Wednesday, August 14, 2013

From Harlem to the High Falls of Seneca Creek

by Braja Smith, Resident Instructor
At last month's Spruce Knob Mountain Center staff alumni reunion, we were treated to slideshows of pictures of the Spruce Knob Mountain Center from years past. Featured prominently in several slides from the '80s were familiar-looking aluminum frame backpacks. A close inspection revealed several of them still live in our backpack storage, twenty years later. Our stoves, water filters, and some of our topographical maps have changed since then, but our staff's knowledge of, and love for, our backyard wilderness remains the same. Of all the courses that we run, backpacking courses are a stalwart favorite among the staff.

East Harlem School at the Exodus House
Last Monday, thirty kids from the East Harlem School took a nine hour bus ride to our campus and spilled out onto the front lawn of the Earth Sheltered Office. East Harlem has partnered with TMI for about four years, and lends its incoming class of eighth grade students to the backcountry of West Virginia for a solid eight day course. The mission of the East Harlem School is to “develop academic excellence, moral integrity, courtesy, and an unshakable commitment to their future and the fate of their community”, a statement that reflects many of the same values underpinning The Mountain Institute’s own mission.

Geology school at the top of Spruce Knob
East Harlem is a non-profit charter school that is free to its students. Students in our group of nine kids spoke of visiting the Dominican Republic, Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, and relatives in South Carolina, but wilderness was an unimagined and untraveled landscape. As one the kids commented upon the completion of our descent to the High Falls of Seneca Creek, “This is like a music video!” (TLC's '94 song "Waterfalls" kept our kids in high spirits on some of the tougher section of trail.)

Simple camp craft lessons on the trail often led to engaged science discussions. One night, I showed the kids how to hold a match at a sloping angle, rather than vertically up and down. Our chaperone asked our kids to think about why hot air rises and why cold air is denser than hot air. An avid discussion followed about convection, conduction and radiation, all sparked by a match and a piece of birch bark.

Getting ready to head out from Spruce Knob

In New York City, a mile is twenty blocks, but a mile in New York City does not have downed trees, stinging nettle, water crossings, or elevation gains of 800 feet. The romance of the mountains competed for our students' attention with worries about bears and bugs. Not long after a butterfly inspired terror in our group, we stopped at the top of the Judy Springs trails, in an open patch of meadow with a view of the Allegheny Front. One of the kids exclaimed “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. My mother would cry tears of joy if she could see this.”

I was constantly impressed by the students' wonder and inquiry about the world around them, and by their care and attention for each other. Tears shed in the middle of the night were met by sympathetic backrubs and hugs from all group members. As the kids reflected at the end of the week on their experience, they all commented on the care that they had felt from each other in the unfamiliar world of the wilderness. One kid summed up the experience; “There were times I didn’t think I could do it, and it felt like the hardest thing in the world. Now I’m so glad I’ve gone on this trip.”

Picture of the East Harlem School courtesy of their website.

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