Vanier student Camille Phillip "came very well prepared" for last weekend's camping trip, but she still found plenty to challenge her.
(Photo: Phil Carpenter, The Gazette)

Winter survival school teaches CEGEP students important lessons about helping each other to overcome obstacles. CEGEP students learn important skills when it's 15 below and they're sleeping in the snow.

Getting started in CEGEP can be tough. For some students, the transition from high school is fraught with frustration and failure. And students who had trouble in high school are even more at risk.

That's why Vanier College has a compulsory program for its at-risk students. Explorations II is a lesson in life skills - skills that matter just as much when it's 15 below and you're sleeping in a snow dugout or cramming for an exam; lessons in learning when to ask for help, how to co-operate to overcome obstacles, how to survive.

Gazette reporter Allison Lampert and photojournalist Phil Carpenter spent time last weekend with a group of Vanier students at their winter camping trip to see how they fared.

"I came very well prepared," said student Camille Phillip, grinning broadly as she struggled with bundles of supplies. "I am ready for this. I am ready to survive."

Her grin would fade fast.


Gazette, Sunday, March 9 2003 p. B1

The first semester of CEGEP is always the toughest. It's when students, fresh from high school, are most likely to fall behind in class, or fail altogether.

To smooth this transition, Vanier College runs a special program for students who had poor marks in high school, or who need to take extra classes to get into their program of choice in CEGEP.

The Explorations II program is a lesson in life skills. It teaches students to use common sense and tenacity both within the classroom and outside during a compulsory survival course.

Last weekend, Gazette education reporter Allison Lampert and photojournalist Phil Carpenter saw how the Explorations students fared at minus 15C.

Tamaracouta Scout Reserve -- Carrying an overstuffed bag in her hand and a knapsack strapped over her chest, Camille Phillip teetered as she walked along the snowy path.

Along with makeup, clothes, sheets and a pillow, the Vanier College student had packed a bag full of provisions: eggs, two chicken dishes, roti, bread and pancake mix for the three-day winter camping trip.

"I came very well prepared," said the overloaded Phillip, grinning broadly.

"I am ready for this. I am ready to survive."

Her grin would fade fast.

Soon, Phillip and the other 26 students were looking for sites to dig "quinzies" -- igloo-like snow shelters that would serve as their homes for the next two nights in this large, wooded and very chilly Scouts Canada reserve, about 50 kilometers north of Montreal.

Already, a mixup by the school's company on Friday had delayed their arrival, and teacher Guy Quinn was worried the sun would set before they could finish shoveling.

"We're pressed against the daylight, so use this as your gauge," Quinn reminded the young adults, who had been divided into teams of three. "Conserve your energy, watch out for each other. Work as a team. Don't let anyone get totally fatigued."

Trudging through the snow in fringed, moose-hide boots, the veteran teacher is as experienced in the wilderness as he is in the classroom. Quinn, 53, said the maturity and resource skills the students acquire during the February trip -- part of the compulsory Science of Survival course for Explorations students -- will follow them back to class.

For example, many students don't ask for help, even when they're falling behind, he said.

"We work with the idea that the human traits needed in a setting like this are transferable"

"Knowing to seek help when you need it is a survival skill."

While there are toilets available at the reserve's lodge, the students will have to go without showers. They'll have to collect their own wood, build their own fires and cook their own meals.

"We have the resources out there; you need a fire, go out there and get the wood," he said. "You need to write an essay, go to the library."


Taking a break after nearly two hours of digging, Gloria Lee surveyed the mound of snow that would serve as her team's shelter. With only two shovels, the three girls were making slow progress.

The girls gazed enviously at their neighbours' 3-metre-high pile of snow.

Jeff Simpson, a 6-foot 8-inch football player who helped shovel the pile chatted with his friend. He and Richard Denton, a 6-foot-6 defensive tackle were waiting for the snow to harden, so they could dig out a space inside to sleep.

"Could you help us?" one of the girls called across the snow.

"Let us build our kitchen and then we'll go," Simpson replied.

"Oh, c'mon," the girl said.

"Less talking and more shoveling," Denton responded.

With help not likely on the way, Lee offered to take the shovel from student Raquel Da Silva.

A few months ago, Lee, 18, would never have envisioned building an igloo at the end of February. She enrolled at Vanier this winter after moving from Los Angeles with her family.

"I've seen snow before," Lee said. "But I've never seen so much."

Lee wants to study social sciences in CEGEP and eventually become a teacher. She was attracted to the profession after having a particularly special Grade 7 teacher, who helped her learn English when she first moved to the United States from Hong Kong.

As Lee continued digging, Da Silva asked an instructor about the stack of logs they had found trapped in their snow heap.

Chimwemwe Miller reassured the girls that the logs weren't a problem, but he also offered them a warning. Earlier on, after hours of work, he and another instructor had to abandon a half-made shelter, when they discovered a boulder inside.

Miller feigned a Vincent Price laugh: "Beware the perils of not seeing what's under the snow."


Sitting on a log, Phillip warmed her hands over a campfire. "How are your nails holding out?" asked student Jason Lavigne-Paskal.

"I'm taking them off," Phillip replied, while glancing at her long acrylic nails painted red and white for Valentine's Day.

It's Friday night, and the students are gathered around the fire to eat dinner and chat about the day. For some reason, their snow piles hadn't hardened after the usual two hours.

"Let's talk about strategy here," Quinn said. "We've had a couple of them (shelters) collapse just because we started on them too early."

Quinn gave the students several options. They could dig out their shelters, sleep outside or stay in a pre-build wigwam -- a wood shelter covered in snow. They could also stay in one of two heated cabins available for emergencies.

"If you feel hypothermic or have shivers that you can't get rid of, you can bail out. I want you to have the appropriate judgement to take care of yourself."

Tired after the long day, Phillip retired to the wigwam with some of the other girls. Lee, her friends and Lavigne-Paskal decided to spend the night outdoors, in sleeping bags.

It was a decision both girls would later regret. With the temperatures dropping to minus 15C that night, Lee's feet and hands began to burn from the cold.

The pain soon became too intense, and she and her friends moved to the cabin, leaving Lavigne-Paskal alone outside. With a sore back and a splitting headache, Lee rose quietly at 6 the following morning to help the others collect wood for the fire.

As Lee and her friends gathered birch bark, the students in the nearby wigwam began to stir. The men walked like zombies out to the fire, while two girls burst from the shelter, rushing toward the bathroom.

"I couldn't sleep at all," Phillip said. "All I could hear were people complaining about bumping their heads on the wall."

The wigwam, she said, had been crowded and cold -- and too many of the guys were snoring.

"I was so cold my foot almost broke off," she exclaimed. Approaching her teacher, Phillip's usually cheerful disposition had changed to obvious frustration.

"I can't believe it, I was so prepared, but I wasn't ready at all, I don't know what I'm supposed to do for this. Sir, can you give me some advice?" she asked Quinn.

Like others, Phillip announced she wasn't sleeping outside Saturday night. She moved her five bags into one of the heated cabins.

While morale had ebbed that morning in the camp, the weather was improving and one of Quinn's friends -- a survival expert nicknamed "Mountain Mike" -- had build a blazing fire.

That day, students had to choose between finishing their shelters or sleeping in the cabins. Lee and her team agreed to finish digging their shelter, where they ended up spending the night.

After sleeping outside together in the cold on Friday, the three had learned to rely on each other. It was an important lesson.

Over the course of the trip, Lee realized the only way to keep warm while sleeping outdoors in February was to depend on your friends. "You go through life and you can lean on other people sometimes" she said. "And it's not a weakness." see also: Article on Guy Quinn, from the Gazette of October 8, 1998