campus news

Learning survival skills in Letchworth Teaching Forest

Students head into the Letchworth Teaching Forest for a wilderness first aid course led by Russ Crispell. The class was held after nightfall, which provides a more realistic scenario for practicing these skills. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published November 30, 2022

“The only way to replicate a scenario of inclement weather and struggle is to practice skills at night. In the Letchworth Woods, we lose line-of-sight capabilities and it makes practicing each survival skill a more realistic scenario. ”
Russ Crispell, instructor
Wilderness First Aid

The crisp night air and swaying canopy of trees in Letchworth Teaching Forest on the North Campus sets the stage for courses delivering essential survival skills to UB students.

The new pair of wilderness first aid courses offered through the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Environment and Sustainability take a hands-on approach to survivalist course content. They are designed for those who travel into the outdoors, at least 60 minutes or more away from help.

“The only way to replicate a scenario of inclement weather and struggle is to practice skills at night,” says course instructor Russ Crispell, an outdoor expert who served as director of Outdoor Pursuits in UB Student Life for 26 years. “In the Letchworth Woods, we lose line-of-sight capabilities and it makes practicing each survival skill a more realistic scenario.”

Using the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) recommendations and guidelines, students receive both theory and practical up-to-date training. Beginning mid-semester, the one-credit courses — EVS 301 and EVS 302 — are taken back to back, once a week for seven weeks. While students earn credit toward their respective degrees, they also come out of the course with a two-year certification.

“The concept of the course is primarily to provide much needed training for students who typically enter into the fields of earth sciences and natural sciences,” Crispell explains. “Students who are majoring in earth and natural sciences, especially, are venturing into scenarios where they enter into work and are stationed in remote places where they need to know these skills.”

On a fall November evening, the class examined and learned how to preliminarily treat chest wounds. Here, Crispell is demonstrating how to help warm a person injured in the wilderness. Photo: Douglas Levere

“In the Letchworth Woods, we lose line-of-sight capabilities and it makes practicing each survival skill a more realistic scenario,” says Crispell. Photo: Douglas Levere

Students learn the appropriate way to approach an injured person, how to take vitals and determine the best way to provide aid. Photo: Douglas Levere

Frank Meyer, a senior and double major in neuroscience and psychology, is taking the class as a way to ready himself for life after graduation. An active outdoorsman, he plans to move to Colorado to work at a ski resort while he prepares to enter the Air Force.

“I do a lot of hiking and backpacking, kayaking, mountain biking and skiing in remote places, often out of reach of ski patrol, where a self-rescue is very probable. I honestly should have had this training already but there were no classes available to me without a lot of travel,” Meyer says. “Finding this class here at UB was incredible and my training will surely be put to good use.

“We are trained to think outside the box and be very resourceful, which is extremely beneficial,” he adds.

The skills Crispell teaches range from treating hypothermia, burns and allergies to recognizing altitude emergencies, identifying harmful plants, mental health first aid and more. These skills are vital to learning how to survive and thrive in the field, and are often sought out or required by employers.

“What motivated me to enroll was my love for the outdoors and also the fact I’m a volunteer firefighter, where I work in first aid every day,” says Jillian Yorko, a sophomore in environmental sciences currently taking both EVS 301 and 302. “The national parks and other hiring associations actually look for this certification when going through the hiring process. It puts you a step ahead of other candidates, which is exactly what I’ll need when I graduate,” she adds.

The courses incorporate an interesting twist on the traditional model in that seven accomplished volunteer teaching assistants help Crispell with instruction and course management. Moreover, all the teaching assistants have a connection to UB, either as alumni, instructors from various departments or professional staff.

The inaugural volunteers include Joe Allen, a local high school teacher and UB adjunct professor for more than 20 years; Mark Sorel, administrative director for the Student Association and a former Boy Scout camp staff member; Don Szumigala, BS ’02, an instructor in Recreation and Intramural Services, EMT and high angle rescuer; Janelle Price, BS ’18, assistant to the chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology; Jon Roth, BA ’12, Canisius College professor and Earth Spirit educator; Alex Eisenhauer, MS ’20, BS ’18, a former EMT and Earth Spirit excursion assistant trip leader; and Stephen Hagenbuch, BA ’10, SA finance coordinator and a Boy Scout leader.

“Russ loves what he does. When he teaches, he relates to students, making sure they are completely engaged,” says Sorel when asked why he and the other TAs are volunteering their time with the course. “The concept of bringing folks together with various outdoor backgrounds to share experiences and help teach is altruistic, interesting and dynamic. His positive energy is infectious; why not help?”

In addition to Crispell and the volunteers, the course also has support from; Nick Henshue, clinical assistant professor of environment and sustainability, and Jonjay Stockslader, director of online learning and continuing education in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The one-credit, seven-week courses are offered each semester. Students can register for spring now. Students may complete EVS 301 and 302 in any order, but must complete both to earn the wilderness first aid certification.