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Life without iPods, wristwatches, cell phones and, alarm

Watch teens interact in shopping malls or school cafeterias and it’s hard to imagine life without the din of cell phones and digital music players. Are the arpeggios of birds really any substitute for the chirp of text messages?

iPods have usurped Walkmans and boom boxes, but little else has changed in Tom Cammermeyer’s mission to momentarily unplug kids from technology and take them on outdoor adventures.

Cammermeyer, a native of Olso, Norway, founded the Norwegian Outdoor Exploration Center, NOEC, in 1980, when Air Supply and Blondie topped the charts. Although No.1 hits come and go, his commitment to teaching kids the lessons of the land has remained constant. In 28 years, Cammermeyer has given more than 13,000 kids the field trip of a lifetime.

The program plucks kids ages 9 to 14 from the classroom and sends them to snowshoe, cross-country ski and hike with outdoor experts. Program directors work with 10 schools in Coalville, Kamas and Park City. Every year, they reach thousands of kids.

The excursions are more than field trips, advocates say. Mentors teach cooperation, compass skills, natural history, avalanche awareness and ecology outside the classroom. "We have a tremendous impact on nature," Cammermeyer said. "We’re critiquing and offering help. And if we all help out, if we pick up trash and show an awareness and concern for nature; we’ll find a better balance," he said.

Many of the program’s participants have never recreated in the snow because their parents can’t afford winter coats and pricey equipment. If it sounds unbelievable that a child who grows up in a ski town would never strap skis on his feet or inner-tube down a hill, just ask their instructors. "It’s surprising to see how many kids don’t get out," said development director David Patterson. "It’s quite a few."

Organizers focus on at-risk populations, although they use the term loosely and opt for a big-tent approach. "A kid’s life is pretty fragile," Patterson said. "One second everything is fine and the next everything has fallen apart. The program helps any kid."

Take the eighth and ninth graders who went on a nature outing two years ago after a classmate passed away. Cammermeyer had students write down their feelings before and after the excursion. "I’m feeling confused," wrote a 14-year-old boy at the start of the day. "It’s hard to go to hockey and not feel sad that he’s not there to cheer you up."

After spending from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. outdoors, the boy’s mood had markedly improved. "Today has been really fun and I feel better about this sadful (sic) time," he wrote. "It makes me feel better that I know that I have good friends to comfort me."

Another boy, initially ambivalent about nature, opened up after the outing. "I feel wonderful, or in the words of the Norwegian people, ‘doogle heaven slaven googen!’" (An apt translation for the term was not readily available.)

"When you think of technology, iPods and computers, nature is so foreign to us," Cammermeyer explained Wednesday. "We want kids to take a deep breath and share in this deep appreciation of nature where it’s free and experiential," Cammermeyersaid. "The program takes us out of the four walls of our school and home to be in nature."

Although it may be cliché, part of getting in tune with nature is being removed from the daily grind. Kids and guides may hike less than a mile on a six-hour trip, but the goal is the journey, not the destination. Mentors ask kids to remove wrist watches and to turn off cell phones to prepare for forays in the outdoors. The way Cammermeyer sees it, humans have four basic needs: food, shelter, water and open space. "The iPod isn’t one of them," he laughed.

Outdoor expeditions aren’t cheap. It costs about $90 to take a student into the wild, and the guides, who are trained in CPR and first aid, make just $15 an hour. That means that a $125 plate at the black-tie fundraiser Nov. 22 at Silver Lake Lodge buys a kid the chance to be a kid, organizers say. "The children we serve don’t always have parents who are capable of helping financially," NOEC chairman Jerry Sanders said. He added that when budgets tighten, kids feel the squeeze. "When parents are worried about financial stability, it affects children in direct and indirect ways," he said.

Recently, the NOEC decided to drop its corporate sponsorships and popular summer camps in an effort to reach more local kids. The overhaul, coupled with the sluggish economy, has added urgency and anxiety to the annual party. "This fundraiser is huge because the money goes to the kids," Cammermeyer said.

Norwegian Outdoor Exploration Center Gala Celebration

Join the 28th annual Norwegian Outdoor Exploration Gala Celebration Saturday, Nov. 22. The evening will include an elegant sit-down dinner, silent and live auctions, and music and dancing to Joe Muscolino Band. The event runs from 6:30 until 11:30 p.m. at Silver Lake Lodge, mid-mountain Deer Valley. Tickets are $125.


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