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It’s an overcast afternoon, raining off and on, and much chillier than I’d expect in mid-July. Clouds are swirling around us, moving quickly to and fro on the strong breeze. Regardless of the weather, the beauty of this area, the Roan Highlands, is breathtaking. Our X-Craft group is made up of three instructors and ten 13-15 year olds, and on our backs we’re carrying everything we need for a three day journey on the Appalachian Trail. This crew is impressive, remaining positive despite being a bit soggy.
We round a bend in the trail and are greeted with a spectacular view of Hump Mountain in the distance, standing at 5587 feet. This area is a treeless, wide-open bald, affording a clear view of the trail ahead of us. Being able to see where we’re going is equal parts exciting and daunting, and something rarely experienced in the heavily wooded seasonal rainforests of the southern Appalachians. As the kids look toward the climb ahead of them, many of their faces drop. The ascent is tough – nearly a mile of steep terrain, which will undoubtedly be made more difficult by wind and drizzle. Head’s down, they push on, excited by the promise of a peanut butter and jelly lunch on the summit.
As we’re hiking later on, one of the campers mentions that the climb up Hump Mountain really wasn’t so bad; that it only looked intimidating from the bottom. Another camper states that she can’t believe we’ve already walked six miles today, and that after this trip running a couple miles at home every day won’t seem so hard. A couple others agree that hiking in the rain isn’t as miserable as they’d expected. As we debrief the day around a roaring fire hours later, they’ll say that they actually kind of enjoyed it.
These conversations were organic; not facilitated by instructors or forced in any way. On their own, our group’s perspective shifted. They realized that if they could do this (and do it well), that the difficult things they face at home aren’t necessarily as hard as they thought. Or, as a camper pointed out, maybe they are really hard, but they have the ability and confidence to succeed in tough situations.
Listening to our campers discuss perspective with their peers made me want to do cartwheels down the trail. It’s these exact conversations that have made me passionate about taking people into the wilderness on professional and personal trips alike. These are the things I’ve learned (and continue to learn) when I venture into the wild. Witnessing others discover them on their own is nothing short of magical.
Our Session 2 campers have returned to their respective homes now, but I have faith that many of the things they discovered about themselves over the past three weeks will stick with them well beyond these hot summer days. A new crew of young people has settled into this home on Hart Road, eager to learn and grow in the shadows of the wise, old mountains that surround us. Three weeks of magic await them, and hopefully they’ll return home with a fresh perspective of all they’re capable of.
It’s hard to believe that we are now half way through Session 2. The days are full and wonderful at camp, and time seems to take on a magical quality; it is all at once expanding to allow us to do as much as we possibly can, and also rapid and fleeting. At some point we try to forget about time, move from place to place when we hear the bell telling us it’s time for a change, and embrace each opportunity in front of us.
In the week and a half that we’ve been together we have certainly made the most of the time we’ve had together. On the first full day of camp our new campers were placed into tribes – Migisi, Natseeho, Wohelo and Winnesquam. These tribes will always be a supportive community belonging for our campers (and a group of people to play Capture the Flag with). The following night each cabin performed at “Air Guitar”. I love watching the campers who were initially timid on the first day starting to “bust out”, laugh and be goofy at Air Guitar. This is a perfect cabin bonding activity. By the middle of the week we were well into classes and into the routine of camp.
The weekend brought time for a change of pace and some celebrations. On Saturday after the morning activities the counselors created a water park for the campers. The kids enjoyed cooling off while racing with greased watermelons, building and floating boats, and have water fights. That night we the Junior Counselors prepared a cook out for us – complete with hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled corn, coleslaw and Cho Chos (the tasty camp dessert). After our bellies were full we headed off to a square dance. The kids loved following the caller as they danced the Virginia Reel and others square and line dances to live music. By the end of the evening I think that just about all of the campers had danced at least one dance. They were certainly happy to be able to sleep in on Sunday morning! Sunday started off with pancakes and a game of Quiditch (the Wohelo and Natseeho won) and ended with Tribal Village.
Monday, July 4th, was a special day. We had a picnic lunch in the Quad, barbeque and blackberry cobbler for dinner, and then a cardboard box derby and fireworks in the evening. I’ll let your campers fill in the blanks with some of the details. It was a very fun day.
This week classes have started to get off campus for activities. The paddlers have been on several river trips, the climbers went on a three-day trip to Cedar Rock, the horseback riders have been to a horse show, and the X-craft class is currently on a three-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail in the Roan Highlands. I can’t wait to see the pictures and hear the stories when they return.
Over the last two nights all of our campers have headed out to the woods for cabin campouts – the girls all camped out on Tuesday night and the boys were out last night. Some of the cabins camped in the woods at Eagle’s Nest, and others ventured out to the surrounding forests off campus. Cabin 10 ventured all the way to Black Balsam where they watched the sunrise this morning. At Eagle’s Nest Camp, we believe that every child should have the chance to have a special camp out in nature. We want them to experience the joy (and courage) of sleeping outside, under a tarp with the sounds of nature all around them. During the cabin campouts, campers all had the chance to tell stories and eat s’mores around a campfire, before climbing into their sleeping bags to fall asleep to the sounds of the night. We’re excited that they get this opportunity because we know the providing a safe, fun experience in the natural world will give them the chance to step out of their comfort zones, stretch their minds, and connect them to the beauty of the world around them. Is there a better way for us to meet our mission of “promoting the natural world and the betterment of human character”?
We’ve still got another week and a half left of camp, and we’re planning to make the most of it. The weekend is approaching, with lots of surprises and the promise of more laughter…
“Who Cooks for You” can be heard every evening this time of year at my house. Each time it makes me stop and give thanks that these beautiful creatures are able to live so closely with us humans in a very urban area. The Barred Owl has moved in and stayed in our neck of the woods. What a gift.
Moving toward twilight we’ll hear the song birds and squirrels put up their warning calls. Our dog Quoddy hears this too and fixes his eyes skyward. Without fail, a pair of Barred Owls will glide silently from the front of our house to our backyard where they will set up for the evening hunt.
From their perch in our maple and nearby poplar trees they call to each other and to others across the park defining who is in the neighborhood that evening. They linger 5- 10 minutes, then off they go to the hunt.
This time of year is mating season which we know will soon bring owlets to our backyard. Last year we had two who made it from their nesting cavity in the beech tree in the park behind our house all the way to our yard. These young birds can’t fly but they can glide for a long way. From their cavity they will glide out until they land on another tree or on the ground. This leads to a long climb back up a tree using their beak, feet and flaps of the wings. It is unlike anything I have ever seen but it is efficient and with each climb the wings strengthen for their soon to be flights.
I am excited and hopeful for more owlets this year climbing our trees and calling to their parents for more food. They are hungry little things!
I encourage you to head out an area near you, maybe even your backyard and see if you can spot an owl or two. Their preferred habitats range from swamps to stream sides to uplands, and may contain hemlock, maple, oak, hickory, beech, aspen, white spruce, quaking aspen, balsam poplar, Douglas-fir, lodge pole pine, or western larch. If you would like to learn more I encourage you to check out this site: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Barred_Owl/id. If you are at camp or OA this year certainly you will hear these guys as well as the Great Horned and Screech Owls.
At 11:30am on Wednesday, August 19th I reached the summit of Mt. Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain and the northern terminus of the 2,189 mile Appalachian Trail. As I stood atop what the Penobscot Indians called “The Greatest Mountain” I experienced a wide range of emotions: euphoric bliss, gratitude, pride, and sadness. At that moment the journey of 147 days, of community and friendship, and of self-discovery came to an end. After snapping hundreds of pictures and sharing teary hugs with fellow thru-hikers, it was time to turn around and walk down the mountain.
Tomorrow marks one month since that magnificent day. I’ve spent the past 31 days exploring coastal Maine, laughing and celebrating with family and friends, and adjusting to post-trail life. I am engaged in things that I love, but the trail is constantly on my mind. In typical outdoor educator fashion, I’ve spent a lot of time attempting to debrief my experience, and, much to my dismay, I’ve found it difficult to adequately address the “What? So what? Now what?” of the journey. I know that I learned more than I ever have in a 4.5 month period. I know that I grew and changed. I know that I came to know myself in ways that I never dreamed possible. I also know that the trail with be with me for the rest of my life and that I don’t need to rush the debriefing process. It’ll all come out when it’s time.
There is something, though, that I thought about every single day as I hiked: the importance of having a big dream. As I took my first steps north from Springer Mountain in March, I could hear my 12 year-old self cheering me on. “Way to go, Liz. You’re actually doing it!” This dream of mine, a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, has been on my mind and in my heart since my first backpacking trip as a kid at summer camp. When I look back through my journal from the Outward Bound course I participated in when I was 17, the first thing on my list of long-term goals reads “hike the AT”. Throughout college and beyond, I read book after book about the trail and stared at maps for hours. I daydreamed about what life would be like out there and thought about how great it would be to eat candy bars every day. I can confidently say that I’ve thought about the Appalachian Trail almost every day for the past 19 years.
Some may say that thinking about something that often is obsessive, but I disagree. That’s what dreams are all about. They’re little places in our minds where we can escape everyday life for a minute or two. They offer inspiration and excitement for the future and give us something we can work really, REALLY hard for. Dreams open doors to realities we didn’t realize existed and simultaneously keep us grounded as we work toward making them come true. Dreams are born from passion and purpose; they encourage us to leave a positive mark on the world.
My dream didn’t come true a month ago when I touched the sign on the summit of Mt. Katahdin. No, it was realized the 146 days leading up to that moment. Every step, every raindrop, every packet of Ramen noodles I ate, and every interaction I had on the trail was a part of my dream coming true. Every piece of ground I slept on, every mountain I climbed, and every mosquito I swatted away…they were each a part of it, too.
Thanks to the Appalachian Trail, I am forever changed. I know that I can accomplish big things and that I can make my wildest dreams come true. And I know that I’m no different from you, or your children, or your neighbor down the street. We were given the ability to dream because we are capable of making those ideas become realities. They’re ours for the making and ours for the taking. So, what are you waiting for?
Picture this, if you will: you’re walking through a creek on the Eagle’s Nest campus. You move slowly upstream, the chilly water sending shivers through your toes. Each step is deliberate as you navigate the slippery stones beneath the surface. You glance up quickly to see a chubby squirrel making its way up a White Pine beside the creek. Eyes back on the water, you continue the journey. All of a sudden, bright sunlight reflects off an object on the creek’s floor and catches your eye. You stop abruptly as you realize what it is, and bend down to confirm your discovery. You can’t believe it; you’ve been searching for years! It’s almost as if it was waiting there just for you. You reach down and pull it from the stream and admire it as it rests on your palm. You’ve found it – your very first heart rock.
Heart rocks are exactly what they sound like: rocks that are shaped like hearts. Discovering them is a joyful experience, as they can be difficult to find. Whenever one catches my eye, I slow down and admire it for a while. Cliché as it may sound, heart rocks make me think of the people and places that I love and remind me to give thanks for them. I don’t always take them with me when I come across them; in fact I almost always leave them in their special place. There are a few, however, that I’ve picked up along the way.
I found this heart rock on the summit of Grays Peak, a 14,000 ft. mountain in Colorado, while hiking with two of my best friends (who happen to be Nesters as well).
This is an especially exciting find – a heart-shaped Quad rock! I found it exactly as it’s pictured, sitting on a wooden stair near Sikwayi.
As you can see, this rock is a little different – it’s shaped like an actual human heart. It holds great significance, as I used it five years ago during my interview to work at Eagle’s Nest. I didn’t realize that it was shaped like a heart until years later; I couldn’t have found a more perfect rock for the job.
Have you ever found a heart rock? We want to hear your stories and see your pictures! You can post them on our Facebook page or email them to Liz at email@example.com. Share the love!
At this time of year when things get a little hectic or stressful many of you may be busy running around buying toys, wrapping them, and giving them, but are any of you playing with them? I am talking to you, the adults in the room and maybe even some of you teens. Hillel Cooperman gave a TED Talk where he describes The Dark Ages as “the time between when you put away the Lego for the last time as a kid and [when] you decide as an adult that is it okay to play with a kid’s toy.” How many of you are still living in The Dark Ages?
One of the best parts of my job during the summer is getting to live in a community where play is totally acceptable behavior for all ages. It feels great to let loose and act silly. Everywhere you look campers are finding ways to play with a cardboard box or a pack of mustaches. Is it raining outside? No problem! Let’s make up a game where you are safe from being out only if you are sitting in a puddle.
Recently I watched a TED Talk by Steve Keil citing the many benefits of play including one study that found that rats that play more have bigger brains and learn tasks better. He goes on to state that bears that learn to play more survive longer than bears that learn how to fish better. Moving on to humans he cites research that shows play in humans improves emotions, cognition, emotional maturity and decision making ability. For school children recess is a time to go outside and play, returning to the classroom with better mindsets and focus.
What happens when we grow older and are no longer allowed a recess for play? When camp is not in season I work in an office where it is more of a challenge for me to get my daily dose of play. Steve Keil suggests treating lunch like the recess for work. On my lunch breaks I like to go home to my dog, Miles, for an energizing game of chase in the back yard. Other ways I like to add play to my life are by my husband and I making up silly song lyrics to the music we listen to while cooking dinner. We have made a game of going to the grocery store. Strategically splitting up our shopping list and timing ourselves to see how fast we can get in and get out. Sixteen minutes is the record so far. If all else fails, we go to the humane society and play with a room full of kittens.
A great quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin is “We do not stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” So, for the rest of this year and the new year approaching find little ways to add play to your everyday life.