A Trip Outside the Classroom

It’s a moment in nature that most often happens out of human sight. The dragonfly nymph, a rough-looking larvae, crawls up a stem and out of its watery home, sheds its skin, and transforms into a dragonfly – one of the most striking insects in nature.

A Blue Dasher. Photo by Matt Reinbold.

For the last 40 years, students visiting the Bluewater Outdoor Education Centre (BOEC) near Oliphant, Ontario have had a lakefront view of this metamorphosis. “It touched many students,” recalls Peter Middleton, a teacher at the BOEC in the ‘70s and ‘80s and today a board member of Ontario Nature. “In early May when the dragonflies emerged from Boat Lake, they did so en masse. The air would be filled with them. And for the students to be working at the lake and see these reptilian creatures metamorphose, going through that process of change to become this beautiful insect … Those moments occurred time and again.”

Boat Lake is one of two lakes on the 320-acre BOEC property, which the Bruce County Board of Education bought in 1971 and began running programs from in the ’72-’73 schoolyear. Outdoor ed programs had been popping up around Ontario since the early 1960s, and the Bruce board (today amalgamated with the old Grey board) recognized their ideal geography: With plenty of undeveloped semi-rural land on the biodiverse Bruce Peninsula, what better place for outdoor education? The Oliphant property contained an old farm site with a well-preserved barn and farmhouse, wetlands, waterfront, various woodlands, and an alvar (a limestone plain). It could serve as a living textbook for hands-on instruction in geology, biology, freshwater ecology, geography, wildlife habitat, and local history, in addition to a venue for physical education including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, camping, canoeing, and role-playing games.

Winter cookout on the BOEC property, February 1978. Photo courtesy Deb Diebel, BOEC.
BOEC’s barn, the site of many a gear-up.

In 1972 the Board hired Clarke Birchard as its first Supervisor of Outdoor Education and Science and he began preparing the site. With help from volunteers and teachers, he first had to remove hundreds of standing dead elm trees, bolster the site infrastructure with portables, begin an inventory of the property’s resources, and blaze trails.

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Stewart Nutt was a student teacher in 1973 and recalls his first two-week placement at the new Centre when he took Grade 7 students along a newly blazed trail for a woodland ecology lesson. Later Nutt returned to the Centre after they had begun overnight programming. “Many of my students were farm kids, but they didn’t spend a lot of time outdoors looking at the natural beauty of the area,” he says. “When we were up there overnight, watching them bond as a group, it helped me as a teacher. We’d be up there for three days and the class would become very tight-knit.”

In those days outdoor education was new and the Bill Davis government promoted it, though frequently the emphasis fell solely on what became known as “phys ed.” Progressive boards like Bruce County’s, however, took the hitherto under-recognized natural resources of their region and parlayed them into innovative cirriculum programs.

“The program was very responsive,” says Peter Middleton. “We could stucture it even for the youngest students by having them look for colours, shapes, and textures outdoors; the next day we might be doing lake studies with the Grade 13 biology class – chemical analysis, population profiles of invertebrates. And then the next day we might be doing pioneer studies in the barn, pressing apples from the orchard – a tactile experience of history. So it was a very diversified program.”

This past year saw cutbacks hobble the BOEC, including the loss of two staff and the elimination of day programming. Middleton calls these cutbacks a “travesty.”

“We live on a unique planet, a living planet,” he adds. “It should be part of every student’s experience to touch that and understand its value in our lives.”

In the late 1990s a local group of volunteers formed a Foundation to support the BOEC in undertaking capital projects and seeking sponsorships and partnerships. The Foundation has spearheaded recent builds including a new dorm, dining and kitchen facility, the Bruce Power Environmental Learning Classrooms, and the well-equipped E.S. Fox Observatory.

In its 40th anniversary year, Clarke Birchard finds reason to be upbeat about the Centre’s future: “There are numerous OECs boarded up, closed and sold. But I believe the BOEC is so embedded in Grey-Bruce community that the heart is beating.”

BOEC’s reunion happens on May 11.