On the trail with Youth Leadership Adventures
With eight students and two instructors packed in the Institute van at the start of a Youth Leadership Adventures trip, we drove up the bumpy forest road to get to Park Butte Trailhead. That day, our crew would hike to Mazama Camp in the Mt. Baker National Recreation Area. We’d then spend the next four days exploring the area, participating in trail maintenance, and keeping cool during those hot summer days in the glacier-fed creeks.
As we piled out of the van, students carefully balanced their packs on their backs, bending forward to latch their buckle above their hips. It was noon, and the sun beat down on us while black flies attacked us just as hard. We each grabbed a tool that the National Park Service had stashed under a bush for us and we made our way up the trail.
We found a shady lunch spot by a rushing creek. The water was cold and we took turns happily bobbing our heads into it, flipping our hair back and letting the freezing water drip down our backs. Students took out their “crumb catchers” (bandanas) as we shared a cream cheese & jelly bagel with trail snacks.
I pulled out my pen and paper to start our first trail game, Guess Who?. I asked students seven questions such as “What is the animal you most identify with?” and “What is your favorite food?” Students responded on a piece of paper without their names. Throughout the hike, I pulled out a folded piece of paper and read student responses. The rest of the group guessed which of their peers wrote those responses. And so the game continued at each rest stop, and we had a lot of those rest stops.
This four-mile hike — for students new to backpacking, each carrying a tenth of our food and gear on their backs, going up 1500 feet of elevation — turned into a 7-hour venture!
To keep up the group’s overall morale, we sprinkled the hike with riddles and water spray bottle stops. Kids spent hours answering to the “Green Glass Door” riddle and finding out the most unique things they had in common with one another. When we reached the meadow — the last of the major climbs — there was an audible sigh of relief among the students. We devoured our peanut butter pretzels and made a water toast to the lovely views.
It became clear that our trail family was quickly forming as students bonded over their shared feelings of the difficult hike and the accomplishment they felt for completing it.
When we saw a small snow patch, an impromptu snowball fight erupted in which we invited each other to tag the sweaty backs of our legs with a cool snow ball. In the snowfield, I caught a glimpse of an animal track and shared the difference between canine and feline tracks. Students hovered around, feeling the indentations with their hands.
We found rocks perfectly placed in the river for spa sessions where we let mini waterfalls hit the back of our heads as we laid against the warm rocks. While walking the switchbacks down to camp we got a glimpse of a marmot and heard the high-pitched squeals of hidden pikas.
By the time we got to Mazama Camp, it was 7 pm. We cooked up some easy pesto pasta, set up our tents and participated in an evening meeting to fill our team on the plans for the next few days.
For each day of our 9-day trips, a student receives a new role: cook, cleaner, water or leader of the day (LOD). We wake up between 6-7:30 am, dunk our heads in the nearby creek and then get started hiking or working on a project.
For this group, we alternated between working on service work and hiking up to Park Butte Lookout, with learning sessions and discussions sprinkled throughout. Students learned about mountain goat adaptations, climate change impacts in the area and thought through tough questions like “How do we minimize negative human impact in heavily trafficked areas?”
Each night we huddled around each other— growing closer with each passing day — watching the white snow on Mt. Baker turn pink as the sun set in the West. We told stories about ourselves, laughed and shared secrets. Lying on our backs, we’d watch shooting stars streak across the dark night sky.
Finally, the last day arrives and we hike out of our wilderness home of the past several days. As we loaded our gear in to the vans at the trailhead, preparing to reenter civilization, many students were in tears. Our group piled in for a “cinnamon roll hug” as we prepared to say goodbye, and a student summed up the shared feelings when she exclaimed, I never want this trip to be over. I love our little family!
Youth Leadership Adventures courses are designed for students who have no prior outdoor experience; all gear, food and transportation are provided, and a generous scholarship program allows us to attract a diverse group of local students for transformative experiences in the backcountry amongst their peers. To learn how you can support a future YLA participant with a student scholarship, visit ncascades.org/support or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about the program outcomes, student impacts, demographics and more in our 2021 YLA Report.