Six Days in Paradise

by Matt on April 2, 2015

I have been wanting to include some different voices in my newsletter and blogs for a while. And so I was really excited to hear that one of our students, Anna, had written a story about her experience at our Big Bear Village teen overnight last summer and I want to share it with you. As a side note, this is excellent writing, especially for a 13 year old. Read Anna's story below. 

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Six Days in Paradise: Big Bear Village

By Anna Hougardy

The car lurched down the winding, forest-lined dirt road, bouncing up and down in dips and bumps in the road. It is impossible to see through the swirling cloud of tan-grey dust whipping around us. The windows have remained up since we turned off onto the seemingly endless gravel-pitted dusty road. We have passed many small side roads, leading to farms or summer retreats or logging property, but the one peeking out of the ferns and wood sorrel ahead is different. I squint, trying to make out the sign through the dust. “Big Bear Camp,” it reads. My hands grow slick with nerve-induced sweat. Thimbleberries and vine maples flash past as the car slows to a crawl.

Suddenly, the trees thin and the car is flooded with sunlight: my first glance at what will be my home for the next six days. A grassy meadow is framed by dense woodlands, and the land is greener along the path of the creek. A massive stone fire pit, yurts snuggled into the edge of the trees, an outdoor kitchen with stone slab flooring, and a lodge – an intricate work of wood and stone – are the first things that I am aware of. As soon as my feet hit gravel, Kat Ivring comes flying up to greet me. She drags me over to first the girls’ yurt to dump my staggeringly huge backpack on the neatly swept wood floor, then to the registration table. The camp director grins at us as Sasha pulls me to the t-shirts. After tugging one on over my other clothes, I kick off my shoes and dash after her. All anxiety evaporates in the midmorning sun. Joy replaces apprehension, veins flood with adrenaline. Big Bear Camp – directed by Matt Bradley – is an outdoor survival summer camp nestled deep in the coastal range of Oregon. Big Bear is as close to paradise as you can get, and it’s the best place to spend a week.

One of the things that makes it amazing is the fact that the whole camp is spent outside with the trees and animals. Miller Creek winds through the camp, a cool, clean stream with a smooth rocky bottom, endless skipping rocks, tons of animals (fish, bugs, frogs), logs, and pools deep enough to swim in. The instructors let us traipse down to the creek to cool off at almost any time. Fringing the camp were deep woods of cascara, willow, pine, maple, and fir. There isn’t much better than exploring the endless trees and ferns with a friend. Almost everything we did was out in nature. We sat around the fire pit for lessons, relaxation time, and just to hang out and carve. We ate outside, in a small bark space enclosed by blackberries. The kitchen was in an outdoor pavilion, and we had the option to sleep outside in natural shelters. This environment helps to make people less stressed and more fun to be around. The instructors helped this happen.

Another thing that makes Big Bear so magical is the people. The instructors there are some of the smartest, most brilliant people out there. Mikey, one of the instructors, would wake us up in the morning by playing his native flute, the eerie, haunting music floating out between the trees. In the evenings, Char, who slept in the girls’ yurt, would read bedtime stories, her voice soft, the silence only broken by the sound of a camper turning over in her sleeping bag. The director, Matt (also called His Highness of the High Order of the Trees), kept spirits high, taunting us (about snakes, lightning, and cookies) and teaching us how to make weapons and skin rabbits. While we were trying to collect enough edible plants for our dinner, erect a natural shelter and shingle it, and start a fire with a bow drill before dark, he swiftly set up his own tent a little ways away and popped open a soda, lounging lazily against a tree, watching us work. MK and Kaity led most of the midday creek expeditions, where we would skip rocks, the little stone disks bouncing in shallow arcs over the clear water, or swim in sandy-bottomed pools. Then there was Hal and Tonia, the owners of the massive property. Both of them are fantastic people, letting us crazies have the run of their place for a week. They also give us full access to their library – which is up a spiral staircase in the lodge and home not only to books, but to the occasional animal skull or other oddity. It was there that several of the campers discovered five full volumes of the Darwin Awards, and after that it wasn’t uncommon to see groups of campers sprawled out on the lawns, whittling or picking at grass, reading Darwin Awards aloud before clambering over to the picnic tables for a delicious plate of lunch.

Something that adds to the experience is the food. It’s five star! It’s of the very best quality. Big Bear makes deals with local farms like Knee Deep Cattle and Sweet Leaf Farms, so it’s local, fresh, and delicious. Not only is it local, but we, the campers, help make it. We had a chore schedule that evenly distributes the making of and cleaning up after the meals. One of the best moments at Big Bear was when we helped make and then got to help eat homemade peach ice cream from a crank-handled ice cream machine. The peaches were from Tonia’s garden. Another great part of it was the pizza that we helped make the dough for, helped form the crusts, and put toppings on before sliding our future lunch into the wood-fired pizza oven. The chili was mouth-watering too – everyone said so.

Despite the wasps, horse flies, mosquitoes, and a particular walrus, Big Bear was the time of my life, and it could be the time of your’s too. You can sign up at to get to do blindfolded midnight drum stalks, overnight survivals, creek walks, the butchering of rabbits, “gnarly” hikes, archery, and fire-making, not to mention getting to enjoy the outdoors location, great food, and the wonderful people. You wouldn’t regret it.

Matt Bradley
Executive Director of Operations
Whole Earth Nature School

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