Teaching teamwork - in the great outdoors


Wilderness survival expert David Arama of Kitchener demonstrates his fire-starting technique using a stick and a fire-bow.



(Mar 13, 2004)


David Arama likes to take people out of their comfort zone.


Sometimes that means a trek into the wilderness without sleeping bags or tents. Other times, it means eating bugs and wild plants.


"I like to challenge people," says the outdoor educator and wilderness-survival expert. "By taking them out of their comfort zone and pushing them a little, they can learn a lot about themselves and about team work."


Arama, 44, has been teaching and leading outdoor programs for 25 years. He has a BA in environmental studies from York University and a variety of certificates in outdoor recreation and wilderness emergency care.


Nine years ago, Arama set up the WSC Survival School (www.wscsurvivalschool.com). The Kitchener-based company offers a program for just about everyone, from casual campers to troubled teens and pin-striped executives.


His client list includes OPP search and rescue officers, geologists, bush pilots, teachers, school kids and corporate sales teams. He has also designed wilderness-survival manuals in conjunction with Emergency Management Ontario and the National Search and Rescue Secretariat.


Arama does a lot of his work through community colleges, including Conestoga College where he offers continuing education courses in a variety of outdoor pursuits. Arama's specialties include orienteering, campcraft and wilderness survival. For other activities, such as canoeing certification and dog sledding, he brings in part-time colleagues who specialize in those areas.


When it comes to corporate clients, Arama offers customized programs to suit a client's individual needs. "The goal usually isn't to see whether these folks can survive in the back country," he says. "Most of them are not outdoors people. They're more interested in team building, camaraderie and recharging their batteries."


A typical weekend might involve a couple days in rustic cabins, such as those at the Bark Lake Outdoor Centre in Haliburton. Others might include overnight camping or canoe tripping.


A common team-building activity involves two groups competing to start a fire with nothing more than two pieces of wood. Another activity challenges the teams to build the most weather-resistant shelter out of bark, wood and other natural materials. "To choose the winner, I get both groups to sit in their shelters and then I spray the shelters with a giant water gun," Arama chuckles. "The team that gets least wet is the winner."


Some groups -- especially sales people who compete for their livelihoods on a daily basis -- can get pretty competitive. To diffuse a tense situation, Arama likes to rearrange the teams so that fierce competitors are forced to work together on the same team. "We were doing this long before the Survivor folks on TV," he says.


Arama is no slouch at starting fires himself. On a recent hike in Kitchener, he got a nice little fire going with just a stick, a fire-bow and a dry piece of wood.

He also ignited a nest of fine steel wool (yes, metal can burn!) by teasing it out and pressing each end to opposite ends of a flashlight battery. Then, in a move that would impress Red Green, Arama used the red-hot steel wool to ignite a small ball of duct-tape. "Duct-tape is petroleum-based," he explains. A duct-tape fire, with its plume of inky smoke, isn't the most desirable way to warm your hands. But it's a good way to get a campfire going if you're lost in the woods and everything around you is soaking wet.


It's this kind of resourcefulness, along with safety and respect for the environment, that Arama likes to impart to his students. "There's an allure to knowing that anything can happen out here," he says. "Nature takes you out of your comfort zone."


Arama loves his job, although he says he isn't making a fortune at it. For a three-day corporate excursion, with food and lodging in rustic cabins, his fees start at about $250 per person. "It's a lot of fun, but it is a lot of hard work to organize and run these trips," he says. "In terms of income, there are a lot more lucrative careers out there. But I wouldn't give it up for a million dollars."