After a sleepless night of camping out in single digit temperatures, my legs, back and brain were beginning to protest as I neared the summit of Phelps Mountain. Behind me, my co-leader, Seth and the three teenage boys we were guiding were getting battered by wind speeds of up to 50 mph, and they were just as tired as I was. On any other weekend, I would have chosen to stay snuggled up at home in front of the wood stove with my husband and dogs. However, a chance to be a part of a weekend that might change a few lives seemed worth the sacrifice.
My time thus far with the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) has consisted mostly of managing the High Peaks Information Center, and leading short trips with fourth graders for the Marie L. Haberl School Outreach Program. For this school program, ADK works with up to six local schools to help get the students exploring the outdoors. Many of them have some sort of “first time” experience on these trips, whether it’s their first time hiking a mountain, tracking a snowshoe hare, or seeing a red eft on the trail. It has been incredibly fulfilling for me to be able to witness the wonder in the students’ eyes when first taking in the view from Mt Jo, or listening to them tell me all they’ve learned. After several years of running these programs, it’s safe to say that I’m well within my comfort zone with this age group.
I was both thrilled and terrified when ADK’s Education Programs Coordinator, Seth Jones asked if I would be a co-leader for ADK’s first Winter Teen Adventure. The goal of the Winter Teen Adventure was to get teenagers of all skill levels outdoors and recreating in the wintertime over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend. While preparing for the weekend, I couldn’t help feeling nervous to spend the weekend with an age group with which I had very little experience. Impressing a fourth grader is pretty easy, sometimes just showing them an animal track left in the snow, or playing a tag game with them will get them excited. According to my limited experience with teenagers, they’re a bit tougher to “wow”. What I wasn’t excited about was winter camping (which I had never done before). Not only was this weekend slated to include what would no doubt be a few new experiences for the teens, but a few new ones for me as well.
It didn’t take long to realize that we had gotten very lucky with our group of participants. The three fourteen year old boys from New Jersey were all friends, and all were very well prepared for a weekend of winter fun. I was surprised at how refreshing it was to be around young people who are excited about getting outdoors, and who have limited experience in doing so. While hiking, and even while preparing meals, they asked great questions about everything from why trees get smaller the higher you travel in elevation, to where in their packs they should put certain things. Saturday evening while having a planning session for the next day’s hike up Phelps Mountain, what we had planned on being a five minute map and compass discussion turned into nearly 45 minutes of questions about everything from different wilderness areas on the map to what we would be looking at from the top of Phelps. By the end of the trip, they were even asking about other trips that ADK is offering in the future.
After participating in this program, my trepidation about spending time with teenagers has decreased. Though the teens are few years older than the fourth graders I’m accustomed to spending time with, the weekend was still full of new experiences for all three boys. Preparing and lighting a backpacking stove, cooking a meal, hiking a mountain, snowshoeing, building a quinzee snow shelter and winter camping were totally new to them, and it was wonderful to watch them try out these new skills. I found myself a little less stressed about the teens. When working with fourth graders, while they are easier to impress, I frequently worry about whether they’re taking proper care of themselves. The teens seemed a bit more familiar with how to keep themselves happy and healthy.
Educating people can be physically and mentally exhausting, but being a part of this weekend, and hopefully inspiring those three boys to continue to play outside helped remind me of why I entered the education field in the first place. When I was a teenager, my time outdoors made me want to pursue a career in which I could inspire others to love the natural world. I didn’t have many opportunities to participate in organized outdoor trips like the ones that ADK offers, but the time that I did spend outside when I was a teen is much more meaningful to me now than it was back then. Whether it was time spent on short hikes with my grandparents or kayaking on an Adirondack lake with my dad, that time spent outdoors changed my life, and made me want to learn more about the natural world. I can only hope that I helped do the same for those kids from New Jersey.