As the crow flies, Richard Cooper, an Arlington High School junior, was not all that far from his usual environs when he took the final exam in one of his courses during a long weekend early last month. Maybe 35 miles or so.
But alone in the forest and burrowed deep into the makeshift shelter he had built from sticks and leaves, with a foot of snow carpeting the bare woods around him and the temperature plunging to 5 degrees in the long winter night, he was certainly way outside his normal comfort zone.
Nothing brought home his situation more than the sounds to which he fell asleep on those three nights in Townsend State Forest, just below the New Hampshire border in north-central Massachusetts.
“Each night there were at least 20 coyotes screaming all night long, walking within 20 feet of where I was sleeping,” Cooper said. “Every morning I could see their tracks. It was like an army of coyotes.”
Many people may already have trouble remembering what they were doing on the days and nights of Jan. 5-8, but Cooper and 28 other Arlington High juniors and seniors may never forget. The students spent the time testing newly acquired outdoors skills — and their courage and fortitude — on a solo wilderness survival experience that was the culmination of a semester-long course at their school.
The students met twice a week starting in November, receiving training in basic winter survival skills (fire- and shelter-building, etc.), practicing what they learned in the town’s Menotomy Rocks Park.
For their final exam, which was mandatory to pass the course, the students were taken to the forest in Townsend, given a 10-foot-square sheet of plastic, a cold-weather sleeping bag, six matches, and two bags of food, and ushered to a 2-acre area where they were required to stay — alone — for four days and three nights.
Each student also brought along string, a whistle, a trowel, a survival knife, a candle, a pen and journal, and some other items. They were not allowed any electronic devices, even wristwatches or flashlights — anything that could detract from the wilderness experience.
The point of all this is “to build personal character, integrity, self-esteem, challenge — all the more valuable but less measurable things they can get out of high school,” said Bob Tremblay, who taught the class, which he believes is the only such course offered by a Massachusetts public school.
“This is a rite-of-passage, wilderness-challenge experience,” Tremblay said. “We’re talking about kids that are sleeping alone in a wilderness environment, hearing coyotes howl around them, and they talk about a sense of peace. The take-away is, ‘I’m braver than I thought I was.’ ”
Mary Villano, Arlington High’s principal, said the school is proud of the course and other such offerings, like hiking and backpacking skills, that “give students things they can use for the rest of their lives.
“It’s very unusual to have something like this in a high school,” she said. “The students face a difficult challenge and they come back really proud. It’s transforming for them.”
Preparing for the weekend required a lot of time and effort from Tremblay and his assistants, who helped monitor the students and keep them safe without diluting the sense of solitude that is essential to the experience. The aides — many of them Arlington High graduates who took the course in the 40 years that the school has offered it — marked the boundaries of each student’s 2-acre space, set up two base camps for emergency aid, and patrolled the forest day and night.
“Even though the students have the perception that they are all alone in the wilderness,” Tremblay wrote in an e-mail, “the reality is that there are 30 students in the area surrounding them, all collecting wood and burning fires, in addition to our 20 staff members walking the area every half hour for the entire four days. The perception to the animals is that a huge city has moved into the forest.”
Once the students were left at their sites, they faced the hard work of survival — starting a fire, cooking meals, building a shelter — on their own.
The first task was usually to build a bivouac, or bivy, sack from the sheet of plastic — “kind of like a big Hot Pocket,’’ said one student, Robert Harrelson, referring to a brand of microwavable sandwiches. Because plastic tears easily in the cold, the students learned how to bunch off part of the sheet into “buttons” that can be tied with string and seal the bivy sack’s seam. The sack’s “roof’’ was then suspended from the larger “debris hut’’ that each student built from fallen branches, leaves, and snow. The resulting shelter is just spacious enough to hold a student and a sleeping bag.
A lot can go wrong out in the woods, as many students can attest. Of Patrick McDonald-Meteer’s six matches, five wouldn’t light; when Casey Flaherty made his debris hut, snow fell through the roof and crushed his bivy sack; Hannah Kleppner lost her knife; Kenzie Schoenthaler stepped on his water jug, creating a fountain that extinguished his fire.
Another challenge was figuring out just how to spend roughly 72 hours without the usual company of people, cellphones, and Facebook.
The long, dark nights made one strategy popular: “Survival is a great course for AP students because it is the most sleep you will get all year,” observed Harrelson, a senior.
Added Schoenthaler, a junior: “I counted mine, and I got 35 hours of sleep in three nights.”
But there were a lot of positives to take away from the experience, students said.
“I am an extremely social person,’’ said senior Charlotte Stobbe. “I love talking to people. I love singing. So I thought, ‘I’ll talk to myself and I’ll go insane.’ But I didn’t. It was just so quiet and peaceful, and I felt if I talked or sang, it would be like ruining the beautiful nature. So I just soaked in the nature, and it was really calming.’’
Alex Boucher, a junior, also appreciated the solitude. “You have a lot of time to sit down and think about stuff. I had a lot of time to reflect on past events and myself. You really go through a self-realization about who you are as a person.’’
Tristan Jantz, also a junior, read Thoreau’s “Walden’’ while he was in the woods, and it resonated with him.
“He talks about how unnecessary these big lavish houses are, and it’s really true: You can just have a little shelter and be out there in the woods and be happy,” Jantz said.
All of which makes Tremblay think, yeah, they get it.
“The whole camping-in-the-wilderness is kind of an allegory,’’ said Tremblay, 50, a resident of Templeton.
“It’s preparing them for leaving the nest and moving to a strange city and living on their own, being their own resource, learning to do without. I see it as preparation for life after high school. What they get out of it is a sense that ‘Hey, I can really do something.’ ”