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NOV. 7, 2018

Instructor-Led Trek: Lessons On and Off the Trail

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Carrying full backpacks and dressed in warm layers, Semester 47 headed out last week on a five-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail.  After dividing up group gear and food, taking a series of silly photographs, and circling up for a silent scream, the three trek groups hugged goodbye and loaded onto the buses.  Two hours later, each group set off on the storied trail that travels over 2000 miles from Georgia to Maine to take part in their second trek of the semester, Instructor-Led Trek.

Our location in Western North Carolina, nestled amongst the Blue Ridge Mountains, minutes away from world-class climbing in Pisgah National Forest, and surrounded by rivers with whitewater of varying levels, allows for easy access to adventures of all sorts and enables The Outdoor Academy to hold true to its name.  Over the course of a semester, OA students take part in a variety of outdoor trips, including a progression of backpacking trips, or “treks.”  The day after students arrive, they leave for a three-day Orientation Trek with a group of strangers, and return with new friends and increased confidence on trail.  The grand finale of OA’s outdoor programming is the five-day Student-Led Trek, during which instructors take a back seat and students have the opportunity to test their skills as leaders and team members. 

In between these two trips is Instructor-Led Trek, a five-day excursion designed to round out the knowledge and skills developed on previous backpacking, climbing, and paddling trips in order to prepare students for their final trek. With a few trips already under their belts, and an upcoming trek during which they will have increased responsibility, the students demonstrated an eagerness to learn, practice, and master the technical and interpersonal skills required to lead a trip.  Their sincere dedication to growing as leaders was coupled with a willingness to celebrate their goofier, more energetic sides.  Being on trail for five days allowed for a level of silliness and spontaneity that doesn’t always happen on shorter trips or in more structured settings.  As we hiked, we shared our enthusiasm by yelling our names and what we were excited about in a repeat-after-me format and conducted an entire evening meeting while wearing glow-in-the-dark vampire teeth.  We celebrated Benton MacKaye, the visionary behind the Appalachian Trail, with an impromptu birthday party and exchanged a few jokes about Big Butt Mountain before we quietly enjoyed the view from its summit.

Upon returning from Instructor-Led Trek, during our weekly Community Meeting, a couple of students called for more spontaneity, greater enthusiasm, and increased investment in the traditions that define OA.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that after being reminded of how rich with joy, wonder, and growth a few days spent in the outdoors can be, students are asking one another to bring forward their best selves.  Additionally, as we celebrate the successes of each milestone, we must also grapple with the nearing close of the semester.  The combination of knowing just how full this experience can be, and keeping in mind the ephemeral nature of spending only one semester at OA, has led students to seize ownership of the semester and arrange for tea parties, brainstorm themed days, and sing each song with a little more pep.   

As we prepare to set off on Student-Led Trek this week, each of us carries the knowledge that this is our final trek of the semester and the desire to maximize the fun and learning.  As the students in my group planned our route, they listed the requirements for the trip: lots of views, miles that challenged them physically, and opportunities for stargazing and campfires.  I look forward to creating magic and joy in the wilderness and celebrating the leadership of our students, as well as continuing to bring lessons from our outdoor experiences into our on-campus community.       

By Hannah Ryde, Resident Wilderness Educator