When the weather starts to warm up and as signs of spring arrive, it is inevitable that I’ll start thinking about getting out on a wilderness trip during the summer. There is just something about the promise of exploration, solitude, and time spent with good friends, that keeps me dreaming about the next outdoor adventure. However, the question of “why do it?” still comes up from time to time, especially since many of us live in places where we have easy access to good food and comfortable shelter. Why then would someone, especially a middle school or high school aged kid, venture out beyond these comforts and go on a trip far into the wilder parts of our country?
First of all, wilderness trips can take us away from most modern technology and allow us to use traditional, time-tested skills. Wolf Ridge campers use classic skills every day on trail, like using a map and compass to navigate across lakes in the Boundary Waters, identifying clouds to forecast the weather, and starting a fire with flint and steel. These skills not only form a connection to the past, but also challenge campers to learn something new. There aren’t many things more empowering than learning how to start a fire in the pouring rain and knowing that you can get yourself warm after a long day of traveling through the woods, no matter what the weather might be! Learning new, challenging things should be a regular part of life, and learning new things on a trip gives kids the chance learn the important skills of patience, practice, and improvisation.
Wilderness trips also foster the unique balance between being both independent as well as interdependent on other members of the group. When a camper is out on a trip, they learn the importance of taking care of their physical needs and their equipment, as well as helping others around them and asking for help when they need it. One prime example of this is portaging a canoe and gear on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters or the Quetico. Campers quickly learn that portaging is hard work and needs to be done efficiently. They learn to unload packs and equipment themselves quickly without being told, but it is also essential to help each other to lift packs and canoes, and to help and encourage each other along the portage path. This self-sufficient teamwork is a hallmark of wilderness tripping and forges friendships that can last well beyond the end of a trip.
Campers often return from a trip more relaxed, focused, and knowledgeable of the natural world. Wilderness trips have the power to reforge our once deep connection to the natural world, and when we are surrounded by buildings, cars, computers, and smartphones it is easy to forget that we are still humans living in beautiful, wild place. One place that campers regularly talk about this connection is when they journey for 11 days on Isle Royale by kayak. Isle Royale National Park is a very big and remote archipelago out in Lake Superior and the close connection between people, the island, and the lake is evident everywhere. It takes some time, but eventually they let go of formal schedules and distractions back home. They travel when the lake allows, eat when they are hungry, and sleep when they are tired, living by the natural rhythm of the earth.
Finally, wilderness trips challenge us to try new things and do things we had no idea we could. This idea is wonderfully summed up in a reflection from a camper last year who spent 3 weeks paddling across the entire Boundary Waters and across the Grand Portage, an exciting and also very challenging trip:
“The camp was an adventure and a once in a lifetime experience…The trip allowed me to look at what is important and to take a step back it take it all in. I also learned that I can survive without access to social media…The first day on the water was the hardest as we were still learning all the tricks and learning about each other. We were quick learners and by the third day everyone knew what they were doing. We traveled about 15 miles per day. It was a lot of hard work. We had to portage and carry all our stuff. I am proud that I was able to handle the physical challenges of this trip.”
So many times we hear stories from campers about them encountering the challenges of wilderness life, taking them head on with the help and support of their trip leaders and fellow campers, and coming away proud of their accomplishments and their new-found confidence.
Wilderness trips matter, perhaps more than ever as our “normal” lives become more scheduled, hectic, and technologically advanced. As the weather warms and as summer approaches, start dreaming about what might be out there where the roads end, and what challenges, successes, and inspiration might be out there, too.