As a Senior Nature Educator at at Audubon, I work with kids often. And I hear them say some pretty cool things. I enjoy hearing comments about how cool nature is or about learning something new. But a child saying “I didn’t think I could do that” is my most favorite by far.
In that one comment, I see the courage to try something challenging and the risk of potential failure. I also see their confidence growing and identity forming. These things are so critical to success in life.
This comment can be said in a variety of settings — sports, arts, academics, but also in our experiences with the natural world. The diversity of and accessibility to the natural world can provide myriad opportunities to challenge ourselves. Nature can challenge our understandings when we have the opportunity to witness its power, strength, and will to survive. And the natural world can provide the setting to challenge ourselves physically.
One way I have been challenged by the natural world is through backpacking. Backpacking is essentially hiking. But it is hiking while carrying everything you need in a pack on your back. It is living outside. You cook, eat, bathe (or not), read, rest, walk, sleep, and more outside. It has been my challenge, risk, and joy for a number of years. And I’ve had the opportunity to share it with others.
Audubon has offered a backpacking trip for several years as part of the summer day camp program. In the program, campers learn the skills to be able to backpack. Then we go backpack for three days and two nights. The skills campers learn include how to pack a backpack, safely filter water, cook and clean up, store food, set up a tent, what to do in case of an emergency, and more. These practical skills are important and critical to success.
Also critical to success is how we treat ourselves and others. We discuss the importance of staying hydrated, eating to fuel our bodies, but also how we can check in with ourselves to determine how we are feeling, physically and emotionally. And if it is not good, we learn what we can do to take care ourselves.
It is wonderful when kids are successful. One year, a camper started out struggling to manage his attitude when physical or social challenges occurred. He would get frustrated to the point of wanting to quit. But he was able to reflect on why his attitude and motivation went sour so quickly. Together, we came up with coping mechanisms for him to be a better team member and enjoy himself.
We also practice teamwork. The campers work in groups to cook, clean, and set up tents. But there are many opportunities to check in with others to see if they need help. Do others in the group need help crossing a stream? Does someone need encouragement or just another hand at the moment?
One camper has participated in the backpacking program for three years. The first year, she struggled to walk the 2 miles to our campsite. We practically pushed her up the hill. The second year, she was one of the first up the hill. The third year, she was teaching other campers how to filter water and cook, encouraging other up the hills, and handled challenges with a positive attitude.
Backpacking builds these practical skills. It also builds a stronger connection to the natural world. But I hope that there is something more. I hope that it changes the way campers see themselves.
A few years ago I was in the audience for a speech given by author and long distance hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis. She has extensive hiking and backpacking experience, having hiked over 14,000 miles on six continents including the fastest overall time to hike the 2,185 miles of the Appalachian Trail. She has already hiked further than I, and most of the people in the room, will hike in a lifetime. So, at first it was easy to feel disconnected from her. But she laughed at herself and her novice mistakes on her first trips. And she said something I still hold on to and hope for myself and others who try this adventure.
In her talk she described how dirty, smelly, blistered, and bruised she was in her first backpacking trip. It is easy to understand how the bathing habits for someone drastically change without access to modern plumbing. When backpacking, the mind is more concerned with function of the body rather than form. She explained that occasionally she would meet fellow hikers and hike together and chat. She said she never felt more beautiful than when on the trail.
Beautiful?! But she’s dirty. And smells. We tend to think beauty describes how something or someone appears. The look that may only be skin deep. But the beauty she was describing was about her ability to function in difficult situations, like not getting lost in a snowstorm when all the trail markers are white. It was the beauty reflected in the eyes of her fellow hikers rather than the mirror. It was the beauty in comparing yourself now to before you started a difficult journey rather than comparing yourself to the air brushed, photo-shopped images in media.
This beauty that is found not on the surface but inside ourselves can be discovered in a wide variety of activities where we challenge ourselves with difficult things. For Jennifer, for me, and I hope for some others, that difficult — but also enjoyable — thing is done outside, carrying what I need to survive for the time that I am out.
Audubon is again offering a backpacking opportunity for kids 12 – 14 this summer. To learn more about this program, and to assess if it is a good fit for a child in your life, you can attend an informational session on Tuesday, April 16 at 6:30 p.m. Visit auduboncnc.org/daycamp for more information and to register.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.