“Transformational,” “inspirational,” “formative,” and “resilience-building” are all words used to describe one of Conserve School’s hallmark experiences, Exploration Week. Every semester students have the opportunity to experience a six-day backcountry camping expedition called Exploration Week. The student body is broken into approximately eight groups of eight with two staff members on each trip. There are backpacking trips in the Porcupine Mountains, and at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and paddling trips through the many lakes of the Sylvania Wilderness.
The goals for students on Exploration Week are:
1. Develop a personal connection with and responsibility for wilderness areas.
2. Experience growth and confidence in wilderness camping and travel skills.
3. Practice teamwork and leadership skills through a shared adventure.
4. Experience the natural rhythms, joys, and challenges of living outdoors.
Many classes in the weeks leading up to Exploration week are designed to prepare students for the days and nights that they will spend on trail. In History and English class, students complete the “Five Lake Loop.” This is an afternoon paddling trip in the Sylvania Wilderness, which serves a multitude of deeper intellectual purposes, but also has the added value of getting students excited about wilderness exploration and their upcoming Exploration Week trip.
Outdoor Skills class is where students learn the skills that they will put into action on their much-anticipated backcountry expedition. Outdoor Skills teacher, Rebecca Rand, says, “In Outdoor Skills class, we take time to prepare for this experience by learning and practicing backcountry travel and living skills. Topics we explore include backcountry cooking, campsite selection, and set-up, canoe travel as well as rescue techniques. Students also learn backpacking fundamentals, river crossing, and risk management skills, as well as “Leave No Trace” ethics. During Exploration Week, students have time to practice, apply, and refine these skills in a real-world setting, from the Pictured Rocks and the Porcupine Mountains to the lakes of the Sylvania Wilderness Area.”
Further, Exploration Week serves as a challenge and experience that brings students closer together and creates deep bonds as they work together to overcome obstacles on their journey. They tell stories, makeup games, sing songs, encourage one another through difficult moments, and create lasting memories on trail. Without easy access to cellphone distractions, students are left to talk, interact, listen, and understand each other. Rebecca Rand emphasizes that “Time on trail has a way of bringing people together and teaching us about more than just the day to day necessities of survival. Students also gain experience in making group decisions, leading their peers, and sharing feedback.”
Ultimately, students learn useful backcountry skills, but also develop interpersonal skills as well. They come away from this experience, feeling more confident, mature, and prepared to be leaders. They create memories of being with their peers in beautiful natural places that inspire them to want to be environmental stewards. Like many Conserve School experiences, most students will tell you that all of the words in the world cannot do justice to their Exploration Week adventure. So, I will leave you once again with the words of Outdoor Skills teacher, Rebecca Rand. “Exploration Week is also a powerful opportunity for our students to experience the beauty and power of nature. This might be through moments huddled under a tarp shelter in a rainstorm, a windy day paddling, or sharing the view of the sun dipping into Lake Superior. Conserve School students learn about themselves, their peers, and their world on trail while also discovering what we can accomplish as a team.”
Photos contributed by various CS19 Staff and Students.