BANGOR, Maine — The sun kissed the ridge of Blackcap Mountain as a chorus of primal sounds rang through the trees of Eddington — the roars and howls of middle school children as they marched away from Woodchuck Hill.
The end of a hiking trip is typically a time of silent triumph mixed with exhaustion, but not for Bangor’s William S. Cohen School Hiking Club, a group of about 30 students in grades sixth through eighth who participate in a number of after-school hikes during the fall.
“This was the best hike yet,” said sixth-grader Ayah Rahman, who attended all of the club hikes this fall. “It was more challenging, and even though I fell down a few times, it was a lot of fun. I like how it was steep.”
Though Woodchuck Hill rises just over 800 feet above sea level, the hike to the top is so steep in some places that ladders and rope have been secured to the cliffs to help hikers reach the top. It was the club’s fifth and final hike this fall, and appropriately, it was the most difficult.
Betty Jamison and Kris Reid, former sixth-grade teachers at William S. Cohen School, founded the hiking club 10 years ago, and under their leadership, it has been running strong ever since.
“[Hiking is] something both of us enjoy doing,” Jamison said. “So it was a good way to spend time with kids doing something we liked. I guess that was the big motivator.”
This year, the club started by visiting the Bangor City Forest and adjoining Orono Bog Walk. Then they were off to Sears Island, where they explored coastal trails and searched for crabs. Blue Hill Mountain, their first peak, came next. The fourth trip was to Little Chick and Big Chick hills in Clifton. And the hike up Woodchuck Hill came last.
For many of the children, the hiking club is an alternative to fall team sports, an opportunity to get out and be active without spending every day after school in a structured practice or game.
“I didn’t play a lot of team sports when I was in school,” Jamison said. “So I don’t know how to coach. This was a nice way to be involved.”
Jamison said the outing club can also help ease the transition to middle school for the youngest students.
“The other group that it fits are sixth-graders who want to do something, but because it’s their first year handling a lot more independent work, this is something that isn’t a huge time commitment,” she added.
Some of the students involved in the club love the outdoors and already spend time in the wilderness with their families. For example, sixth-grader Giovanna Tompkins is interested in geocaching, or searching in the outdoors with a GPS for canisters that contain a notebook to sign your name along with little treasures, typically items useful to hikers. She and her 16-year-old brother have located 48 caches, including the cache Giovanna found near the summit of Woodchuck Hill.
But many who join the club have little prior outdoor experience.
“It’s a part of growing up, spending some outdoor time that’s not attached to a school curriculum, not for a science project or anything like that, just out there and trying to connect to the natural world,” said Carol Leone, co-founder of Teen to Trails, a Maine-based nonprofit organization that supports high school outing clubs through grants, training and resources.
Teens to Trails, commonly known as T3, was founded by Carol and Bob Leone of Edgecomb, after they lost their 15-year-old daughter Sara in a car accident in 2005. Inspired by Sara’s passion for the outdoors, the Leones built T3 based on the belief that spending time in the outdoors can benefit a person’s well-being.
The Leones chose to focus their efforts on Maine high schools, but they wholeheartedly encourage outing clubs at the middle-school level.
“We think it would be the ideal world if every middle school had an outing club that was probably more teacher-driven and school-driven, and then when they got to high school, [students] would expect an outing club, so at that point the club is more student-driven,” Carol Leone said.
The number of school outing clubs has spiked in the past few years, according to T3 surveys.
“When we started, I called around and tried to get an idea where there were high school outing clubs and where there weren’t,” Carol Leone said. “I had a lot of people ask me what I was talking about. They didn’t even relate to the term. I could only find a handful of outing clubs.”
In a survey T3 issued a year ago, 10-15 high schools reported having a long-established outing club. T3 now has a list of 87 schools that either have organized an outing club or offer outdoor activities that are not tied to the curriculum.
“My girls went to Wiscasset High School, and they had an outing club that was fairly well established, so I thought there would be outing clubs at a lot of Maine schools. But it became apparent pretty quickly that, in fact, that was not the case,” Carol Leone said. “We were just lucky to have some teachers who were passionate about the outdoors and willing to share that with their students.”
Teachers such as Jamison and Reid, who retired in June but have returned to the Bangor school this fall to lead the much anticipated club.
“One of our goals is to try to give [students] not only a good after-school activity that’s wholesome and healthy while they’re in middle school, but also to spread the message and maybe have their parents go with them hiking,” Reid said.
The club started small — half a dozen kids in a van — and grew steadily for the first few years. In the past five years, membership has plateaued at 30-35 children, who now travel to trail heads by school bus.
One of the biggest hurdles for outing clubs is gaining the funding for transportation, said Carol Leone. At William S. Cohen School, that wasn’t a problem.
“In fact, as long as you have a handful of kids interested in doing something, [the Bangor School Department] will do almost any kind of club. Bangor is really good that way,” Jamison said.
In addition to transportation, outing club organizers also have to deal with the reality that many of the children and teens who want to participate in the club will not have the proper footwear or clothing for prolonged periods active in the outdoors.
“It’s not necessarily because they can’t afford it, though that is certainly the case sometimes, but for many children, being outside is just not a part of their daily routine,” Carol Leone said.
Jamison and Reid, as well as a few teachers who have volunteered their time to join the club on their hikes, carry packs full of sandwiches, snacks and water because many of the children don’t carry hiking packs. And during hikes, they pause to point out tricky footing because many of the children are wearing sneakers, not hiking boots.
“Originally, when it was a hard hike or the kids thought it was hard, they’d ask us, ‘Why do you do this?’ And we would tell them, ‘It’s always good to do things that are hard, to get that satisfaction of finishing a goal,’” Reid said.
Over the past 10 years leading the club, the two teachers have learned a few things, but mainly, they’ve realized what a special experience a simple hike can be for a child.
“I’ve learned that kids who live in Bangor, Maine, sometimes don’t go to many places or do very much,” Jamison said. “Several years ago, back when Blue Hill had the fire tower, we took the group of kids there one day. And I think it was Kris [Jamison] who was pointing out what you could see from the top, and she said, ‘There’s the ocean.’ And a girl looked at her and said, ‘What ocean is that?’ And Kris said, ‘The Atlantic Ocean, of course.’ And [the girl] couldn’t wait to go home and tell her mother that she’d seen the ocean. Talk about things you take for granted. We just assumed the kids took trips to the coast.”
Now that Reid and Jamison are retired, they’re considering passing the torch on to a few outdoors enthusiasts who are currently teaching at the school, but they’re confident that the club will continue to thrive as long as students show up, enthusiastic to take a bus ride into Maine’s great outdoors.
For information on Teens To Trails, visit teenstotrails.org.