Saturday, October 8, 2011

Wilderness Camp, Day 1

One of the most pivotal events in the school-careers of CAJ students actually takes place outside of the classroom: this event is Wilderness Camp, a four-day hiking and camping trip in the mountains just west of the city. Wilderness Camp, formerly known as "Stress Camp" (and still referred to by this name by many students, staff and community members), has been a part of the Junior year since the 1980s.

In its earliest days, the purpose of the trip was as simple as the name: to totally stress out the students so that they could learn about how they respond to stressful situations. The trip took place in August, just prior to the school year, and involved primarily bush-whacking through some very hot and humid days, and sleeping on the ground during some equally hot and humid nights (or not sleeping, as the case might have been).

As the years went on, the trip became slightly more organized: the trip was moved to the first week of October as a part of CAJ's SWOW (School Without Walls) program. The adult leaders began to choose routes ahead of time--real trails--and the bush-whacking stopped. Leaders also began to seek out small shelters, shacks and gazebos: moderately more comfortable places to rest for the night.

In recent years, the trip has been restructured and reoriented around a curriculum of leadership training. The adult leaders still choose the routes ahead of time, but during the hike, serve a supervisory capacity. The majority of the decision-making involved in the trip falls onto the shoulders of the Juniors themselves, who pair up and take turns being the team leaders (in either half or full day shifts). They decide which way to get from point A to point B, what kind of pace to set, when/where to take breaks and eat, who should carry what supplies and even where to camp for the night. The adult leaders may advise the team leaders, but the decisions are ultimately up to the kids. A series of activities and group discussion prompts supplement this curriculum, and as the team debriefs each night, they connect their experiences in making decisions on the trails to servant-leadership, follower-ship and integrity as seen in the inspiring though flawed example of King David and the perfect example of Jesus Christ.

The intent is no longer to stress the students out: the fact is, the simple act of heading out into the woods for four days carries enough stress of its own without the adults trying to pile even more on. It has been my privilege to join the Juniors on this trip for two years now. Over the next few days, I will be writing about my experience from this year in 1-2 day installments. It'll be a long read, but I figure if you've read to this point, you're in it for the long haul. Gambatte!

Day 1: Tuesday, 10/4
Team Spice. This was the name that the kids had come up with during homeroom on Monday after hearing Mr. Potter mention the curry meal that they would be fed on Friday after they finished the hike at Okutama Bible Chalet. Together, we drew up a poster that served as a team contract: what characteristics we wanted to develop as a team, what roles each member would serve, and what negative things we didn't want (attitudes and behaviors that would ruin the experience for everyone). We decided that encouragement (or "encurryagement") should be a foundation of our team and that we should avoid complaining. Definitely a lot easier to say on paper before an experience like this, but it was very cool to watch the kids take ownership of the contract and come up with these initiatives themselves.

Our leaders for the day were responsible for getting us out to Sawarabinoyu, where we'd start our hike. On Monday evening, they emailed the team saying that we would need to meet at school at 9:20 to finish packing food, and then try to catch a 9:45 train to Hanno, where we would catch a bus to Sawarabinoyu. Their goal was to start hiking before noon. Unfortunately, we were slightly late in getting to the station, missed the 9:45 train, and after catching a later train, missed our bus in Hanno. We arrived in Hanno at about 10:30, and the next bus was scheduled to depart at 12:30. So, we improvised: after consulting with the leaders, my co-leader Kelsey and I decided to have the kids do the first day's activity right away while we waited. This was a Mondrian puzzle--an exercise involving putting together notched pieces of wood in a particular pattern. Since the exercise was designed to highlight the importance of vision, we allowed the kids to struggle blindly without any instructions or idea of what the completed puzzle should look like for a while before giving one member of the team a photo of the finished product. Several group members had a chance to hold the photo, each with a particular limitation--one was not allowed to speak, one was only allowed to answer yes or no questions, etc. After they completed the puzzle (which they did fairly quickly, despite the limitations placed on the members with the photo), we had the first of many solid debriefing sessions as a team, talking about the value of knowing what's ahead, what goal we are working towards.

After that, we ate lunch, filled our water, and waited... and waited... by the time our bus arrived, we were all ready to start moving. We began hiking early in the afternoon and everyone was eager and enthusiastic. We started with a hike that I'd done last year--a scenic climb up a waterfall. It felt like something from Lord of the Rings, as we crossed over stepping stones, logs, and foot-bridges, zig-zagging back and forth across the stream as we ascended. The kids had been skeptical at first: the guy in the front of the pack arrived at the foot of the waterfall and said, "The path stops here; there's no way to go on!" In the end, they enjoyed this first leg of the journey and felt a sense of accomplishment and adventure as we took our first long break in a gazebo at the top of the falls.

This, unfortunately, was where we made our first major mistake. You see, though I'd hiked this particular route last year, my co-leader had been much more experienced than I, and I never looked at the map once while we were hiking. She'd taken care of everything--had been the kids' safety net in case they chose the wrong path. So, when the leaders pointed to the map and said, "We should go down the road to the left", I said, "Let's do it!" I wasn't playing dumb--I legitimately thought they'd made the right choice.

Only after about half an hour down the road did I realize that nothing was familiar--clearly this was not the path we'd taken last year. "Okay", I thought, "There's other ways to get to our campsite. This is just a scenic route." And scenic it was! The road wound higher and higher and we were given front row seats to a spectacular sunset view of the forests below us. Eventually, we found a trail leading off the road, and the leaders, following the compass, took us up into the woods. After a steep scramble up a wooded hillside ("All right, Team Spice, let's beast this one!" was a common refrain), we reached a sign that told us we were at 945 meters elevation. We needed to be on a peak at 969m. At this point, the sun had nearly set and it was rather dark where we were standing. The leaders consulted the map, and determined that we needed to continue to the west to reach 969. I glanced over their shoulders at the map and silently agreed with their decision. So, we continued to hike west.

Unfortunately, in our haste and in the shadows, we'd misread the map. The leaders had thought we were on a different hilltop to the east of our destination and so had I. Instead, we were already about a kilometer to the west. So, we started hiking in the complete opposite direction of where we needed to go, a fact that we were unable to ascertain until we set up camp well after dark. The hiking was treacherous--pitch black, save for our flashlights; twisty, narrow, root-filled trails; a sheer drop-off to our left. The adult leaders are supposed to keep the kids safe, and so I was starting to look for any potential place to camp. Fortunately, the kids had the good sense to recognize the risk of continuing on, and decided unanimously to take the first mountain-top path that they found. We set up camp at 958m, at which point we discovered by checking our map, that we were several kilometers off from where we needed to be. The leaders felt awful and so did I. I tried to reassure them that I had made the exact same map-reading mistakes as they had, but I don't know how comforting that was (when an adult leader admits ignorance, then where's the safety net?? Still, I feel like they needed to know that anyone could make the same mistake.).

Fortunately, 958 was a good hill-top for camping, and we set up fly-sheets and ground sheets on relatively flat and pine-needle-cushioned ground in anticipation of the rain that had been forecast for Wednesday. We collected wood and started a fire for dinner. We enjoyed a meal of stroganoff and ham. Kelsey and I also prepared baked apples (cores removed, filled with butter and cinnamon-sugar, wrapped in tinfoil and placed in the embers) for dessert. We discussed our day and connected the importance of vision and goals to the idea of knowing how to reach a destination and making careful decisions. We also began to talk about what it means to be a servant leader, and the kids connected Christ's life and ministry to the need to support every member of the group, to encourage and to listen. So, we settled down for the night after a late start, a longer day of hiking than any of us expected and in a different campsite than we had planned... but we were content. It was a good day.

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