The students were gathered at the picnic table at South Branch Pond when I arrived last Saturday morning. There were 10 of them and two trip leaders. The Baxter State Park rangers, Marcia and Gabe Williamson, were explaining the principles of Leave No Trace.
After the training, one of the trip leaders, Leah Titcomb, from Chewonki Foundation, came over to where I was standing. “We’ll meet you at the trailhead sign-in box at 10:30,” she said. “I’ll take the students to the lean-tos for map training.”
The students were beginning this year’s program offered by the Friends of Baxter State Park. It’s called the Maine Youth Wilderness Program and now, in its third year, it has become a model for how to get high school students interested and involved in wilderness stewardship. According to Barbara Bentley, president of the friends group, “The selection process was very difficult; any of the 60 students who applied could have been chosen.”
The idea of the program is to develop the next generation of wilderness leaders, said Bentley. “We looked for students who could go back to their school community and take a leadership position in teaching others about the importance of wilderness and stewardship of the resource. Our concern for the next generation of wilderness stewards is great.”
We met at the sign, where we filled out our group sign-up and started climbing up North Traveler. The day didn’t look good in the weather department, and Marcia Williamson said beforehand, “There’s an 80 percent chance of rain, Brad.” That didn’t discourage these youths, or me either. We’ll see how far we get, I thought.
“So, we talked about how we keep track of each other in a group. Right?” said Titcomb, at the sign. She gave the students a brief reminder that they would stay in sight of each other and look back to make sure no one was straggling. Then, if someone did fall back, the rest would wait until they all regrouped. That would be their practice for the next eight days as they hiked through the park, living out of their backpacks.
I hiked with the rear of the group, but just on Saturday. I was last in the group actually and hiked along into the dark, rain-filled cloud that covered the top. Lukas Temple was directly in front of me. “I’m a junior this fall, at Cheverus High School,” he said. “I’m thinking about the Naval Academy after high school,” he said, when I asked where he was from and whether he had post-high school plans.
Those in front stopped so the last of us could catch up. Then Titcomb and Will Ginn, the other leader, explained the use of rain gear and a couple of techniques on when to use it. The group of five girls and five boys soon was off again. As Lukas and I hiked, we stopped to collect and eat blueberries that grew in huge quantities along the trail.
We wound our way up the steep and rocky trail, stopping once to view a volcanic rock outcrop near the trail and then to take in a great view of the ponds below. The farther we climbed, the bigger the blueberries got, and the more we stopped to eat. Light rain turned heavy, and the views disappeared. We stopped to put on rain gear and pack covers.
The 3-mile trail passed through some birch glades, then about a mile from the top, we heard thunder. Titcomb and Ginn turned us around immediately, and we headed back down. Once safely below the exposed top, Titcomb explained the reasons for turning back. “The protocol for when we hear thunder on the mountain is to leave the summit,” she said. “Even if there’s a ground strike, it can pass through the ground and electrocute you.”
When the students stopped to rig a tarp and have lunch of cheese and pepperoni, I headed back down the trail to South Branch Pond Campground. About an hour later we met up again and they had about 3 quarts of blueberries, which they made into a cobbler over the coals of a warming fire.
For the next eight days the youths would hike through the park, build leadership skills, learn from educators, from geologists to Native American cultural specialists, to artists and park rangers. The group that started off last Saturday would experience everything that nature had to teach on their way through the park.
“I wanted to come on this trip because I really like hiking and the outdoors. I’m going into this trip wide open,” said Keegan Donnelly, a senior this fall at Greely High School. Others, like Jimmy Kenyon, had never backpacked or hiked before being accepted in the program. “I’ve read a lot about it, and what better place to learn than in Baxter Park on this trip?”
After hiking with the group and watching how they worked as a team to aid each other and travel safely, there was no doubt that they would arrive this Saturday to meet their parents at the park as different young people. Different from when they left. They’ll be more confident in their leadership skills, more understanding of wilderness values, and definitely richer for the experience.