Though Camp Wood YMCA is primarily known for summer camps, we are also proud to offer a variety of outdoor education programs from August through May. Learn more about bringing your class to Camp Wood YMCA and then read about a lucky group of students who combined the magic of a beloved book with the magic of the outdoors for a very special field trip.

How a book built a fire in the hearts of young readers.

Since it was first written by Jean Craighead-George in 1959, young readers have imagined themselves as My Side of the Mountain’s main character Sam Gribley, a teenage boy who leaves his family’s noisy city existence for a life of solitude and survival in the Catskill Mountains. Sam learns to rely on his creativity and determination (as well as survival books at the local public library) to turn the tests of wilderness living into triumphs of independence and self-reliance. The story quickly engages young readers and inspires them to wonder, “Could I live like Sam Gribley?”

Sam Gribley Day is born.

At nearby Chase County Elementary School, 5th grade students were asking themselves that very question after reading the book in class. Could they do what Sam Gribley had done? What would it be like—to rely entirely on nature and your own skills to survive alone in the woods? Their teachers, Tammy Jirak and Rachel Matile, wanted to give them an opportunity to find out.

On Friday, October 16th students left their classrooms behind and boarded a bus to nearby Camp Wood YMCA. They had planned the day in collaboration with their teachers and camp staff. Together, they set 5 goals for the students.

  • Build a fire without using matches.

  • Cook over an open fire.

  • Form their own cup, plate or pot out of clay.

  • Catch fish on homemade poles.

  • Build a shelter using only natural materials from the woods.

Throughout the day, the students threw themselves into the challenges, tackling each task in teams and learning as they went about the risks and rewards of living like Sam Gribley.

Students were also thrilled to meet Cowboy, a trained falcon brought to camp by Doug Burt. They enjoyed learning the basics of falconry, a skill that Sam Gribley mastered during the course of training his companion, Frightful, in the book.

Goals-accomplished and lessons learned

Throughout the day, students reflected on meeting each of their survival goals with varying degrees of success.

Pleased with the fishing challenge which involved simple dowels for poles, string for line, and safety pins as hooks, Kaleb was happy to announce, “I didn’t know it was going to be that easy. I was surprised that all we had to do was drop our line in the water.” Marveling at the many fish caught that day, Ashlee offered, “I was surprised because they weren’t like regular poles and they worked better!”.

In contrast, shelter building yielded mixed results for students. When asked about her favorite part of creating a shelter from leaves and sticks, Mayah mentioned “working together”. When asked for challenges that the process presented, another student, Grace, was sure to mention “being careful not to knock it over!”.

Lunch was a highlight of the day as students used their newly acquired fire-building skills to cook their own healthy lunch. They added vegetables, biscuits and “turtle” (ok, it was just chicken since Sam Gribley’s meat of choice was hard to come by) to a dutch oven and used the fire’s heat to cook everything well. Working and playing all day in the “wilderness” had made everyone hungry and they quickly gobbled up their lunches—vegetables and all!

Outdoor adventure teaches safety

While students were encouraged to explore the 5 survival challenges for themselves, Camp Wood YMCA staff also ensured that the desire to live like fictional character Sam Gribley didn’t overpower good judgement about real-life wilderness safety and respect for nature.

When asked what they should always remember when cooking over a fire, students quickly offered, “Make sure you’re being safe!” Students were reminded to only start fires with a parent’s permission and to always have a bucket of water nearby. They also learned several fire-building techniques—just in case they ever do find themselves in a situation like Sam Gribley’s.

Independence gained

Students returned home after their day at Camp Wood and were asked to reflect on the experience in general. What had they learned about Sam Gribley? What had they learned about themselves?

“I was actually capable of making my own shelter!” declared student Emily Miser. Later, another student, Chayla Owen, shared how the day’s lessons stayed with her even after she left camp, “When I went home that night, I built my own shelter!”

Their enthusiasm was matched with new wisdom about wilderness living in general.

“We learned how to make a fire, what kinds of fire to make, and how to make a fishing pole to survive,” reflected Leaya Francis. “Also, surviving in the wild is hard!,”

Student Jade Tracy shared “Be really safe in nature–a snake might bite you!”—but then also offered “I learned that I really like the woods and I had a good time!”.

Thank you, Chase County 5th grade students and teachers, for making Camp Wood YMCA a part of Sam Gribley Day! We think he would be proud of all you accomplished and all you learned. Nice work!