Stepping back: An Instructor’s Reflections
As campers arrived one by one at the SeaTac Airport, eyes around me sparkled with anticipation. I could feel excitement streaming all the way to the tips of my fingers and toes. As I helped campers pull freshly purchased packs off of carousels, I could feel my body bouncing as I moved. After taking a break from leading wilderness trips for the last two years, I would be leading these teens on an adventure in the Pacific North West for the next three weeks. I was ready. Having been raised on the ENC wilderness program as a Hante participant, instructor, Added Adventure Counselor, and Outdoor Academy Resident, I had gone on to work in the wilderness year-round. By now, the first day get-to-know-you games, the opening ceremonies, the stove, water purification, and packing your pack demonstrations were all second nature to me. I could not wait to be in my element as a wilderness educator again.
However, as the students sat down in a circle on the airport floor, introducing themselves and waiting for their peers to arrive, I had a sneaking suspicion that I would not be teaching as much as I had anticipated. All nine participants had been Eagle’s Nest campers for multiple years. Three had been Outdoor Academy students, three had done Added Adventures, and seven had been on other Hantes. Most of them had been taught how to thrive in the wilderness, and they had been taught well. As the campers filed on to our Sprinter Van, starting their own get-to-know-you game without prompting, I whispered to my co-instructors, “We need to get them to teach EVERYTHING.”
That night, looking out over a misty ocean, dotted with islands, two participants led the stove demonstration, detailing every safety tip in the book. They were just as excited as I was to be teachers. My goal now was no longer to provide the basic backpacking skills to our campers, but rather to seek out leadership challenges, appropriate for each individual. Throughout the trip, the three instructors intentionally took big steps back. As we had urges to share our games and voices, we silenced ourselves, allowing the voices of our students to emerge, literally placing duct tape over our mouths for a day in the effort to let students make their own decisions and truly understand what they are capable of. Each night we debriefed the day’s leadership decisions with the campers and each day the campers rose to higher and higher challenges.
As my normal life gets farther from the wilderness and the Eagle’s Nest traditions I love, I feel more and more grateful for the opportunities to return. On this Hante, my typical gratitude was felt tenfold. I not only had the chance to paddle through bioluminescent water at night, wonder at the rings on trees wider than my body is tall, play with tadpoles in glacial lakes, but I also got to know a truly remarkable group of teenagers.
Upon arrival in Seattle, the campers had already learned the importance of working hard, playing games, smiling big, waking up early (or at least trying their best), singing loud, making room for silence, including everyone, wondering at the big and small things around us, and feeling grateful for the opportunity to be exactly where we were. These are the lessons that I go back to Eagle’s Nest over and over to learn and relearn, and I believe that these campers do the same thing.
In the middle of our trip, we had the opportunity to hike up to a rocky ridge and look out on a glacier below us. Surrounded by sharp, icy mountains, cracked with bright blue crevices, our voices echoed in spirals around us. As we all tried to wrap ourselves around this landscape’s majesty, one of the campers helped us capture it by leading us in song, having our voices fade in and out like the mist between the mountain peaks. As our voices drifted into silence, another camper belted out a chant, and we all shouted back.
Other programs teach wilderness and leadership skills, however I believe that Hante Adventures has a unique culture of cultivating a spirit of reverence and wildness in its participants. The teens on this trip knew that their experience was special. We were explorers in a unique and awesome environment, but they also knew that they were unique and awesome as well. They did not express this sentiment with arrogance or condescension, but rather appreciated their peers with a matter-of-factness, attributing the groups strengths to the culture that has helped us all feel strong; to quote one of the campers, “I mean, they’re from Eagle’s Nest; of course they’re cool.”
Evelina Pierce, Hante Instructor