Extreme Geography

Submitted by Andy Barclay on Tue, 07/17/2012 - 08:52

The study of upland rivers involves the understanding of a number of geographical concepts and river features – erosion, plunge pools, eddies, stoppers, helical currents, flow rates to name but a few. So how do you find out about these and embed the knowledge? Year 8 students from Saltash School have their own unique approach to enhancing their studies – find an upland river, jump in and go for a walk!

This is all part of their annual Geography Theme day, devised by Head of Geography Malcolm Clark and his team, with the over-arching aim of exploring creative ways of developing fieldwork experiences for young people in the outdoor environment

The components of fieldwork include, amongst others, work done in an environment to gain real life experiences and knowledge, and understanding outdoor environments from first hand experiences. And first hand experience really is at this heart of this activity as all the senses are engaged in this adventurous approach to exploring rivers. The walk starts in a shallow part of the River Plym with students wearing buoyancy aids, helmets and sturdy footwear as part of the safety process. Movement through the river needs careful attention so judicious use of hands, feet and eyes is vital. Teamwork is an essential element to success also as some students take to the activity (like a duck to water) whilst others needs encouragement and on occasions a helping hand.

A relatively easy start then becomes an exercise in challenge by choice as routes of varying difficulty can be chosen as a means of progressing up the river. Easier routes involve the use of eddies behind rocks as areas of rest and shelter from the current whilst the more adventurous can take on the full force of a jet of water squeezed between 2 huge boulders. Feeling the power and hearing the noise of the rush of water brings home the incredible force of nature that is an upland river.

Geography questions abound – where is the water fastest, why are the rocks rounded, why are they slippery, where is the deep water, what causes an eddy, how would the river look/feel with more/less water? Alongside the knowledge comes the personal development with decision-making, problem solving, teamwork, resilience and confidence all put to the test.

As the journey progresses so the level of challenge increases. There is a short swim across deep, fast flowing water to the base of a waterfall, a challenge for all especially the non-swimmers! This is followed by a climb up the fall through the water pouring over the lip then on to the showstopper, another waterfall which is a bit special. For those who dare you can hold your breath and step through the torrent to end up behind the cascade where you can open your eyes and breathe again. The noise, the view, the sensations are amazing as a thunderous torrent creates a curtain of water in front of you. For those who want it, reassurance is available by pushing your hands through the water and grabbing hold of a nearby friend or instructor. A couple of your friends can even join you behind the fall. When you are ready, out you come and onto the bank – exploration over.

And the outcomes? Students talk animatedly about the power of moving water, the forces at work, the noise, the river features. Teachers talk not only about the geography but the personal qualities they have seen on the day – courage, teamwork, determination, resilience. Everyone talks about adventure and fun – a great day out.

Health Warning: Moving water is a powerful and dynamic medium in which to work. This activity must only be undertaken with qualified and experienced leaders. For more information or if you would like support in facilitating this for your students please contact Andy Barclay, Cornwall Outdoors on abarclay@cornwall.gov.uk