Jason Jech's first adventure with the Red Wing Environmental Learning Center at age 12 was memorable, but they weren't the kind of memories you put in scrapbooks.
It was a winter survival trip for about a dozen kids, probably to the Cannon River Bottoms because that's where founding ELC Director Bruce Ause often took the kids in the early 1980s.
"I remember being sick," Jech said. "And stray dogs got into our food. Those dogs ate 5 pounds of hamburger and all but one half of a breakfast sausage.
"That was all our food," except for some canned peas that nobody really wanted to eat anyway, he remembers.
"I'm surprised I ever went back."
But Jech, like hundreds of other young boys and girls, was hooked.
Fun balanced out hunger.
"We had midnight snowball fights. We survived."
In retrospect, Jech said, "It was a good trip. We came back for more."
He's still coming back, but not as a student. Ten years ago, Jech succeeded Ause as ELC director.
On Saturday, the program and everyone who has been a part of it since it was founded in 1970 will celebrate the ELC's 40th anniversary. The center is one of the oldest year-round programs for outdoor education in Minnesota.
The crowd could fill the lower lawn at the Anderson Center at Tower View, where tents will be set up near the ELC building for the 5 p.m. dinner and 7 p.m. program.
"We've been trying to reconnect with alumni this year," Jech explained. All the information about participants was maintained on 3-by-5-inch note cards - more than 2,000 of them, males and females alike.
"It's open to the community as well," he stressed. "The community has supported the program in every way imaginable," from landowners allowing use of their property to donors to parents who provided transportation.
"It takes so many people to make this program a success," Jech said.
The ELC exists because local residents thought it was a good idea, he noted, crediting Marjorie Gray Vogel for coming up with the concept, Bill Sweasy Jr. for providing essential support, and retired Red Wing schools Supt. Dan Mjolsness for the district's support and involvement.
Those three will be recognized during the anniversary program, along with Ause.
Ause was responsible for developing the model that is still followed today, Jech said, explaining that boys and girls can start signing up for programs around age 11-12 and work their way up through levels until they become junior instructors and peer leaders.
After a year as instructors, they can go on a major trip.
Programs have changed over the decades, but "The philosophy is the same," Jech said: "Get kids outdoors for hands-on learning."
Quoting an ELC mantra - "I do and I understand" - Jech added, "Experience is the teacher and the outdoors is the classroom."
For Jech, those experiences were life-changing.
"When I went to college and was trying to figure out what to do," he said, he knew he didn't want to spend his life sitting at a desk.
"This was the only thing I knew I loved," he said. "I knew what I wanted to do."
Jech started working summers under Ause's tutelage in the later 1980s, and in 1990 became his full-time assistant. When Ause retired in 2000, Jech became director.
"Bruce is definitely a role model and an adult mentor," Jech said. "He really had an impact on my life" and the lives of many, many other kids.
"He's just the wise old man of the woods - wise about lots of things. And the kids respect him greatly."
Now Jech leads those winter camping trips himself and realizes, "Each trip is a completely different experience."
The program has been expanded some.
"We offer Young Explorers programs for grades 3 to 5," Jech said, along with the regular programs for fifth-grade through 12th-grade students.
"We've also begun to offer adult/alumni adventures," he added, after hearing so many times from parents who said, "I wish I had this as a kid."
And the advanced high school students are taking on a new role, doing outreach in the community and sharing what they have learned.
Saturday's program aims to recapture 40 years of fun. After a day full of outdoor activities for parents, alumni and the community, all will gather for a "wild edible" potluck dinner and hog roast.
The ELC used to have a wild edible dinner each year, but now they're about once every five years. Jech is hoping people will bring adventurous foods; people can call the ELC if they need recipes.
Participants should bring their own place setting and lawn chairs. Musical entertainment will be provided by ELC alumni Sam Brown and Mary Erickson.
The program, which will start at 7 p.m., will include a slide show with images from through the years, prepared by Chris Warrington and Kyle Mehrkens, and storytelling by alumni.
He asked some past participants to talk about their experiences, Jech said. One who responded was Jeff Johnson, an attorney working in China, who sent a videotape.
"They'll talk about what they did and what impact the ELC had on their lives," Jech said. They learned more than outdoor skills, he noted. "They learned skills for life."
Registration is needed for some programs. To sign up for an activity or the potluck, call 651-388-7339 or go online to www.redwingelc.com.