Vancouver Courrier, June 25, 2018 – Nature Ninjas program lets kids camp in Stanley Park

Stanley Park Ecology Society has been running the program for more than 20 years

Jessica Kerr / Vancouver Courier

JUNE 25, 2018 03:54 PM

First-time camper Ami States (right), Paul Winer (middle) and Logan Hagel-Noel work on putting up their tent. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Paul Winer, 10, and Lloyd Suela, 11, check out their tent as their class takes part in the Stanley Park Ecological Society’s Nature Ninja’s program. Photo Dan ToulgoetPrevi

It’s common knowledge if you want to go camping within city limits, you’re out of luck. Overnight camping is illegal in Vancouver’s parks and green spaces. There is, however, one exception.

The Stanley Park Ecology Society (SPES) has been running the Nature Ninjas program, which was previously known as Urban Camping, in the park for more than two decades.

After a day of exploring the beach, forest and all the flora and fauna in between, as well as a lesson on tying knots and building a shelter, Grade 5 students from Sir Alexander Mackenzie elementary from  return to Mystery Meadows to set up camp for the night.

The area, surrounded by trees and salmon berry bushes, is buzzing with activity as the kids put up their tents. For 13 of the 23 students, this is their first time camping.

“I think it’s been a good experience,” says Logan Hagel-Noel, 10, who is one of the more experienced campers in the group, before going back to work helping his group put up their tent.

When asked what his reaction was when he found out that the class would be going on a camping trip, Lloyd Suela, 11, mimics a shocked/excited face before saying, “I was extremely excited.”

Another first-timer, Ali States, 10, says he was also “extremely excited” about the camping trip. His favourite part? “Going to the beach and finding all the animals.”

The experience is also a hit with Jaime Wiley, 11, Harleen Nijjar, 10, and Alysa Ferrer, 11. All three agree that the best part has been learning to build the shelters and putting up the tents.

After putting up their tents, the class is off to another area of the park to learn how to set up a camp stove and cook dinner. Divided into groups, the students boil water to cook spaghetti, chop vegetables for the sauce, make salad, cut buns and clean up the dishes from a snack earlier in the day.

The Nature Ninjas program — run by SPES, the Vancouver School Board and the  Vancouver Park Board — organizes two overnight camping trips a week, one class at a time, from April until the end of June and sees about 18 to 20 classes a year. The classes all range from Grade 4 to 7.

When the program first started, it was aimed solely at inner city schools in Vancouver, but it’s now open to any school in the Lower Mainland. However, inner city schools still get priority.

“We do an early call out to inner city schools and then we do a broader call out to anyone that’s on our mailing list for when registration is open and at that point it’s just first come, first served,” says Dylan Rawlyk, school program manager with SPES.

Ninja oath

Standing in the middle of Mystery Meadows as her students excitedly putting up their tents, teacher Jennifer Young says she jumped at the chance to sign up her class.

“I love fieldtrips… it’s always been my thing. I’m really confident in children’s ability to handle themselves outside of a classroom. I think as long as you have guidelines and structure, they respond really, really well,” she says.

First-time camper Ami States (right), Paul Winer (middle) and Logan Hagel-Noel work on putting up their tent. Photo Dan Toulgoet

“I knew it would be fantastic. I had done programs with the ecology society before, like day programs, so I knew that that would be fantastic but I had no idea how fantastic. You wouldn’t believe what we’ve done today,” Young adds.

The class started the day at 9 a.m. with environmental educator Chandehl Morgan.

The students gathered in the forest and took the Nature Ninjas oath before learning about the different ecosystems in the park.

Chandehl Morgan, environmental educator with the Stanley Park Ecology Society, talks to Grade 5 students from Sir Alexander Mackenzie elementary during the classes recent camping trip. Photo Dan Toulgoet

“She’s done a whole outdoor classroom setting and introduced the concept of respect for the forest and each other and what it means to be a Nature Ninja,” Young says. “What it means to look after the park and each other.”

Morgan led the class through the forest, stopping to have the children observe what’s going on around them.

“She made all the bird calls and bird sounds and taught us how to tell them all apart,” Young says.

After their foray into the forest, the class headed to the beach near Lumberman’s Arch to learn about the intertidal zone and all its inhabitants.

Rawlyk says a highlight of this part of the day is usually when the students get to build a “crabitat” (crab habitat).

“They try to figure out what are the best things for crabs, create that environment, and find out which crabs are safe to pick up,” he says.

It’s the male crabs. The females are currently carrying their eggs and need to be left alone. The males are fair game though and the students get to pick one lucky crustacean to try out their habitat.

Dad Thomas Wang is the lone parent chaperone on the trip, in addition to the teacher there is several staff on hand as well as a security guard for the night. Wang was recruited to help with the trip back in November and took the day off work to help out his daughter’s class.

“I think it’s really good for them to see nature because I feel like a lot of kids nowadays, it’s easy to get stuck just being indoors and stuck on [electronic] devices,” he says. “I think it’s really good for them to see nature and get in touch with it and spend more time outdoors.”

Rawlyk says on average usually about half the students in any given class that comes through the program have never camped before.

Dylan Rawlyk, school program manager with Stanley Park Ecology Society, answers a few questions before students start putting up their tents. Photo Dan Toulgoet

“It’s a real transformation because it can be scary,” he says. “There’s a lot of fear that can come at the beginning, but I find that what happens most out of this is just social cohesion and confidence building. There’s excitement and just confidence, they feel comfortable exploring the areas around them in the outdoors and that’s a pretty special thing”

After dinner has been eaten and cleaned up and dusk falls over the park, the class will head out on a night hike around Beaver Lake, taking a look at how the ecosystems in the park change at nighttime — looking at, among other things, the different species of bats flying around.

“The night walk was fun and informative,” Young said a day after returning from camp. “We saw a beautiful barred owl, bullfrogs, a beaver, a heron, many mosquitos, bats and slugs.”

The final verdict?

“Such an amazing experience.”


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