Wilderness camp is a unique experience for kids

Barbara Hootman

Spencer Bolejack, who teaches martial arts in Black Mountain, conducts an unusual sort of summer camp.

Located in Canton, Land of the Sky Wilderness Camp bordering Shining Rock Wilderness teaches young and adult students how to track, sail and hunt with bows. Students learn about crafts, music and edible and medicinal plants. All of their study is focused on preserving traditional knowledge of the Appalachian frontier and native Cherokee. Bolejack’s 3.5-acre experiential education center and a base camp are surrounded by some of the region’s most remote wilderness.

Bolejack, who completed combat engineer training while serving in the Army reserves, has taught martial arts on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Carver Center in Black Mountain for 15 years. The primitive and survival skills specialist is also a musician and artist.

“We have some neat things going on in Black Mountain and at the camp,” Bolejack said in an e-mail. “The martial arts classes along with weapons instruction will continue at Carver Center throughout the summer. Camps are held at our base camp, bordering Shining Rock Wilderness in Haywood County.”

The all-ages/abilities martial arts classes at Carver Center will continue through summer and will include instruction in a variety of integrated martial arts. The martial arts lay the ground work for the discipline needed to participate in the wilderness camp, Bolejack said.

The Carver Center classes are 3-4 p.m. for beginners, 4-5 p.m. for color belts and 5-5:30 p.m. for senior belts and weapons. Classes average 10 students, though “basic” classes have a few more. Wilderness camps are limited to 12 people per group.

Kayla Birstan, 15, has been studying martial arts in Black Mountain with Bolejack for the past four years. She has participated several wilderness camps. The camps and the martial arts have “helped me mature a lot,” she said.

“A week in the wilderness changes a person,” she said. “I’ve seen bears and rattlesnakes in camp. The camps and the martial arts have helped me develop a sense of self-confidence.”

John Paul Cook, 19, has participated in the wilderness camp for nine years.

“I’ve learned that I can go several days without food or shelter and survive,” he said. “I’ve been learning martial arts since I was 4 years old. I’ve learned a lot about controlling my emotions. I wouldn’t be the kind of person I am today without the martial arts training and the wilderness camp.”

Bolejack teaches students to use various weapons for self-defense, including common objects.

“When teaching students about weapons, I begin by showing kids how to safely use tools,” he said. “Care and maintenance of tools is a lost art in our modern world. Different woods, steels and ropes have their strengths and weaknesses. In a defensive situation the whole world around us is an available tool. I teach kids to use clothing, sticks, and common items with proven martial arts (properties) first.”

As students progress and demonstrate maturity, Bolejack offers training in Kung Fu spear, samurai sword and Filipino stick arts. He offers classes in blowgun use, knife throwing and firearm safety using low-velocity, non-lethal Airsoft guns.

Bolejack said he has seen the wilderness transform students.

“There is a great personal transformation a person goes through, spending time in the outdoors,” he said, “but very few schools teach how to do that in a way that breaks us free of the consumer/outdoor recreation cycle. Survival skills increase in the wilderness, and kids increase in the use of independent thinking and critical observation skills. The wilderness is a wonderful classroom.”

For more about the camp, call 280-0847 or visit Bolejack can customize a program for any camp concept, he said.

“I think wilderness camp is for all kids,” he said. “Some just need a softer landing.” .”