In our own Backyard

Story last updated at 2:06 PM on Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Wynn Nature Center: Learning survival early

In our own backyard

Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Adriana Amiya points to Grewingk Glacier on an orienteering walk at the Carl Wynn Nature Center. Watching are, from left to right, Alex Gill, Troy Neese, Hannah Vance, and assistant Heidi Neumann.

How do you find your way in the wilderness with a map and compass? That's a skill every Alaskan should know. At the Carl Wynn Nature Center on East Skyline Drive last Thursday, a group of children from ages 7 to 10 learned the basics in a 2-hour course taught by nature educator Adriana Amaya. Orienteering is just one of the classes taught from 1 to 3 p.m. every Thursday for Wilderness Survival.

The first lesson? Even if it's sunny when the class starts, expect rain. If it rains, you make do with a cut-up garbage bag if you forgot a raincoat, as several boys learned when it began to pour.

Amaya, a recent University of Fairbanks graduate with a degree in natural resources and elementary education, and assistant Heidi Neumann kept three boys and a girl going, even when the weather turned foul.

One of many summer programs at the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies' 140-acre nature center, Wilderness Survival teaches children skills like finding and filtering water, building fires and making shelters. The classes are $5 and $4 for CACS members.

Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies Summer Programs

30th anniversary block party

3:30 - 7 p.m. Saturday

708 Smokey Bay Way

with music by Burnt Down House

Carl Wynn Nature Center

Open daily10 a.m.-6 p.m.


Free to CACS members, fee for others


5-8 year olds

1-3 p.m. Tuesdays

WSI: Wildlife Investigations

7-10 year olds

1-4 p.m. Wednesdays

Wilderness Survival

6-9 year olds

1-3 p.m. Thursdays

Free programs:

Learn Your Local Plants

5-6 p.m. Tuesdays

Fantastic Fridays

6-8 p.m. Fridays

Events to be announced

Family Days

All day Sunday

Free use of trails and center

Junior Naturalist Program

July 16-19

$265, two nights at Peterson Bay Field Station, two days at Wynn Nature Center

Learn to use a compass, track animals in the wild and explore the intertidal zone across the bay.

Starting with a 3-dimensional topographic map, Amaya talked about symbols on a map, like contour lines. Knowing the steepness of an area could be important to survival, she said.

"What if you had a broken leg and needed a flat place?" Amaya said.

She asked the children if they could point to mountains on the 3-d map, and they all pointed to peaks. They also noticed that the contour lines ran closer together.

"Those are all mountains," Amaya said. "That's why you see so many wavy lines."

Moving from map to compass, Amaya showed how to follow a bearing with an orienteering compass. An orienteering compass has a base plate, a dial with numbers, a red arrow on the plate and another red arrow on the dial, and a magnetic needle that's red and white.

She gave these tips to remember:

• Plug it in,

• Dial it in,

• Spin it in,

• Follow your nose.

OK, a little explanation. "Plug it in" means to put the base plate of the compass against your chest with the big arrow, which Amaya called "Fred," pointing away. "Dial it in" by turning the dial of the compass until the number bearing is lined up with Fred.

Next, "spin it in" and "put Red in the shed" — the red arrow on the dial — by slowly turning your body until the red end of the magnetic needle is in the red arrow on the dial. That "slowly turning" part took some kids a little time to master.

After the kids had learned the basics from under shelter, like real survivors they braved the elements and did an orienteering course around nature center trails.

Even with a light rain falling and mist covering the Kenai Mountains, the trails had a serene beauty. Lupines, wild geranium, dogwood, chocolate lilies and other wildflowers filled a meadow at the start of the trails. A set of large and small moose tracks showed others had been by earlier. Pale green spruce tips on young trees stood in contrast to brown and dead old spruce trees, some marked with year dates to show when the beetle infestation had killed them.

The patience needed to set a bearing also came in handy for deciding which road to take when two trails diverged in the wood. When two boys confidently strode down one fork in the trail, Amaya had to remind them to check their bearings. Sometimes the road not taken is the wrong road.

As another exercise, the group also learned how to take a bearing. At the Elliott Fischer Platform, they climbed to the sixth step, turned to face Grewingk Glacier and dialed in their compasses until Red was in the shed. That gave them a bearing of 122 degrees.

The course finished, it was time to walk back to the nature center office and warm up with a hot cocoa — the perfect reward for a soggy wilderness adventure.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at