Alba Wilderness School

The Great Outdoorsman Show, featuring Alba Wilderness School, c.late 1990s

The following articles have been featured in various publications regarding the former Alba Wilderness School. For information on courses now, visit Chad Clifford.

Nature’s Classroom

By Yvonne Jeffery Hope, The Ottawa Citizen, Saturday 22 May 1999, Also published in The Calgary Herald

Alba Wilderness School in the Lanark Highlands teaches largely forgotten skills needed not only to survive in the wilderness, but to reconnect with it, writes Yvonne Jeffery Hope.

Yvonne Jeffery Hope peers out from a shelter made of layers of branches and leaves.
Yvonne Jeffery Hope peers out from a shelter made of layers of branches and leaves.

It’s as if we’ve reversed reality. Outside the low, domed structure that we built just hours ago, the spring sun is shining on a cool, dry morning, the temperature not even into double digits. Inside the outdoor sauna, however, where the four of us — two students and two instructors — are seated on the ground, only enough sunlight filters in to create the barest of silhouettes.

Fire-heated rocks in a dug-out hole in the centre emit the only other illumination, a confined, crimson glow. With every sputtering ladle of water over rocks, steam rises to the sauna’s roof just inches from our heads, tangling in the cedar branches, then rolling over us in a sage- and sweetgrass-scented cloud.

I shield my lungs by breathing through the sleeve of my T-shirt, letting the darkness and the heat override all other sensations. When I’ve reached my limit, I stand outside, shoulders steaming, my pulse quick, every nerve-ending reawakened, cleansed.

Fifteen minutes ago, just the idea of taking off my hiking boots made me shiver. Now, I’m comfortable in shorts and a T-shirt, my feet bare.

Carrying my sweatshirt to ward off any chill, I clamber to the top of the small hill that overlooks the sauna, to where the creek becomes a meltwater-swelled cascade.

For the past three days, the creek has formed a pleasant backdrop to the outdoor classroom at Alba Wilderness School in the Lanark Highlands about 90 minutes west of Ottawa.

Yvonne Jeffery Hope, The Ottawa Citizen / Student Brian Simser, left, learns how to build an outdoor sauna from Alba instructor Barrie Clifford.
Yvonne Jeffery Hope, The Ottawa Citizen / Student Brian Simser, left, learns how to build an outdoor sauna from Alba instructor Barrie Clifford.

Now, as I sit beside the creek, eyes closed, it becomes my focus, no longer a single rushing note, but an interweaving of chords: the deep peals of water hitting a hollowed-out rock, the light, almost chime-like current over a series of flat stones, the gentle bubbling of an eddy.

The breeze stirs the sweet scent of decomposing leaves, brushing a branch softly against my arm and sending light drops of the creek’s spray to my face.

Of all the lessons I’ve learned at Alba, this is most precious: the ability to watch nature with all five senses instead of just my eyes … the willingness to sit and be still.

I’ll admit to having had doubts about coming here. Not when I signed up, of course. Then, the prospect of a four-day wilderness awareness course had intrigued me. But as the course dates drew nearer, and the weather forecast grew wetter, my enthusiasm faltered. The raindrops spattering the windshield as I drove west from Ottawa towards Flower Station didn’t reassure me.

I needn’t have worried. Although the folks at Alba are the least likely to cancel a course due to weather, they’re also the most likely to keep you comfortable despite rain, wind and damp. Their warm welcome was an excellent start.

I soon met Howard and Jean Clifford, who moved their family to this 1,250-acre wilderness in 1981, and Alba’s founders and instructors: the Cliffords’ sons, Chad and Barrie, and Tania Marsh, plus sectional instructor Michele Copeland.

They believe in passing on the largely forgotten skills needed to not only survive in the wilderness, but to reconnect with it. The courses combine practical knowledge, like the survival priorities of shelter, water, fire and food, with the spiritual teachings of nature-minded figures like writer-philosopher Henry David Thoreau and conservationist John Muir.

Chad Clifford demonstrates how to light a fire without matches: The sawing action of the bow rotates the spindle quickly against the base, generating enough heat to create a small coal. He places the coal in a bundle of tinder and blows gently to ignite.
Chad Clifford demonstrates how to light a fire without matches: The sawing action of the bow rotates the spindle quickly against the base, generating enough heat to create a small coal. He places the coal in a bundle of tinder and blows gently to ignite.

“It’s more of an appreciation, a deeper respect for nature,” explains Chad. “A lot of sports are taking place in nature now, but the interpretation skills are gone.” Alba focuses not on distance covered, but on the journey itself.

Fellow student Brian Simser and I learned how to build a debris shelter, a surprisingly cosy, leaf-filled cocoon. (As you can imagine, we gathered our materials wisely, avoiding damage to live plants.) We discovered the bow-drill method for starting fires when matches aren’t an option. We made rope from cedar bark.

And, in a feat not achieved either by my early years in Girl Guides or my later years in the army, Alba’s instructors taught me how to properly use a compass.

We tested our knowledge with a triangulation exercise, in which the instructors took us to a high point on the land, identified two features on the map, and had us guide ourselves back to the main house. Nope, no one got lost.

And should our compasses fail, we can even read south using the sun and a watch’s hour hand, or shadows from sticks placed in the ground. (Yes, despite the wet start, the sun did grace most of our days.)

Above all, however, Alba’s instructors taught us to become aware of our surroundings: to be silent and calm. “When the mind is uncluttered, it raises your perception,” says Chad. “It’s the stilled mind that gut feelings, that inspiration, come from.”

So we practised walking silently, we cupped our hands around our ears to strengthen our hearing, and we used peripheral, or wide-angle, vision to notice more of our surroundings. Through slides, discussions and walks, we also learned about edible and useful plants, birdwatching, journal-keeping and animal-tracking.

Along the trails, we spied turkey vultures soaring above us, and the tunneling tracks of mice and voles at our feet. When a rustle of debris beside me turned into a garter snake, and my first thought was how beautiful its vivid emerald and gold markings were against the papery leaves, I knew I was making amazing progress.

Howard gave us two riveting performances, in the guise of Grey Owl, then John Muir, providing a unique insight into how we as a society began to evolve from using the land to protecting it.

On our last morning, before the outdoor sauna rewarded our efforts of the previous days, I slipped out alone into the dawn, heading towards a beaver-flooded meadow.

Hoping for a muskrat sighting, I fox-walked to the bank and waited, still and silent. Nothing. Suddenly, I knew that I needed to turn around. As I did, a large white hare bounded off into deeper brush.

It wasn’t the muskrat I’d hoped for, but it didn’t matter: Before this course, I’d have completely missed the hare. I’d only seen it because, that morning, I was aware of the journey.

If You Go 
Getting there: Alba Wilderness School and Nature Experiences is located 90 minutes west of Ottawa near Flower Station. 
Courses: One- to 10-day courses cover such topics as wilderness living skills, tracking, wild plants and finding inspiration in nature. Shorter workshops focus on plants and crafts such as making paper and soap. There are minimum age requirements for some courses, but families and groups are welcome. Costs: A four-day wilderness awareness course is $240. I highly recommend the $20-a-day food plan: Jean’s tasty, home-cooked meals include omelettes, chili, lasagna, soups, pineapple chicken and pie that you definitely need to save room for. 
(It’s impossible to leave Jean’s table hungry.) 
Note: Whether you sleep in the indoor classroom, the on-site prospector’s tent or your own tent, you’ll be camping; washing facilities are limited.

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Love for Nature and Observation Skills Taught at Wilderness School

By Debora Dekok, Almonte Gazette

Lanark Highlands- With the fast paced industrial world, few of us have time to look around us, much less smell the roses. A new school near Brightside (west of Almonte) is teaching people to do just that.

Since May, Alba Wilderness School has been teaching people how to enjoy the wilderness.

Tania Marsh, Chad Clifford, his brother Barrie and Michele Copeland started the school on 1250 acres owned by the Cliffords. Naturalist groups, boy scouts, outdoor education classes and people interested in the outdoors have learned to live and survive among the trees, nature, animals and fresh air.

“We teach the skills that enable people to leave the manufactured goods in the urban centres” explained Chad Clifford.

But more than learning the how-to methods of wilderness survival, the school emphasizes the benefit obtained by wilderness outings.

Clifford explains that a backpack or a canoe are merely vehicles to get one out into nature to enjoy the beauty. “However a lot of people are interested in going from point A to point B and miss a lot in between” said Marsh.

“It’s the journey that matters”, emphasized Clifford.

Passing their love of the wilderness is natural to Clifford, who has a degree in the sciences and outdoor recreation form Lakehead University.

Marsh’s background is in the arts, Barrie Clifford and Michele Copeland specialized in horticulture.

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Experiencing Nature through the Alba Wilderness School

by Nancy V. Sont

When the wind blows and howls through the trees, bending them almost to breaking, when the rain and snow pummel the earth, mankind generally seeks the shelter and warmth of home fires, but not Henry David Thoreau. To him a storm was a time to capture the essence of what life was like for the forest and its inhabitants. It was a time of exploration, and of sitting quietly listening to the movements in the trees, and the descent of the elements that surrounded them. Only when nature is experienced by sitting alongside those whose growth covers the planet, can real empathy for the wilderness be achieved, he felt. So too do those who have started Alba Wilderness School near Flower Station.

“If you can’t hear your surroundings over the sound of your own footsteps, you’re walking too fast,” Chad Clifford one of the founders and instructors of the school said. “You won’t hear a deer leaving as you arrive.”

Twenty two kilometers from highway 511, down a winding hilly road through rugged territory, lays Alba Wilderness School and Nature Experiences, 1250 protected acres of rolling hills surrounded by thousands more acres of picturesque wilderness. Lakes line the horizon, including the tip of Calabogie Lake in the distance.

Howard Clifford and his wife Jean bought the homestead in 1981. The family dream was that the acreage would be left in trust as a wilderness preserve, a heritage for years to come. They believed that nature is the greatest healer, and that people have more need to get back and discover themselves.

They opened their doors to many groups over the years. Scouts, cubs, women with their children from Interval House, D.A.R.E., Christie Lake Camps, environmental and native groups and individuals have been welcomed to share the powerful experience that a remote wilderness offers.

Desiring to pass on the skills, knowledge and philosophies that connect people to nature and the wilderness, they opened the Alba Wilderness School this summer. Alba is a Spanish word that refers to the earliest moments of dawn when the night and the day touch for a fleeting moment before parting yet again. Desiring to share what they have learned about life and communing with nature on a personal level, they are teaching and continuing to develop courses that will not only help people survive in the wild, but feel comfortable and at home in any natural setting.

In the Wilderness Courses, students are taught survival skills outside or sheltered in secluded tents. They are taught how to construct shelter from the branches and foliage around them that will keep out the elements.

In September, Oliver Paugam of Ottawa learned and made a debris hut. “I spent half the night in it, but it began to be pretty windy since it didn’t have a door yet. It rained that night, but there was only one drip inside,” he said.

Chad and Barrie Clifford have spent years growing up in the wilderness, and seeking out knowledge. They took tracking and survival courses over the years, including instruction near Ashbury, New Jersey with Tom Brown, Jr., one of America’s most acclaimed outdoorsmen and naturalists, and author of seven best-selling survival, tracking and nature observation field guides.

Cycling over 1600 kilometers across Canada, kayaking through icebergs, climbing mountainous rock faces, and engaging in many outdoor experiences, they come fully trained to impart of their expertise. Chad recently graduated with degrees in natural science and outdoor recreation from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay where he has taught advanced students tracking and other related skills.

While some survival books emphasize how to care for matches and lighters, Alba teaches instead how to make a fire in three minutes by rubbing two sticks together with a bow-drill, I.e., how to make a piece of string from plants and find the right sticks to use, and what kindling holds the spark best.

Tracking is taught mainly in the wild, but also with the aid of a large sandbox. Wild animals are enticed by leaving an apple on the smooth sand. Students are taught to study the differing indentations made by each animal. Not only do the species leave different tracks, but the shape of each track differs depending on the speed and weight of the animal as it crosses the terrain.

Their wealth of hands-on instruction is augmented by more than 2000 slides they have taken of local flowering plants and animals, as well as more than 200 of insects.

Along with the Cliffords, Tania Marsh is a co-founder and teacher. Her focus is on the connection between art and the environment, specifically how we are influenced by it. She advocates writing down thoughts and feelings. “The word ‘journal’ comes from the root word ‘journey’, or a day in the life of your journey. Thoreau’s writings were journals, step by step deep thoughts, looking into your daily life,” she said, “Journaling opens up the creative mind, it brings out ideas. It is a form of getting to know yourself better. You can see yourself, the more you write.”

Emily Carr a west coast artist who did as much writing as painting, suggests in her book, The Artist’s Way, doing morning pages. Tania agrees, “When you wake up, write three pages. In time you begin to look back on these and discover things through your writings you never knew. Writing is a stream of consciousness.” She feels that nature inspires the words to flow onto the paper.

In October, after taking an advanced wilderness group along a leaf covered path through the canopy of bare branches, Barrie stopped and asked the group if anyone knew where they were or how to get to the large cedar tree. When no one did, the instructors commenced their ‘lost-proofing’ lesson. “We’re not lost, lost is just a state of mind,” Barrie said, smiling. He taught the class how to find south without a compass by using the slowly moving shadows of the sun, and by using the hands on a watch. The group found their way south over rugged ice storm damaged terrain to a narrow road.

Students were taught to trust their inner feelings when they get lost. They should clear their mind until it contains only one thought, which direction to take. Then as they face each direction around them, they can try to feel and to trust the inner answer, the uneasiness and disharmony when they face a direction that is incorrect, or the comforting feeling of peace and harmony when they are facing the right one, the direction into which they should head. Some members of the group had experienced and followed that guidance from within before, while others had not.

Upon arriving at their destination, the group sat under the canopy afforded by the other cedars that grew near the ancient cedar tree. The group was met by Henry David Thoreau, played by Howard Clifford. He told of his life, and the way the wilderness touched him. He related how it was always changing and how the early morning ghostly mists stirred him. Each day as he walked he took a notebook, pen, spyglasses and tea. He found that it was healthy to separate himself from others to be alone in the wilderness. When his legs were moving his thoughts flowed. He found nature to be a friend that teaches on whatever subject he wanted to know. He realized that nature didn’t exist simply for our comfort, it had its own agenda, and that everything was better alive than when it was dead.

The group was told that Thoreau taught others to strive for an inward experience with nature. “As you commune with it, it grasps you and takes you into itself, it expresses itself to you. If you can’t commune with a tree, you don’t know it,” he continued. He spoke of sauntering, having no destination when in the woods, but making every spot become your home.

The group was introduced to the great old cedar. “It was here before we were born, before Canada was formed. It knew the ancestry of the animals, the wolverines, the deer, the fishers, it was part of the habitat and has many stories to tell,” Howard said.

On the walk back to the house to eat, students were shown edible plants, and overturned rocks that could have been rolled over by a bear looking for grubs.

Shirley Young from Montreal who found Alba’s webpage on the internet said, “Every time I come here I learn something. I don’t know what it is, to put it in words, it’s beyond me at this point. I feel much more comfortable being in the woods than before,” she said as she whittled a piece of wood, clamped in a handmade wooden vise, into the shape of a frog for a fishing lure.

She came before with her two children. “It was really fun. My son who is six made a birch bark canoe, and my daughter made a basket with roots. Every time I come they want to come too. They have been dying to come back ever since. They are now doing all kinds of things they wouldn’t normally do. We just got some land ourselves, they’re really comfortable there. They have a great time,” Shirley said.

Taking wilderness courses at Alba Wilderness School has broadened Oliver Paugam’s feelings about the wilderness. “Now I am trying to remember and identify the names of the plants. Tracking is still difficult. I’m always trying to find and identify tracks when I’m in the forest. I didn’t look for tracks in the woods before. I was aware there were animals but I didn’t look for clues. I have seen clues now, lots. I feel more comfortable with being out in the woods. I will take more courses, maybe this winter when they do winter camping or snow huts,” he said.

Eight courses are now on the Alba Wilderness School curriculum, ranging from four-hour workshops, to the extensive ten day workshop. They include Wilderness Awareness, four days of observation skills; Wilderness Solitude which deals with the myths and inhibitions of wilderness experiences and offers an optional twenty four hours in the woods alone; The Art of Tracking; Wilderness Philosophy; Winter Camping; The Naturalist ten day marathon of instruction; as well as advanced courses in many of them.

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School Teaches People to Keep Track of the Wilderness: 

Students taught to read animal’s silent signs and respect nature

By Shandley McMurray, The Kingston Whig-Standard

Whether you’re an avid outdoors person or someone who is simply curious, you’ll find a three-day course this weekend intriguing.

Alba Wilderness School is offering an intense three-day course on the art of tracking at the school, which is situated on 500 hectares of wilderness in the Lanark Highlands.

Established this summer, the school is run by four instructors and two honourary staff members, all of who share a love for and intimate knowledge of the wilderness.

The tracking course, says Clifford, teaches students to become familiar with the wilderness and to respect animals and nature.

Participants also learn how to identify different animals’ tracks and they are taught to establish an approximate date the track was made.

The training consists of nature appreciation exercise, where trackers will learn to “develop awareness in the wilderness”, Clifford said.

Students will make use of their vision and hearing while attempting to locate tracks in nature. They will also learn to recognize “disturbances in the wilderness”.

For example, Clifford said, “a chipmunk chattering could mean a fisher [weasel] near by”.

Participants will also engage in tracking box exercise where trackers use a sand box to practice activities such as running, walking and weight shifting.

Participants’ footprints-or gates as they are called by the pros are left in the sand to be studied by other students.

Through exercise such as this potential trackers learn how to identify ” the different speeds of walking and how tracks change.

Students then will study the aging process.

For instance, they “make a mark in the ground and six hours later make another mark…[to see the difference between the fresh mark and the six hour old one”, Clifford said.

Group members will track each other through the grass, then wander down to the swamp where they will use Plaster of Paris to preserve tracks they find in the mud. At night there will be slide shows, night walks and star interpretation.

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