Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Week out in the Seneca Creek Backcountry


This previous week, we took a trail crew of eleven students and two staff out into the Seneca Creek Backcountry for a week of trail maintenance, camp craft, survival activities, and, of course, fun. Our service-learning summer program is offered at no cost to interested high-school students. The week-long experience is rugged, physically challenging, but ultimately very rewarding.
 
The eleven students on our trail crew included two brothers from South Carolina, and students from two different high schools in Morgantown, WV. Five of the students on trail crew were familiar faces, who’d participated in the program in 2013, and they proved to be valuable veterans, stepping up into leadership positions or offering good-natured advice to first-timers.
After an especially arduous cut through a big cherry tree stacked on top of a birch, which had fallen haphazardly into the trail, our clear sky immediately turned into torrential rain. “Looks like we angered the tree spirit,” quipped one of our students. I was expecting complaints, but instead the students got busy pulling lunch from their packs, tortillas, cheese, hummus, and carrots. “I know this sounds silly, but I think this is actually the best lunch I’ve had in a while.”
Besides a few intermittent storms, the other big challenge of the week was becoming adjusted to wearing a backpack, especially on rugged terrain. At the end of a long work day, we encountered a steep hill to test ourselves against. We’d split up into two groups, and one of our group practiced “caterpillaring”, a technique which is a little bit leap-frogging and gives everyone a chance to cheer each other on, while another group made the time pass by playing trivia games. Later on, after an evening of hot dogs, mac and cheese, and fun games, it was the steep hike up the hill which most of the students remembered as their high point, since they’d overcome a challenge many of them might not have felt up to at the beginning of the trip.
At our evening reflection, we took a moment to observe our surroundings and see what we could feel that was different from being at home; the heat of the fire on our foreheads, the distinct sounds of the wind through trees and brush, the smell of summer wildflowers and honeysuckle. At our reflection that night, one of the students commented, “I don’t think I’ve ever noticed so much before. I was expecting it to be a really hard week, but now that I'm out here, I really like it.”
 
Our crew headed back to the Spruce Knob Mountain Center campus after clearing over nine miles of trail. At the yurts, they delighted in their showers, the fine cooking, and the chance to put on a clean pair of clothes. We spent a day caving in the Sinks of Gandy (and found a secret passageway!) before regrouping in the "bubble" our aerie perched at the top of our main yurt.

We asked students to share what had brought them out into the woods. For some, it was the feeling of being more connected to each other, without the interruptions of cell phones and computers. Another student shared his satisfaction with doing manual labor, "I think I discovered I don't ever want a desk job, because this work makes me feel so good". Another student commented that doing something for people who used the trails made him feel like a better person. One of our returning students seemed especially moved when he commented, “Before last year, I’d never been camping. I left last year with a positive impression, and this year I’m so glad I did it again. If it hadn’t been for this program, I never would’ve gone camping or backpacking.”
This might be out last year of Mountain Trail Monitors. We are looking for alternative ways to fund the program, now that our grant has ended. We’ll keep the blog posted as we figure out what the program will look like next year. In the meantime, the next two weeks of MTM are still open! To sign up for a spot the week running June 29th or July 6th, contact Melinda Brooks at (304) 567-2632 or by email at mbrooks@mountain.org.

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