About the Author, Laura Nelson: I’m a lifetime researcher in happy, healthy, fun living. I love hiking, doing yoga, and playing my violin, and did I mention eating desserts? I’m taking a summer position leading groups of young women on outdoor leadership development trips through the Pacific Northwest. In my daily life I’m a massage therapist and health coach. I’m section-hiking the PCT through Washington with my partner, Josh, a stage 4 cancer survivor. My 70-year old trail-crushing mother is my hiking inspiration.
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I’m 3 weeks post-trip with the YMCA GOLD (Girls Outdoor Leadership Development) program. I’m drinking coffee and sitting quietly on the couch. The sun is out, but there is a cool breeze blowing through. I hear birds and cars driving by, and if I walk out a few blocks, I’d have a clear view of Mount Rainier 60 miles south of my apartment. Rewind a few weeks, and I’ll paint a different picture…
I wrote and re-wrote this blog several times after returning from the adventure. I certainly can’t say the trip was a failure, but it was tough, really tough, and I came back mostly perplexed, a little defeated and pretty depleted. As the days and weeks pass, I’m gaining more and more perspective about what I learned from the experience, and I can only hope the participants are experiencing something similar.
The trip was a beginner camping and hiking trip with eight 11-13-year-old girls: six days at Mount Rainier! Sounds fun, right? Well, as I’m coming to learn, outdoor education for youth is what we call ‘Type 2 Fun’… fun that comes in retrospect after a physically and emotionally challenging endeavor. It can feel like hell in the moment, but you somehow look back fondly upon it and feel glad that you did it.
My co-leader (also named Laura) and I spent 2 days doing pre-trip prep, packing and paperwork. On a Sunday morning, the participants arrived. Everyone seemed shy at first, scared to step closer into the circle we created for the get-to-know you games. The morning pack-out process took about 4 hours, plus another hour to kill while awaiting a minibus to arrive (quick turn-around from a group arriving at the end of their trip). We knew we were loading everything onto that bus and driving off, just the two Lauras and the kids… not to return until Friday!
Our problems started right away, and didn’t stop until after the last child had been driven home on Friday night. One girl in particular (I’ll call her Alice), was homesick from the get-to. She spent the packing hour crying—not just little tears, but full-on sobbing. Her mother had convinced her to leave the house by saying she could pick her up on Wednesday. Several other participants made it known early on that they were NOT interested in hiking or camping. When we asked ‘why do you think your parent/guardian sent you?’ they couldn’t think of a reason. Just a shrug and an eye roll. As we turned onto I-5 South to Mount Rainier, Alice had a 30-minute break-down, screaming, ‘We have to turn the bus around! I need to go home! I need to see my mom!’ Laura attended to her as best as she could, and I drove on. We had prepped for homesickness, but this was a little more than we had anticipated.
We arrived at our campsite, Cougar Rock, a few miles north of Longmire Ranger Station on the Paradise side of the mountain, around 4pm. The campsite was perfectly comfortable, and we had a peek-a-boo view of the mountain from our loop. Our Leader-in-Training (Jessica) helped the girls set up the tents (we call them ‘mids’, short for pyramids, because the are set up like a circus tent… 4 pegs to stake down the corners, and a pole in the middle.) We cooked a big mac ‘n cheese dinner, and sent the kids to bed. (Alice had another hour of crying after dinner, but we worked through it, using all the tools we knew). That night, the rain poured down, and the mountain disappeared behind clouds for the rest of the trip.
This is the part where I want to start listing everything else that went wrong that trip… the weather, the homesickness, the diarrhea in the sleeping bag incident, the chipmunks and mice trying to get into the tent, the moodiness and lack of participation, the wrong campsite reservations, no service to do our scheduled calls, the tears, the cramps, the vomiting… see where this is going? Laura and I spent 14 hours each day dealing with one issue after another, with barely a moment to check in with each other or take a breath. We’d crash into the tent with a quick, ‘you good?’ and roll over. I spent most nights tossing, wondering if the tents were leaking, or when the crying would start. Is this starting to sound like a nightmare? Laura and I entered into what felt like a daze, just going, going, going.
During our prep days, we built a curriculum focused on appreciating the outdoors, learning to be part of a team, leadership, and having fun. Despite the issues, we had time each day where we could do a quick lesson or activity to achieve these outcomes. Our classroom time included discussion of group norms (trust, inclusion, honesty, etc). We also had a lesson on race and ethnicity led by our fearless leader-in-training. As much as they disliked the classroom time, the discussion did help to bring the participants together as a team. They started having fun together, and the more free time we gave them, the more they ran around and enjoyed themselves. We also included ‘solo time’ where the kids practice a breathing exercise, then find a spot on their own where they could draw, journal, or just sit and be. (After the first practice, they began requesting this on subsequent days.) In addition, each student had a chance to be leader of the day, cook, clean-up crew, camp master, and group journalist. The fun happened in the in-between as the group became more comfortable with each other. There was singing, laughter, games and late nights talking in the tent (with a few shushes from us, the tyrannical leaders).
By Wednesday, we had handled the cramps, the chipmunks, the rain, and turned Alice’s homesickness around. We carried on with the itinerary. We muscled our way through the mid-week campsite transition, and enjoyed (well, I enjoyed, but the students had their ups and downs) hikes each day. One that stood out for me was the Grove of the Patriarchs. This hike was 1 mile, and took us through a grove of 1,000-year old trees. Alice said, ‘it’s pretty cool that these trees are older than the constitution!’ The other girls ranged from mildly interested to apathetic. We learned that ‘whine breaks’ were an integral part of any hike– 30 seconds to let out all the complaints, and that hikes included lots of stops for blister care, snacks, shoe tying, and waiting for the caboose to show up.
We secured a sweet spot next to a river at the new campsite (Ohanapacosh), and the group enjoyed free time playing cards and wading in the river. The weather was clear by Thursday, and their moods lifted. Preparing for the pack-out on Friday, the girls celebrated knowing that we were getting Domino’s pizza on our drive home. We also hit it big with s’mores over the campfire.
The last night together, we got the group together for the ceremony including ‘Courage Chords’ and ‘Letters to Self’. This is a time for them to reflect on what they learned and to celebrate in each others’ successes. At 11, introspective isn’t a word I would use to describe them, but they still had moments of connection, appreciation and laughter. Laura and I crawled into our tent that night with a sigh of relief, I finally doubled my sleep meds and had one good night’s sleep.
We returned to the Seattle YMCA at 2pm on Friday with matted hair, wet tents, dirty clothes, and tired (but not completely broken) spirits. I stepped off the bus and sighed. The staff saw this and gave me a knowing look, like ‘we’ve all been there’.
As the afternoon of clean-up came to an end, the girls’ parents began arriving. Everyone’s faces lit up, and they began talking about all the fun they’d had. Perplexed, I wondered what their take-aways were going to be. Is this the kind of experience they will look back fondly upon? Will this make them want to ever hike or camp again? I know that at age 11, I wasn’t a huge fan of hiking, but by 16 I couldn’t get enough. I have to take solace in knowing that this must have given them perspective. Maybe it won’t hit them until years later, but if even one girl learned something, I’ve done my job.
I went into this trip nervous but hopeful. The course director described the group as ‘a leaky boat’, and we spent the first 3 days bailing it out. Laura, a more experienced trip leader, said this was the hardest group she’s ever facilitated. My hope is that if I can handle that, every trip after will be better.
One girl in particular, Melanie, had been removed from an abusive situation three months prior to this trip. She was (understandably) grumpy and moody the whole time, not interested in participating in activities. My attempts at gaining her trust throughout the week fell flat, aside from one moment where she opened up to me about the verbal and emotional abuse she experienced at home. I teared up as she told me what she had been through. On the last night, however, she was the first one to say something positive about each participant. And at our closing circle, she seemed sad to leave… the first bit of a breakthrough that I had seen. I can only hope that this trip was the beginning of her path to recovery.
Also, Alice wrote down in her review, ‘I learned to be away from home.’ The fact that the hours of crying and melt-down could be summed up so succinctly was comical to me. Though I won’t be there to see it, I can only believe that the students took something from this experience. I know I did, and I know the lessons are still surfacing for me as I process the trip. If there’s such thing as Type III fun, maybe that’s what I’d call this ☺