By Mark GoingThe following article appeared in the spring summer issue of Summit Guide magazine of 1994. Mark Going writes about the value of the new type of outdoor adventure summer camp for kids. Jim and Donna Stein agree with the immeasurable adventure experience, and founded The Road Less Traveled in 1990 with the purpose of instilling a remarkable connection with nature in teenagers.
A dozen teenagers amd two adult leaders, myself included, stoof on the crest of the Continental Divide, in Colorado's Never Summer Wilderness, soaking up the orange glow of the setting sun. Endless layers of mountains stood silhouetted before us. Behind us, far in the distance, dark clouds spit electricity onto the eerie maroon horizon. Our heads bobbed back and forth from sunset to lightning as if we were spectators at a tennis match, afraid of missing a single play.
The sun soon dissapeared and my co-leader used the fading light to take most of the group down the steep tundra to camp. Four of us remained, mesmerized by the afterglow. Absorbing the rest of this light show would be worth a slower, more tedious descent in the dark. We huddled as close as possible to cut the wind's chill. Not much was said, but after a month of twenty-four-hours-a-day togetherness, words weren't really necessary. The three teenagers later confessed this was one of the finest moments in their young lives. It was an exclamation point following a month's worth of life-tranforming events during which time these teenagers slowly became addicted to the mountain world.
We huddled as close as possible to cut the wind's chill. Not much was said, but after a month of twenty-four-hours-a-day togetherness, words weren't really necessary. The three teenagers later confessed this was one of the finest moments in their young lives.
Once tagged with a "hoods-in-the-woods" reputation because so many were set up to introduce troubled youths to the theraputic benefits of the great outdoors, wilderness adventure programs are now tailored to almost any high school student who wants more than an old-fashioned summer camp. When I was hired by one of these programs, America's Adventure, my vision of the job was exactly like that evening on the Divide. As it turned out, my romanticized images weren't especially far fetched. But I quickly learned the paycheck was to be well earned. Combining fun and safety while weaving fifteen personalities into one goal-oriented group is hard work.
The basic formula involves two-to-six-week trips for ten to thirty campers. Teenagers get to taste, among other activities, backpacking, rockclimbing, mountain biking, and whitewater rafting. Several companies incorporate service projects and cross-cultural endeavors into their programs, with the teenagers helping out with projects run by the Forest Service, Native Americans, and others. While a couple of these programs stress service as a major part of their itinerary, young campers usually list the idea of "giving back" fairly low on their roster of joys to anticipate. But I have yet to lead a group that did not admit to feeling satisfaction from their service projects - once the work was over.
The process is an important ingredient in a recipe that helps teenagers understand their roles on this mixed-up planet.
The niche these adventure companies fill lies somewhere between hardcore programs such as Outward Bound and NOLS, and catered shopping and sightseeing tours like Musiker and American Trails West. Campers learn to pack, cook, and clean up after meals. On some trips they even make the menus and do the shopping. Campers are also in charge of their personal gear as well as community equipment. All of this forces the participants to play an important role in the success of their own outing. Ideally, a few days is all it takes to develop a bonded, fun-loving unit. Realistically, even a collection of great individuals has a hard time understanding the benefits of sacrificing self interests for group unity. Still, it usually works in the long run.
On our programs we traditionally let the campers spend a night or two without adult leaders during their final hike. After deserting one gruop of especially ardent screw-offs, my co-leader and I wanted to see if they had actually absorbed anything we had hoped to teach them. We hid our camp on the other side of the lake and slithered back through the weeds to listen in on the chaos. Indeed, chaos reigned, but a serious undertone had also enveloped the group. A day of hiking in cold rain had made them miserable enough to realize the importance of preparing a good meal and formulating a plan to dry out. We watched in amazement as they pulled toegether to fire up stoves, cook dinner, clean up, and hang food. All without an argument. My co-leader whispered, "Kind of makes you want to have one of your own, huh?"