Great Rivers Wilderness Skills Institute

Long Creek
Long Creek

Registration is now open! Please register by Monday, September 17th.


The first Great Rivers Wilderness Skills Institute will take place Tuesday, November 13 through Friday, November 16, 2018. The Great Rivers WSI gets its name from the region of America through which many rivers flow: the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Buffalo, Arkansas, Current, and Eleven-Point Rivers, to name a few. The US Forest Service and partners AIM for Wilderness Stewardship (AIM Wild) and Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) have joined together to offer shoulder-to-shoulder learning opportunities for agency staff, partners and volunteers to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to steward our country’s most protected landscapes—federally designated Wilderness.

Great Rivers Wilderness Skills Institute was created out of a need for training in the specialized skills required for working in, managing, and stewarding federally designated wilderness areas. Great Rivers submerses students for four to six days in the midst of the Shawnee National Forest, starting them on a path that will lead them to excel in wilderness work. Great Rivers WSI welcomes everyone, beginners and experts alike, and is especially designed for those new to the subject.

For its inaugural occurrence, Great Rivers WSI will take place at Touch of Nature Environmental Center near Carbondale, Illinois, in the Shawnee National Forest. Great Rivers WSI attendance is offered free-of-charge to all those who wish to learn more about wilderness stewardship. This includes all course attendance, certifications, and lodging – participants can camp outdoors or bunk up in temperature-controlled dorm-style lodges.

Attendance to Great Rivers WSI requires a short application process and can be found at the website  Registration will open August 1st; participants will receive confirmation of their admittance into WSI before the end of October.

Continue reading below for detailed information on course tracks, lodging, and meal opportunities.


Great Rivers WSI begins Tuesday afternoon with introductions and Wilderness 101, an overview of wilderness concepts. Wednesday morning students will break into their predetermined tracks and stay with this group for the remainder of the institute until Friday afternoon.

During online registration, Great Rivers WSI students will choose their track; Traditional Skills with Crosscut Saw A/B Certification or Foundations of Wilderness Stewardship. A limited number of students have the option of registering for a Wilderness First Aid course, which takes place for two days prior to the skills institute.

Courses will be ‘in-session’ 8:30 am to around 5 pm each full day. Students are expected to be present for the entirety of their courses.

Course/Track Descriptions

Wilderness 101 (everyone):

This session will allow participants to get to know one another while gaining an introduction to wilderness management. All participants will learn about the origins of the wilderness idea, key people who saw the need to protect wild places and built foundations leading to the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness history and the Four Cornerstones of Wilderness Stewardship. This general session is for all participants that will provide a foundational understanding of wilderness stewardship and set a backdrop for the rest of the week.

Track 1: Traditional Skills:

The Traditional Skills Track is designed to provide participants with a connection to the past and some basic knowledge that will improve their skills as they travel in the backcountry and assist in the stewardship of some this nation’s most important last, wild places.

The A/B Crosscut Certification Course provides students with both classroom-based instruction and field experience in the use of the crosscut saws and axes. Students will learn how to safely utilize these tools in a trail maintenance capacity. The course will cover tool history, best practices in the field, one-on-one instruction in tool use in the field, tool care, safety, and transportation of the tools.  First aid and CPR training are required prerequisites of certifications.

On the final day of the track, participants in this course will learn two other key components of traditional skills. Land navigation with map and compass and tool rehandling and hanging will be taught.  Participants will learn these skills through hands-on participation in the field.

Track 2: Foundations of Wilderness Stewardship:

Building upon the first day of Introduction and Wilderness 101, participants in this track will spend Day 2 immersed in the beauty of Panther Den Wilderness and will be introduced to key principles of crew management, leadership, backcountry preparation and travel.

The following day, wilderness professionals will share fundamentals of Forest Service Wilderness Stewardship Performance (WSP) measures, including discussion of the origin, purpose, and overview of this framework to track stewardship actions taken to preserve wilderness character.  Instructors will explain the relationship between WSP and Wilderness Character Monitoring to increase understanding of how stewardship actions and resulting outcomes are connected in our wilderness work, and how this information will be applied into the future.

Students will learn skills and protocols for up to 4 elements that reflect WSP work planned for local wilderness areas, with time in the field to practice specific monitoring techniques.  On the last day, students will enjoy a hike into a nearby wilderness to share conversation on wilderness topics and take time to reflect on the meaning of wild places.

Wilderness First Aid Certification:

Students registered for Wilderness First Aid will begin coursework two days before the institute, Sunday morning, and last through Monday afternoon.

The Wilderness First Aid (WFA) course will provide you with the skills to recognize and handle many medical issues in the backcountry, and the knowledge to prevent them from occurring in the first place. The course takes place both in the classroom and outdoors through realistic scenarios. Upon successful completion of this course, you will have a certification recognized nationally and throughout the outdoor field. Participants will need to be prepared to be outside approximately half of the training hours, regardless of weather conditions unless hazardous (storms or extreme heat or cold). Participants should bring whatever items they commonly carry on their persons in the performance of their duties, as improvisational concepts are an important aspect of this course, and participants duties, as improvisational concepts are an important aspect of this course, and participants should also be equipped with a headlamp for an evening exercise.


Shawnee Lodge and Morris Lodge are available to students free of charge onsite at Touch of Nature. Lodges provide dorm-style rooms, bathrooms, showers, and indoor common areas, and are climate-controlled. More details can be found at .

Camping is also available, with access to indoor restrooms and showers. If students wish to stay in a hotel, there are several options in the nearby town  of Carbondale, 9 miles North of Touch of Nature.


A meal plan is offered at $21 per day. The meal plan includes a continental-style breakfast, lunch bar available at breakfast for students to pack their lunch ahead of time, and a hot dinner. Students can opt for the meal plan during registration.

Students can also bring camping/grilling supplies to make their own meals or leave site for dinner if desired. The nearby town of Carbondale, 9 miles North of Touch of Nature, offers many restaurants, plus a few in neighboring Makanda Township and Giant City State Park. Students are not encouraged to leave site for breakfast, and should have their lunches packed for the day ahead of time.

For more information contact your local Forest Service Wilderness Program Manager or AIM Wild.

Kelly Pearson, Shawnee NF –

Ed Sherman, Mark Twain NF –

Robert Duggan, Ozark St. Francis NF –

Chris Ham, Ouachita NF –

Molly Maxwell, AIM Wild –