Semester 48 just completed our longest wilderness block of the semester—three days paddling or climbing, followed by two days of on-campus programming that included planning out student-led treks, embarking on the five-day student-led trek, and finally ending with five days base camping in Pisgah National Forest for Classes in the Field.

Spending a swath of time in the forest—looking up and seeing the thread of Blue Ridge Mountains taut against the skyline—creates a connection among students and place, builds confidence in backcountry skills, and allows for a different state of mind to emerge. Students shared that some of the best elements of the experience were to have “no thought about assignments and tasks to be completed… and not worry about all the ‘stuff.’ ” Others shared an appreciation for the freedom of living out of a single backpack, just “having what was there” and nothing more. And there was much rallying around the experience of going “clock-free” during one of our days of Classes in the Field, in which we navigated our day of classes and meals by watching the sun itself, not glancing at the tyrannical face of the digital watch.

Each group on student-led trek planned their own route and menu for the week. Each day, they were responsible for navigation, camp set-up and breakdown, facilitating evening activities and debrief, and continuing to deepen bonds with each other. Each student brought back wild stories of mini-parties on Pilot Mountain, wading in translucent mountain lakes, watching sunsets on Black Balsam, making pizza dough in the field, and working together as a team. Student-led trek is, for many of our students, the most valued week of the entire semester. It is the opportunity to practice the community and wilderness skills learned thus far and give meaning to the topography and trail names seen on the map. That doable-looking bushwhacking route? It is now an adventurous memory of steep cliff and extra miles, Type 2 fun at its finest.

Classes in the Field, five days in base camping with faculty, is the expression of the integrated, experiential learning our school aspires to create. This semester, students hiked directly into our campsite, the final destination for all trek routes. We used Pisgah National Forest as our text, traveling through time, exploring the ways the forest is and has been managed and settled. We immersed ourselves in this place, our backyard of The Outdoor Academy, and considered through experience the (false) dichotomy of humans and nature. Students said their favorite parts of this week included an opinion-changing conversation with two members of the forestry service about logging, a long solo walk under the stars at night, a meditation class on origins, and a session on “creeking.” But there is always the unplanned-for memories that can be most exciting: mud-sliding in the rain, seeing a snake, and, of course, “that one day when we slid down a rock and sat in the field together and ate banana bread.” Learning is an act of community, and community building is a foundation of learning.

By Katie Harris