When winter isn’t a wonderland | SierraSun.com

When winter isn’t a wonderland

Photo by Ryan Salm/Sierra SunDanielle Steinhoff, a fifth grader from Colfax Elementary School, enters a snow cave built by students at Donner Trail School on Monday.

Backcountry tragedies have happened before and they’ll happen again, but for the past 10 years, the Donner Trail Winter Survival program has sought to help youngsters avoid just such incidents.

Winter Survival, a single-day course taught at Donner Trail Elementary, arms first through sixth-graders with the practical knowledge and skills they would need to better their chances of survival should they become lost in the backcountry or be faced with avalanche danger.

The elements here are harsh, and curious adolescents prone to exploration and risky behavior have succumbed to winter’s snow and temperatures.

“We live in an area where it’s hard to survive if you ever got lost, so I think it’s important to learn how to survive,” said Phoebe Rogers, a Donner Trail School third-grader who has participated in the program multiple times. “I won’t be scared because I know what it will be like and what to do.”

Participants learn a variety of survival techniques, including building snow shelters, distress signals, animal track identification, orienteering and how to stay emotionally and mentally stable.

“They say to stay calm and stay where you are; that your instincts will tell you what to do, but that you’re instincts are not always right,” said Donner Trail fifth-grader Erik Holmer. “Nature is always dangerous, and you never know what [it] can throw at you.”

Students from Truckee and Glenshire elementary schools participate in the program every year, according to program coordinator Mary Ellen Benier.

She said local children often come into the program already having a fair amount of outdoor and survival knowledge that they have been exposed to at home or in the classroom.

Visiting schools, of which there are about six to 10 each year from Sacramento to Reno, tend to bring students with less knowledge.

“It’s cool learning how they live up here,” said Giles Barrett, a fifth-grader from Colfax Elementary School who participated in Winter Survival on Monday. “And if we get snowed in at school, we’ll know how to escape.”

The Donner Trail Winter Survival program began as an expansion of the national Hug A Tree program, which started in 1981 following the death of a 9-year-old boy who became lost in the woods while on a camping trip with his family.

The program was designed to teach children how to keep from getting lost, what to do if they become lost, how to stay warm and dry, and how to help searchers find them.

The Donner Trail Winter Survival program is open to all children in the community, though it is necessary to participate as part of a group.

The fee is minimal, and more information can be found by contacting Benier at 587-6330.

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