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Simple Task, Big Challenge

Written by Erick Anderson
    Wednesday, 07 May 2014
Simple Task, Big Challenge

It seems like a simple task: start a fire, and boil a cup of water. Turns out it’s not so easy when all you have is a paper cup and three matches. During last year’s Teen Survival Challenge, I watched twenty different teams accomplish this task twenty different ways, and each of those ways gave me unique insight into the different ways teams work together and think through problems.

In the Teen Survival Challenge, teams of four teens and one mentoring adult are “stranded” in one of our parks with a backpack full of basic supplies and a series of tasks to complete in order to escape. How they chose to work together to complete those tasks is up to the team to determine. There’s no “winners” and “losers” per se; it’s all about the process of coming together, bonding as a team, and learning how to survive.


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In last year’s Riverside Park challenge, teams completed tasks such as climbing to the top of the rock wall, completing an orienteering course, and identifying trees in the Arboretum. My personal favorite, however, was the fire building challenge, which I had the pleasure of supervising with our Outdoor Leaders Andrea and Richard. Teams showed up at the fire pit in the amphitheater with the task of starting a fire and boiling a cup of water. Problem was, they didn’t come with any wood, kindling, fire starter, or water. All they had was a paper cup, and the ability to ask us for up to three matches. Everything else they needed to gather themselves.

The first team to arrive nailed this task quickly. They gathered up the driest sticks and leaves they could find for their kindling, a couple nice pieces of wood, and got a roaring fire going with only one or two matches. Our thinking was that teams would take their paper cup down to the river, collect their water, and then boil it in the paper cup. This team quickly proved, though, that sometimes there’s a better plan out there. One of them found an aluminum can on the ground. Another one of them poured water from their water bottle into the can, and they placed it over the fire. Unconventional, but they accomplished the task of boiling a cup worth of water in about ten minutes tops. Impressive use of their surroundings.


Check out this highlight reel of last year's Challenge!

Some other teams realized that relying on somewhat wet kindling wasn’t the best idea. They realized the best fire starter available to them was in their backpacks or tucked away in their pockets – the packed of instructions that we gave them, their directions to Urban Ecology Center, phone numbers, business cards, etc. If it was easy to burn, it probably ended up in somebody’s fire. There was no right or wrong way to do it. What mattered was that the team put their heads together to find a solution that worked for them.

We've been using an event like this as a part of our High School Outdoor Leader training for years. It's a way for them to bond together and problem-solve as a team early in their time with us, and is always one of the most memorable parts of their training. By adapting it for the public, our Outdoor Leaders have the opportunity to help plan and lead an event that they love, and share a memorable experience with their peers.

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A team successfully completes a challenge! Photo: Jeff McAvoy

This year we’re holding the Challenge at Three Bridges Park in the Menomonee Valley for the first time! The survival scenarios we’ve created around this urban wilderness will challenge both body and mind. Our course will include:

  • Orienteering: discover the history of the Menomonee Valley.
  • Bicycling: traverse the trails.
  • Fire building: getting started is the biggest challenge.
  • Water Testing: what can macro-invertebrates tell you about the river's water quality?
  • Team building: working together is the key to survival.
  • And more!

So come join us!

Maybe you’re a school teacher who wants to give your students a unique experience. Maybe you’re an organizational leader who wants to build team work among your participants. Maybe you’re a parent who just wants to have fun with your child and their friends.

There’s room for all varieties of teams and all skill levels. Explore nature, work together, and most importantly, survive!

Register a Team!

Accept the Challenge! Register your team today!


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Erick Anderson

Erick Anderson

Plan A for Erick’s life was to become a high school science teacher. But after graduating from Waukesha’s Carroll University in 2006 with degrees in Chemistry and Secondary Education, he found himself stumbling upon a much more intriguing Plan B. Joining the national program Lutheran Volunteer Corps, he spent the next two years placed as a full-time Environmental Educator at the Riverside Park Branch and was given the opportunity to stay on for three more years. In 2011, he began Plan C as Community Program Coordinator at the Washington Park Branch, focusing particularly on the Young Scientists Club program. He looks forward to finding out what plans D through Z will have in store.

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