Last week, our 29 fearless student leaders set out in four groups to discover new sides of Pisgah Forest during their five-day “Leading Trek”. Whether charting a completely new-to-OA paddling course down the French Broad or summiting Cold Mountain in the footsteps of countless past semesters, Semester 51 learned about themselves, each other, and what it means to learn and lead in the backcountry.
Earlier this week, Franny, Savannah, Jaya, and Alex sat down and reflected on their experiences, sharing the stories that defined this Leading Trek for them.
For Franny, the defining moment of her week was a powerful example of overcoming challenges and finding, as she calls it, “the magic of trek”.
The people you trek with are the people you will share a connection with for the rest of your life. They are not only the people you trip over rocks and roots with for 9 miles straight, but they are also the people you get lost in rhododendron forests with, burn hash browns with, sing the same songs on repeat with, swim in ice cold rivers with, faceplant in the mud with, get upset and frustrated with, resolve conflict with, and so much more. Being in the field with classmates and instructors alike is a truly special experience.
I was in a group where all 9 of us, both students and instructors, were women. This added an extreme sense of empowerment, accomplishment, strength, and pride to my trek. Though there are countless incredible memorable occurrences, I can name one that was truly special. On our second to last day, our strong group of women climbed over 1200 ft of elevation to camp on the upper campsite on Cold Mountain. To get there we crushed fallen leaves along steep switchbacks, marched head on through layers of fog, and balanced on ridgelines splitting deep, rolling valleys. Our last obstacle was a group of men camped at the bottom of Cold Mountain informing us that the hike up to the top might be too hard for us women. Their comments sealed our decision: we were going to the summit.
The next morning on our final day, we groggily awoke to the beeps of our watch alarms, 5:30 AM and still dark outside. Despite the hour, we jumped out of our tents with excitement, packing layers, breakfast and other necessities. At 6AM, we began our ascent up the dark, foggy trail towards the summit. After a 20-minute headlamp hike, we reached the large, open mountain clearing of the summit. Our hope had been to celebrate the almost 360* view with a vibrant sunrise, however the foggy white slate of the sky was a whole new sense of beauty we enjoyed. As the day grew lighter we sat huddled, belting out sunshine songs and our own Beatles remixes and laughing at the smell of our charred hash browns. The wind blew and we sang louder. We didn’t mind that it was foggy, we didn’t mind that it was 6 AM. We had each other, and we had a sense of accomplishment, feeling stronger than ever knowing we had climbed to the top.
The moment was ours.
The mountain was ours.
And nobody, especially not a group of men 1.4 miles below us, could take that away.
That is the magic of trek.
Savannah found that same trek magic in a quieter (but just as powerful) moment.
My favorite moment from Leading Trek was not from a day full of hardships, sweat and blood, or tears. In fact, this was a laid back day full of growth, vulnerability, and finding comfort.
On our third day of trek, our group decided to stay at our campsite on Flat Laurel Creek and take a day hike to Black Balsam and Tennent Mountain. We hiked with our packs off, and when we got to the top of Black Balsam, we decided to set up lunch and eat. The view at the top was gorgeous: the sky was a clear sheet of blue, the mountains the color of fire, the air warm and comforting. We stayed there for three hours.
Right before we left Black Balsam to head to Tennet, we sat down and had a student-led talk on how we could improve ourselves independently and as a team. Our instructors pitched in with observations, but it was up to us to figure out how to fix any problems. Because we took the time to talk, the rest of our trek flowed super smoothly thanks to our skyrocketing ability to work efficiently as a team and because of all of the laughs we were able to share over memories and stories on top of Black Balsam.
Alex’s group surprised him with their positivity even in the face of a group member’s unexpected “tumble” on the Art Loeb.
As we made our way up the Art Loeb Trail on arguably the most strenuous day of our trek, all seemed to be well with our group. From myself and Celeste leading up front all the way back to our fearless instructors Ezekiel and Hannah, everything was running smoothly and we were feeling good. So far no one had passed out, zero fuel bottles had exploded…
Anyway, as I said, all was well, until one of our beloved team members took one wrong step. Before we knew it Kai was rolling head over heels down the side of the mountain! I stared in horror and amazement as Kai “gracefully cascaded” down the incline. In the time it took me to think “Oh no!”, Ezekiel had already shed his pack and was hurrying to help Kai. By the time he got there, however, Kai was already back on their feet and just fine. As they made their way back up to the trail, I thought, “I guess that’s why their trail name is ‘Tumble’.”
I was impressed that even when something unexpected happened, the energy on trek is so positive. We always try to see the upside of things, while making sure people are safe of course.
So, after everyone had caught their breath and had some water, we continued back up the mountain. Thanks to Ezekiel’s quick actions, I knew that we’d surely laugh about this at the campsite later that night… assuming we made it there without any more sudden and unexpected descents!
For Jaya, five days of paddling was a completely new experience and one she’s now eager to have again.
Hi! My name is Jaya, and I love to paddle.
I never thought to introduce myself like that until last week. Before OA, I had never gone on any kind of trek, especially not a canoeing one. But after my first day on the French Broad last week, I was hooked.
I am so excited that I was put in the only paddling group for Leading Trek this semester. Every day, we woke up to the sun rising over the river, ate breakfast, finished packing up camp, and rigged our boats. We paddled a total of 55 miles over 5 days during which we sang, danced, played games, and discussed politics while stuffing ourselves with delicious GORP.
Each evening once we de-rigged and got our boats out of the water, we set up tents, made dinner, and started a campfire. We went to sleep under the stars, listening to the river, humming “No Diggity”.
My favorite people in my favorite place doing my new favorite thing.
These are just a few moments from Semester 51’s Leading Trek. Whether you, like our students, have trekked in the wilderness for five days, or if you’ve experienced leading in another setting like on a sports team or in an office, what stories do you remember from your own “leading trek” moments in life?