NHHS' Northern Outdoor Studies (aka Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse 101)

John Thibadeau exudes an easy confidence when he enters the room. His smile is warm, and his handshake is solid. He makes eye contact and holds it. He does not abandon our conversation to check his phone for texts or new Instagram posts. He is invested and seems happy and well adjusted.

“I got suspended three times,” says the grade eleven student, candidly, with no trace of embarrassment. “And I knew I was going to keep getting in trouble.”

I don't know whether he's good at video games or downloading pirated movies like a lot of people his age, but I do know he can operate a chainsaw, hunt, build a fire, safely operate a rifle, and administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if he needs to.

We're sitting in the principal's office at North Hastings High School (NHHS), in Bancroft. Thibadeau has popped in briefly, to chat about his personal experience in the Northern Outdoor Studies (NOS) program. He and the principal, Ken Dostaler, are relaxed and jovial with each other. Obviously any problems Thibadeau was having in school are far behind him now.

“There are no other programs in the province like our experiential learning courses,” explains Dostaler. “Our students are taught to be safe in our outdoor culture by these fantastic teachers who are extremely well accredited. The skills our students leave with can be applied to post secondary pursuits, but there's also a lot of real-world application. It opens up so many doors for the students. We definitely see the difference in them when they go through the program. It's life changing.”

Thibadeau nods his head in agreement. He and his father actually relocated to Bancroft so Thibadeau could enrol in the NOS program. He had been struggling within a traditional classroom environment, but was never short on ambition.

“I was just getting through, and trying my best to pass,” says the seventeen-year-old, who hopes to one day work for Hydro One. “I heard about the program and I couldn't believe everything it offers. I decided I wanted to take a program that's going to help me for the rest of my life.”

With his family's support, Thibadeau reinvented his academic career in Bancroft.

“Since being here in this program, I've had no problems, and I'm going to keep it that way,” he says with conviction.

The NOS program takes a full semester to complete. During that time students don't attend typical classes like math or science. Instead, they complete up to fifteen professional certifications in a hands-on environment. By the time they finish they're certified to administer First Aid and CPR, operate a motor-boat, chainsaw, skidder, and rifle, are trained in wilderness survival, search and rescue, canoeing and kayaking, trapping, fur harvesting, and much more.

Thibadeau says he's confident that he could survive out in the bush if he had to. He has the skills and knowledge to build a structure, start and maintain a fire, set traps and hunt food, find a water source, and generally take care of himself. We find ourselves chatting about the hit TV show, 'The Walking Dead.'

“That should be our mission statement or marketing slogan” chuckles Principal Dostaler. “We teach kids how to survive the zombie apocalypse.” He's joking around, but in all seriousness the skills learned in the NOS program can literally save lives. And they have.

Glen Pomeroy, one of NHHS' two NOS instructors, says that when he runs into past students he sometimes hears stories about how they've used their skills to save a life, either by rescuing someone from drowning, or administering First Aid or CPR. More often though, he hears about how the program has kick-started their careers.

“They beat out some college kids for jobs,” Pomeroy explains. That's partly because one of the final assignments of the program is to put together a resume and portfolio. And an impressive portfolio it is.

“If I were to get all these certifications on my own it would probably cost me $2000,” says Madison-Montana Gates, a grade twelve student and accomplished gymnast who just completed NOS. “Instead it cost me $350.”

Gates was one of only two girls in the program this year, which needs at least eighteen students signed up in order to run.

“Some years we've had as many as six or seven girls,” says Pomeroy. “But it is generally a male-dominated program.”

Gates admits that she was a bit intimidated in the beginning, and that the boys in the class underestimated her.

“For the first while the guys didn't want to work with us because they thought we didn't know what we were doing. But as the semester went on they changed their minds,” says Gates. “They realized that we can do anything they can. And we were better at some things, like writing reports.” Gates says the program has given her more confidence in her own abilities, and she now has no hesitation pursuing a career in a typically male-dominated industry. In fact, she might even prefer it.

The Northern Environmental Research and Development Studies (NERDS) program is another experiential learning opportunity offered at NHHS, which is similar in many ways to NOS. While NOS prepares students for college or the workforce by providing hands-on learning and professional certifications, NERDS is more academic, and is popular with students who are planning on attending university. Some students, like Gates, complete both programs.

“I've got a definite advantage,” Gates says proudly. “My resume is really good because I've done both NOS and NERDS.”

After completing the NERDS program when she was in grade eleven, Gates was hired by the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) as a stewardship youth ranger for a summer.

“We did work with the parks related to invasive plants, and worked with a biologist to track turtles, which was awesome.” She says the position paid better than the average student job, and was way more fun than flipping burgers or scooping ice cream. Plus, she was learning and improving her resume the whole time.

“I'm pretty sure the MNR will hire me again this summer,” she says with a confident grin, “especially now that I've done NOS. My portfolio is overflowing.”

“NOS gives our students a real edge on the competition,” agrees Barb Gillis, who began teaching the program in 2003. She and Pomeroy are a solid team, and sing each other's praises. It's no accident that the program has one male and one female instructor. According to Pomeroy, who has been teaching NOS for fifteen years, the school purposely wanted to recruit a talented female instructor for the NOS program to help empower female students. But having a female instructor has been good for the boys, too.

“Students are often surprised to see a woman in that role,” admits Gillis. “It's good for the boys to have a female instructor teaching a chainsaw course.” She laughs as she remembers the alarmed look on the face of one of her male students when she led a chainsaw course while 'very pregnant' with her son. It was funny in so many ways she says, adding, “you know, they don't sell chain saw pants in the maternity department. I had to constantly readjust and pull my safety pants up over my belly.”

In order to teach the program, Gillis and Pomeroy both had to complete instructor certifications for all of the trades included in the program. It was a significant time investment.

“We couldn't do this without the support of the school and the school board, says Pomeroy.

Keeping a unique program like NOS running does have some challenges. Last year the multi-day canoe trip to Algonquin Park was cancelled last minute due to liability concerns around water safety.

“The school board takes safety very seriously, as so do we,” emphasizes Pomeroy. He admits it can be tricky sometimes to get all the approvals necessary to run the courses as planned in such a tight timeframe. In the case of last year's canoe trip they just weren't able to get all their ducks in a row quickly enough to proceed, because multiple departments are involved, curriculums need to be met, adequate insurance needs to be in place, and policies get updated and require new considerations yearly. Everyone was disappointed at first that the canoe trip was cancelled, but Pomeroy says it turned out okay because everyone worked together as a team to adjust the plans and arrange an alternate activity. And it's not just the school and the board that supports the NOS program, the whole community is engaged.

“Local trappers help by providing co-op placement opportunities, businesses donate items for our fundraising raffle, there's a lot of back and forth with the MNR...without all these dedicated individuals, the program wouldn't exist,” says Gillis. “The community at large is very involved.”

Each year, at the conclusion of the program, the students hold an open house at the school. It's a chance for them to showcase their skills and knowledge, and for the public to stay informed about environmental issues in the area. The event is always well attended. At this year's open house Thibadeau demonstrated his trapping and skinning skills, and Gates welcomed visitors and answered their questions about the program. Both students highly recommend NOS to others.

“My little sister is already signed up for NERDS next year,” says Gates, who plans to go to university, and is considering environmental biology as a major.

“I hope she does NOS, too. She watched me skin a beaver once, and she was like, no, that's not happening...” Gates giggles. But she thinks her sister might come out of NERDS feeling more empowered and willing to challenge her own perceived limitations, just like she did.

Thibadeau agrees. “Anyone who is willing to take this program seriously, should take it,” he says. “It's amazing.”

For more information about the Northern Outdoor Studies program, check out the experiential learning section of the North Hastings High School website at www.nhhs.hpedsb.on.ca or call the school at 613.332.1220.