Pre-Trip: (August 2011)
Having completed my Wilderness First Responder course and as well as some leadership training through Calvin College, I was hired to lead Wilderness Orientation trips for incoming Calvin College students beginning in the summer of 2011. The trip I would be leading was to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. I had been a student on this trip the year prior and fallen in love with my first back-country experience. I was very excited to lead others back to the place where I had gotten my back-country start and was very eager to accept responsibility as the certified medic on the trip.
As a leader I was responsible for pulling all the necessary gear for the trip, inspecting it for defects, and organizing it for the students. I was also responsible for the groups’ food rations. Our Wilderness program made a menu for all the trips, including mine, and bought the rations together in bulk. We spent thousands of dollars on food during rations’ day. Next we brought the food back to Calvin College for our re-packing (standard food packaging is wasteful and bulky and thus many foods much be re-packed into sealable plastic bags more fit for back-country use). Another leader on my trip and I worked together through this process to make sure there were no mistakes. We labeled meals by duct-taping the meal names on their respective bags and packed them into stuff sacks accordingly. Everything went very smoothly and the group of leaders preparing for their respective trips had a lot of fun together. Our whole pre-trip planning, rationing, inspecting of equipment, and plethora of other miscellaneous tasks took us about a week before we finally met our students.
Day 1 (27 August 2011)
After some meet-and-greet time with the students and a road trip of about nine-hours, we finally made it to Algonquin Park on the 27th of August 2011. During the van ride all students were taught various paddle-strokes, played car-games (mostly riddle-type games), and got to know one another. The group was getting along well (which was one of our primary concerns before the trip) and we had arrived safely (another major concern). We ate lunch, received our canoes, paddles, and life jackets and loaded into the canoes. There were five leaders and twelve students. Canoes were assigned to students by the leaders for the first day to ensure more experienced canoer’s were paired with the less experienced paddlers.
As we rounded the first point on the first of many lakes we would explore, I noted that this group was much more proficient than the group I had paddled with as a student. Most canoes were running in fairly straight lines (a tough task for an inexperienced canoer to master). The group was having a great time and we were so happy to finally be out of the van and on the water.
Quickly we came upon our first portage of the trip. It was child’s play – only about 100m long and was extremely flat – unlike the portages we would face in future days. This was just enough distance for the group to get a taste of what we would be doing a lot more of over the next few days. My canoe partner, a girl with a lot of fight in her, wanted to be the first girl in our group to do a portage. I gladly took her pack and watched her carry the canoe right along with the boys. Without warning came a question I never expected to hear, “are they all going to be that long?” The answer he received, “yes, in fact the rest will be at least five time as long” did not seem to make him excited, but he took it well enough.
A little ways after the first portage, we came across the cliff jumping site. This was a highlight of the trip for many students and stands out in my mind as one of the most fun event’s during the trip. There were several heights from which to jump. Whether to conquer a fear of heights or to enjoy the adrenaline rush most chose to jump from the highest part of the cliff. One of the other leaders jumped first as a demonstration. I filmed with a GoPro camera as the students jumped, some more hesitant than others. Eventually my turn came and I gladly threw myself off the cliff to plunge into the cool northern waters.
I proceeded to deep-water solo (free climbing with water below you so a fall doesn’t result in injury) while keeping an eye on the students. Everyone had a great time and remained safe throughout the entire cliff-jumping experience.
Once back in our canoes, we paddled for a few more hours before making camp for the first night. Students pulled their canoes out of the water and laid them upside-down as instructed. Next, the students set up tents (quite a teaching opportunity for the first day), and we taught them how to tie trucker’s-hitches to secure guy-lines. Finally, each student went off to complete their task for the day. Some were cooks; others gathered firewood or set up the tarp. This was the order of activities every time we got to a new camp for the week. By the end of the trip, the students were becoming rather proficient in all the various tasks.
We ate dinner, had a fireside meeting, and got to know one another better. I do not like to sleep in tents so I put my sleeping mat outdoors in a rut on the cliff edge (if you have read my other posts you know this is a common practice for me). I convinced three others to join me outdoors for the night. The mosquitoes were bad, but by the end of the trip, nearly the entire group was sleeping outside with me. It was a great experience for everyone.