Outdoor School?

I came across this teacher when we were shooting a TV feature on “Minnesota Bound”….and I was intrigued with his “Minnesota Outdoor Connections” class, in the Centennial School District. While some might wonder why students may need to know “outdoor” things….I think it’s some of the most important life lessons they’ll ever learn. Granted, I’m a daughter of a outdoorsman, some might say “super” outdoorman – so I might be a tad biased. I grew up around camping, fishing, hunting, and even trapping. And while it’s not the most “girly girl” thing to know, it came in handy later in life. (much more than that dreaded Algebra class) I wrote this up freelance for the Quad Press – hope you enjoy it!

It’s not everyday that a student can listen to a teacher tell a story about hunting walruses in the Arctic Circle….from first hand experience.

But the Centennial Senior students who are in Mr. Jake Doth’s “Minnesota Outdoor Connections” class, get just that. And more.

“It’s not me at all,” laughed Doth, “what kid doesn’t want to go in the woods, and learn how to make fire…make a survival bow out of stuff they can find in the woods and their shoelace”.

But there’s no mistaking, Mr. Doth, is a favorite among Centennial students in the Minnesota Outdoor Connections class. And when one walks into his classroom, it isn’t hard to guess why. The walls are covered with pictures, pelts, and skulls. Numerous fish tanks bubble in the corners of the classroom. A dozen fishing rods sit in the opposite corner. While the class is only under its second year under Doth, it has been at Centennial for many years. “It was more of a technology class,” explained Doth, “the kids would go into the wood shop and build canoe paddles..make something you can use outdoors”. Doth said the teacher who taught the classes in those years was a beloved teacher at Centennial, and did a good job with the curriculum. However Doth wanted to take the class in a more “science” direction. “The program is really neat,” he said excitedly, students do receive a science credit for taking the course”. He added that when he moved to the Centennial school district three years ago, the school wanted him to take over the program, and make it senior only. Doth said he was hesitant at first, as he was used to teaching younger students, but the school talked him into it.

He said that Centennial has been a tremendous school, and that the parents and students have been so supportive. He said the biggest challenge was to make the class a legitimate science course, and turning it from a tech class to a 50 minute lecture class. He adds that he sometimes has to slow the kids down and talk about the science of it, and explain the reality of the program. “I want to make it as academic as possible…kids are going to walk away with a great base for the outdoors and for college next year”.

Doth explained he designed the class and it’s themes, basing it in biology. He said the class talks a great deal about earth science physics, and chemistry. He also touches on subjects such as outdoor survival, hunting, search and rescue, orienteering, as well as fire starting and taking field trips to Wargo Nature Center.

“Last year was the pilot year, we had six sections of kids,” he said, “word must have gotten out, we have nine sections and 192 to 200 kids that signed up to take it. I’m the only teacher that teaches it. I kind of tailor it to my own specific expertise if you will”.

Doth’s specific expertise is the area is quite a story in itself. While he was born and raised in Minnesota, and attended Roseville High School, once he finished his master’s degree in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, he was looking for an adventure. “I jumped in my truck and drove to Alaska,” he laughed, “Scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I was a 23 year old”. Doth always had a natural connection to the outdoors, being an avid fisherman. He was a trout guide through college to earn extra money. Doth remembered getting a teaching job in Alaksa, but the timing was a tad off. “I did have a teaching job, but I didn’t get paid until the end of September, so I had a whole month to live off of $12 worthy of gas money”. He said that the principle learned he had been sleeping outside and trying to keep his one dress shirt hanging up in a pup tent. He said she opened up her home for him, and that it was a series of blessings from people in Alaska.

He also became a fishing and hunting guide in the Kenai Peninsula area, and met up with some others who were “in the game” also. He said they had airplanes, which in Alaska, is like owning a truck. “They said ‘do you really want to learn? Come with us, we’ll show you the way’. They were phenomenal fisherman and tremendous hunters and they took me under their wing”. Doth said that for the next two years he was a “trout bum”, and went hiking, fishing, and explored anywhere within 200 miles of where he lived.

But, as in many school districts, the money ran out and Doth found himself without a job. “Boss said we’d love to keep you, but you’re the low man on the totem pole”. He said he looked at it as a new journey of life. And the journey led him to an Eskimo village on the Bering Sea who was looking for a teacher for grades 3 through 12. “There’s no roads in or out. I flew to the Arctic Circle, and realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. All the wilderness knowledge….really kind of flew out the window. When I was faced with the arctic tundra and the Bering Sea…you turn your back on the Bering sea, you don’t come home”. Although Doth said it was a hard life, they were truly the greatest life lessons he could have ever had. “It was a tough life,” he admitted, “if you wanted food, you hunted it”. He recalled life on the coast, where life revolved around hunting the sea mammals for food – walruses and whales and seals. One day, when they were in class, there was word that whales were in front of the village. “The whole school shut down,” he laughed, “I just looked at my kids and said head home!” He aid it was there where he learned that ther was more to outdoor survival and living off the land that no class or magazine ever would teach him. Doth taught and lived in the tough little village for five years, and in the summers would return to Kenai to resume his fishing guide job in the summers.

Up until he met an Alaskan named Jessica. “She knocked my socks off,” he said, “she’s part Eskimo, part Pilipino. We fell in love, but I still had to go to the village…I couldn’t turn my back on those people”. So, he said, his future wife moved to the village with him. He said they lived there for another year, got engaged, and decided it was time for a move. “I guess the whale hunter, risk your life, go catch king crab for dinner…kind of went to sleep inside me”, he remembered. With the help from my wife, bless her soul, and my family”. He said it was time to come home.

He said it was time to touch base with his family in Minnesota, and let them meet his wife for the first time. He said they moved back, settled in, and now have a 16-month year old baby boy named Mason.

While he and his family have settled in, Doth explains that the Minnesota Outdoor Connection class has been his link back to Alaska in many ways. “I think of Alaska every day. I love t here in Minnesota. Outdoor connection has saved me. When you live your life for 7 or 8 years, where literally, 250 days out of the year you’ve spent in the outdoors doing something. Connecting in the outdoors that way. And then you move to the land of 10 millions vehicles…everything moves so fast. People drive fast, and they eat and talk fast. Relax fast. It was difficult to say the least for both my wife and I”. But when he started the program, he said it was like re-visiting Alaska. Talking about his experiences with the kids, and talking outdoors survival – hypothermia, hunting whales and walruses. He said that even though he was born and raised here, a part of him is always in Alaska. “It’s never gone”, he said.

Like any exceptional teacher, Doth is quick to credit the students in his classroom. “The biggest reward has certainly been the kids, they truly make the program what it is. They make it so enjoyable for me as a teacher. The energy in the room makes it enjoyable…whether they like to hunt or not…they end up having fun and talking about the Minnesota outdoors”.

Doth said, after all, that’s what it’s all about – to get more kids outside and feeling connected to the outdoors. He recalls asking one group of students who had been to the Boundary Waters, and no one had raised their hand. “I thought Wow!”, said Doth, who said he tries to explain to the kids that you really haven’t lived until you have slept under a tree. Or set up a tent in the driving wind and rain. “They just need exposure,” he said passionately, “get away from the concrete jungle…and once you spark that passion. It’s game over”.

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