JACKSON, NH – Nine teenage girls descended from a Nordic path into thick woodland in the White Mountain National Forest. In snowshoes with 30-pound rucksacks on their backs, they looked for a campsite in the wilderness for the first of seven nights they wanted to camp together in early March. The group pulled three sleds full of equipment, some of which weighed 50 pounds. None of them had much camping experience.
This wasn’t a typical Maine High School field trip.
For the Gould Academy – a private school in Bethel with a reputation for grooming alpine skiers – the annual winter camping trip in the junior class is part of a graduation requirement, a 40-year tradition and a strong lesson in dealing with others, dealing with stress and challenges directly approach.
Most students enter the eight day back country wilderness trip with a mixture of excitement, fear, curiosity, and for some downright fear. In the end, many admit they wouldn’t have missed the trip, even if they might never camp again in winter, especially during a pandemic that has made life more stressful than ever.
“The night before the trip, I was so scared and nervous that I thought it was going to be bad. I thought it was going to be really cold and I was scared because I wasn’t sure who was in my group, ”said Jelena Perovic, who is from Montenegro in Eastern Europe. “But I had such a good group, they were so positive. That made it easier. It was hard to go into the forest and learn all of these things. But now I feel like I can do anything. “
Each year, the junior class of around 50 goes out in groups of eight to ten with guides who have wilderness skills and wilderness medicine certifications. You travel roughly three to four miles a day in snowshoes and find campsites along the way. Students are taught to dig fire pits, find wood, build primitive tents, keep warm – and enjoy the whole experience.
“It was working with other people and relying on them to survive in the wild when I realized I had leadership potential,” said Tao Smith, Gould’s principal and 1990 graduate. “I realized that I was able to take care of others and enable the team to support me. Leadership isn’t just about being at the forefront. Leadership is about how to get the best out of each other. “
Students receive most of the outdoor equipment they need from the Gould equipment rooms – including a backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, winter boots, shell jacket, and rain pants. You’ll need to buy a dozen smaller items, including a camping bowl and mug, synthetic underwear, a warm hat, windpants, and heavy socks. The equipment list is given months in advance.
The students have no cell phones, no radios, and no news from the outside world. It’s just their group and the winter elements, and they’re learning to be comfortable with it. On the fifth night, they go out on a solo night to camp alone.
The travel logs were modeled on outdoor skills schools like Outdoor Bound, said Chris Hayward, Gould’s director of experiential learning.
“We don’t like to use the word survival,” said Hayward. “You are in good hands. You are well fed. But it’s a big deal for them. The tour guides tell the kids, “If in the future you are scared of what you will do when you go to college or start a new job, this experience is a great resource.”
On March 7, a dozen tour guides and 46 students gathered at the Gould Academy field house to pack the backpacks and sleds that carried the pots, tarps, groceries, and shovels. At first, the gym floor was littered with clothes, camping mats, shovels, and bags full of groceries like macaroni and cheese, chicken and tofu, and rice and noodles. Then five small groups got into waiting vans to take them to various wilderness areas – most of them in the White Mountain National Forest.
The all-girls group drove past the undeveloped woodland that juts north of the mountain over the Androscoggin River. Washington, then south to an area outside Jackson, New Hampshire. There the van left them as they crouched to look at a map, discuss their route, put their backpacks on their backs, and set off on foot.
After an hour of hiking, they stepped off the trail into deep snow to find a campsite in the wilderness while cutting through thick trees. They stopped in a small clearing for a quick snack and then went to work. Some started digging a fire pit while others looked for wood and some learned to tie the knots needed to hold the tarp in place. A couple of times the number, the bow line, the trailer hitch of the trucker and the slipknot had to be displayed. You would have to know them all by the time you went camping solo.
Nancy Eaton, one of the tour guides, said she had frustrated students expressing disapproval on the first day of the trip. “And in the end, they thanked me for helping them with this. They don’t know where the transformations will take place. “
Siyi “Christian” Wu from China said the trip brought her out of her comfort zone and forced her to learn to care for basic needs in the forest, such as staying warm and cooking food. She was proud of the new skills.
But after the trip, Wu said the biggest benefit was being part of a team of people she didn’t know before the trip. After 15 months of being separated from her family in China due to the pandemic, the experience was comforting.
“I feel more independent after this trip. I also realized that I have a lot of empathy for others, ”said Wu.
For Haley Hessinger from Pittsburgh, sleeping on the hard floor was the biggest challenge. And on the third day she struggled with sleep deprivation. But on the fifth night, she found the solo camping trip life changing.
She went off alone and found a place for her tarpaulin and found firewood. Then she sat in the warmth of the sun and sketched the trees around her. She even took a nap. And at sunset, Hessinger found a view of a mountain on which the sun was setting and sat down and watched it go down.
She returned to the Gould Academy with determination to make hiking and camping a part of her lifestyle.
“What did I do with it? That I knew that I would be fine on my own without social pressure – and even in a stressful environment in the forest in winter, ”said Hessinger. “I was satisfied and perfectly fine. I can deal with myself. “
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