When 10 high school students arrived with their parents at Baxter State Park Headquarters in Millinocket on Aug. 7, they all knew why they were there. It was to hike. The full backpacks lined up against the wall made it obvious. The students were heading into the park for an eight-day backpacking trip. But this was not an ordinary outdoor adventure.
As they hiked, the group would be learning about the natural features of the park that make it so special. Led by outdoor educators, park staff and invited presenters, the daily itinerary is intended to broaden and deepen their understanding of the importance of wilderness preservation. It’s called the Maine Youth Wilderness Leadership Program and is provided to the students at no cost to them. The trip is paid for through a grant from the Quimby Family Foundation.
Barbara Bentley, president of the Friends of Baxter State Park, which received the grant and organized the program, spoke to the parents and children about the difficulty in selecting the 10 students.
“We selected these 10 out of a field of 50 who applied. All the responses were excellent, which made the selection committee’s job really difficult. We also made an effort to select students that weren’t from the same school, so that cliques wouldn’t have already been formed beforehand,” she said.
After Bentley spoke, there was a brief slide show by Park Director Jensen Bissell, who explained how Gov. Percival Baxter created the park. Park naturalist Jean Hoekwater followed with a slide show of the flora and fauna unique to the park’s ecology. Bill Bentley, a renowned nature photographer, gave a digital photography workshop. Then, the students and parents said their goodbyes and left in opposite directions — the parents toward home, the students to the north end of the park, where they would stay at South Branch Pond Campground for their first night.
Two educators, Leah Titcomb and Keith Crowley, provided by the Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset, led them. The students, five girls and five boys, were from one end of the state to the other. Only sophomores and juniors could apply. The five girls were Julie Churchill, Fayette; Maya DeGroote, Boothbay Harbor; Kelly Edwards, Pownal; Olivia Hoch, Falmouth; and Casey Thornton, North Waterboro. The boys were Kris Bears, Bangor; Alex Chasse, Fort Kent; John Fox, Unity; Austin Kessler, Portland; and Connor Pillsbury, Benton. They were selected based on the strength of their applications, which included an essay on why they wanted to go on the trip.
I was honored to be invited by the program to make a presentation to the students about journal writing Sunday, their first full day in the park. I arrived at the campground Saturday afternoon, where I met Titcomb and Crowley. Crowley asked where I would like to conduct the journal writing workshop. I told him that since I do my best work on the trail, I’d like to instruct them on our scheduled day hike the next day on the top of North Traveler Mountain. He said that would be fine and we agreed on a time to meet for our hike.
Sunday morning came and after a fun-filled activity in which Marcia and Gabe Williamson instructed the students in Leave No Trace practices, the students, leaders and I all hit the trail up North Traveler. The morning was cloudy, then clear, then cloudy again, but the rain held off. We arrived at the bare summit as the wind picked up from the south. The setting was spectacular with views all around.
We gathered out of the wind on the leeward side of the ledge-bound top for lunch, and then it was time for me to speak to the group. I passed around four of my journals from previous years, starting in 1989, so they all could read examples of what makes an effective journal. While some were reading, I talked about how every journal is a chronology of the day’s events, and that everything you see, hear and feel during your experience outside is noteworthy. I explained that the idea is to record each entry as though the reader, even if it’s only you, has no idea what it is that you’re undertaking. Record the stuff that you might not remember if you hadn’t written it down, I told the group.
I talked for about a half-hour or so and wrapped it up with a comment that journal keeping is about opening yourself up to your experience. Then Titcomb told the students to get out their journals, find a spot away from the group, if they wanted, and take a half-hour to record the day so far. To my surprise, they all pulled out their journals and started writing. I moved a few hundred feet away from the summit to let them work.
By the time I got back, they were almost finished writing. Then, we turned to leave for the campground. Back at the lean-tos, Titcomb and Crowley told everyone to change into swimsuits for a dip in the pond if they felt like swimming. The girls went to their lean-to, while the boys went to theirs to change. After saying my goodbyes, I left for home with a sense that these students really have an educational experience ahead of them. For the next eight days they would be seeing the park as few others would.
That evening, retired Chief Ranger Chris Drew told stories about his career experiences. The next day, the group hiked nine miles to the interior of the park. Once there, they stayed at Russell Pond Campground for three nights, where they worked with Park Rangers Greg Hamer and Brendan Curran on a service project. On one of the days at Russell Pond, Barry Dana of the Penobscot Nation hiked in with his family to present the cultural history of the Penobscots to the students.
Near the end of the week, the group hiked seven miles to Roaring Brook Campground with Dana. Once at Roaring Brook, the students met with a geologist, Bob Johnston, who climbed Katahdin with them the next day, explaining the geology of the mountain and the park. On the final full day, they hiked to Katahdin Lake and met with a local artist Marsha Donahue. There they practiced the art of watercolor painting and met with the manager of Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps, Holly Hamilton, who gave a talk on the history of the sporting camps. On the students’ last night, astronomer Doug Rich and his wife, Laurie, led the kids to Sandy Stream Pond for stargazing.
On Sunday, they would return to park headquarters, where their parents would pick them up. I was there waiting last Sunday and met a few of the parents. One couple, Maria and David Edwards, told me what it meant to them to have their daughter, Kelly, on the trip.
“Ever since Kelly was 9 years old, we’ve been coming to the park. She climbed Katahdin that year. We thought that she would gain a new appreciation for the park,” Maria said.
David added, “She wants to study environmental science, so this experience will help her decide if that’s what she wants to do for a career.”
If you ever had a doubt about the future of today’s youth, all you would have to do is spend some time with these students. Thanks partly to the Maine Youth Wilderness Program, these kids’ futures are going to be bright. So is the preservation of wilderness.