Thirteen-year-old Alecia Panagakis can build a shelter in the woods to keep dry during a rain storm. She can use flint and steel, char clothe and tinder to start a fire to keep warm. And she knows the plants and animals found in our area that will keep her fed and well nourished.

Panagakis, of Pony, learned all these skills and more last week during a three-day junior high camping trip on the Jefferson River near Willow Creek. The annual outing of 7th and 8th grade students from Harrison School teaches outdoor skills by engaging students with nature.

"The first year I didn't know what to expect," Panagakis said last Thursday. "I thought it would be hardcore hiking up big mountains, but it wasn't like that. We went shopping in the woods. We pulled cattails and found morel mushrooms to eat."

The Harrison junior high camping trip has become a rite of passage for students since the first outing nine years ago. Led by instructor Thomas Elpel of Pony and Harrison teacher Linda Ehlers, students eagerly anticipate the trip throughout the school year. The experiences they share are retold again and again in the classroom.

"We talk about (the camping trip) all the time," said Brett Petersen, 14, of Pony, "sometimes with the teachers, but with each other, too."

Ehlers said the camping trip makes learning relevant by applying skills through real-world experience. She said the outing offers kids the chance to learn in an entirely different way.

"You couldn't do any of this in the classroom," Ehlers said while watching students coax hot embers with bow and drill. "You can teach it, you can read about it, but you can't practice it and you don't really learn much if you can't practice it."

Elpel said a physical approach to nature is critical in an increasingly virtual world, a world in which society often views nature as something to observe, but not to touch.

He said kids have a natural fascination with the outdoors, but need the means and opportunity to explore it for themselves.

"Even though we are in Montana, which is a very rural state, there is still so much electronic media and other distractions that more and more of our youth never really make it beyond the lawn grass," Elpel said "What are the consequences of raising a nation that has learned about reality through books and the Internet, but hasn't gone out and built forts and learned how to manage a campfire?

"It is essential that we keep our kids connected to the real, physical world," Elpel said. "By doing things like building forts and shelters, you are learning about engineering and construction, getting that hands-on grasp of the world that you just can't get out of a book."

A variety of exercises planned throughout the camping trip connect students with nature. Whether practicing stalking skills in the woods, searching for edible mushrooms by the riverside or gazing at the nighttime sky, the learning experience is shaped as a living experience in which no separation exists between class time and other activities.

Petersen said the skills learned during the camping trip have practical implications.

"If you are out in the woods there is nothing that is going to keep you alive but fire," he said while working his bow and drill. "It is going to keep animals away, keep you warm, cook your food, clean your water."

Ehlers said the camping trip emphasizes outdoor skills, but the learning experience encompasses many other aspects of education. She said students learn teamwork, resourcefulness, problem solving, chemistry, physics, physical education and history, among other topics.

"Some of the kids that struggle with books have a different skill set and they succeed out here," she said. "You see that confidence really shine through."

Elhers and Elpel said that by connecting kids with nature they hope to foster a lifelong appreciation in students for their surroundings and the natural world.

It's a goal not lost on the kids.

"It is definitely important to learn about the outdoors," Panagakis said. "This year I want to stay longer."

To learn more about Thomas Elpel's outdoor classroom, visit www.hollowtop.com/Classes.htm.

Ben Pierce can be reached at bpierce@dailychronicle.com and 582-2625. Follow him online at chronicleoutdoors.com and twitter.com/BGPierce.