding bears.

In the last two weeks of August, most university students are finishing up their summer jobs, taking that last trip or saying farewell to their families for another year of studies. Some spent their last few weeks white-water canoeing and hanging their food high enough to dissuade marauding bears.

Seventeen students – seven from Augustana and ten from Waseda University in Japan – enrolled in AUPED 370 with outdoor education professor Morten Asfeldt and Dr. Takako Takano. They worked in mixed groups on their canoeing, camping, backpacking and navigation skills. During long, twilit evenings, they learned the history of outdoor education in Japan and Canada.

“The trip was a blast,” says Kevin Cawthorpe, a fifth-year environmental science student. “I really gravitated towards the cross-cultural aspects of it. We had a chance to learn about people who live halfway around the world. It was really amazing to see that we really are the same people.”

Fourth-year environmental science student Tamara Zembal agrees. “I noticed the differences between Canadian and Japanese cultures: there was some conflict, but we managed through them with debrief and discussions.” She mentioned the varied backgrounds of students from both countries: there were environmental studies and geography students, but also economics and business students.

“From the get-go, you could tell that the language barrier would be an issue,” says Kevin. “But as soon as we started to play some games and interact, the group congealed into a whole. It was really one family, one tribe.” They worked to overcome language barriers while getting down the river in one piece and bear-hanging their food together.

In fact, the presence of bears made some of the students nervous. “Japan is very safe,” says Waseda University environmental energy student Hikaru Nakamura. “I have never thought to have scary bears around – so I never thought to have to hang food so bears can’t reach it. We also carried bear spray. I was nervous for a lot of the time. When I was hiking, I saw a black bear and I was very scared: I shouted “Bear!” but it was a big, black dog,” she laughs.

Yoshiki Toriyama had taken one of Dr. Takano’s courses a few years ago, staying in a Micronesian village for two weeks and living as the villagers did. When she emailed him about this opportunity, he was excited. “This one was more difficult physically, and intellectually, with the language,” he says. “We had many small challenges that were much harder because of the difficulty to communicate.”

“We had to communicate with action and gesture – it is very different,” agrees Hikaru. “I have to study English – this is my first experience with the language.” Unexpectedly, she found that she enjoyed walking away from her iPhone as well. “This trip, I can’t use technology, so I talked and communicated with people directly. It is very happy scene for me. Direct communication is very important and I think my friends would benefit too.”

All of the students would recommend the course to other students – whether from Canada or Japan. “In Tokyo, it’s hard for teenagers to feel connection to nature,” says Yoshiki. “Some kids think that fish come sliced from a supermarket – this place has such big sky and a lot of stars at night.”

“It’s a new experience to immerse ourselves in our own, untouched wilderness,” agrees Tamara. “And when you learn to navigate your way through it, it brings a whole new level of confidence.”

Morten Asfeldt has travelled extensively in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut on canoe, hiking and dogsled adventures, whether on personal journeys, as a commercial canoe and raft guide, or with students. He has published in academic journals and magazines, and his photographs appear in a number of books, magazines, brochures, and websites.

Dr. Takako Takano chairs a Japan-based educational charity ECOPLUS, is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, and is a Specially Appointed Professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. Dr. Takano has been involved in cultural and scientific expeditions in the Arctic, the Amazon, Siberia and Micronesia. She was a delegate to the Wilderness Educational Expeditions conference, hosted by Augustana in the summer of 2010.

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