"Be bold, start cold!" "Keep it toasty!" These opposing sentiments rang equally true for eight students this past weekend as they traversed the 18,327 acre Sylvania Wilderness area, Conserve School's neighbor to the north. Equipped with snowshoes, pulk sleds, zero degree sleeping bags, and a healthy dose of PMA (positive mental attitude), our joyous group embarked from campus early on Saturday morning. We drove to the northern entrance of the Sylvania Wilderness, and with nothing but a map and compass to navigate, made our way back to Conserve School, spending Saturday night on the shores of an ice covered Loon Lake.
This trip began several weeks ago when Outdoor Skills Teaching Fellow, Madison Atterbury, and I, announced at lunch that we would be leading a winter traverse of the Sylvania wilderness. Over the next few weeks, students Margo, Joe, Avry, Abbey, Seb, Claude, Milly, and Ella J. met after school to plan their backcountry meals, their route, and all of the camping gear needed for a successful winter camping trip. Throughout this process, and the ensuing trip, students were able to build upon the skills learned in Outdoor Skills class, and experience the magic of the northwoods.
Saturday morning started cold, and we began walking in a single file line, following the leadership and navigation of Abbey and Avry. They led the group approximately one mile along a snowy road to the public access of Clark Lake, and the entrance to the wilderness. At this point, a decision needed to be made. Is the ice safe to cross? After having a discussion about the safety considerations necessary for crossing a frozen lake, we walked a little ways onto the lake to auger a hole to check the ice thickness. The Minnesota DNR recommends 4" of clear, new ice, for safe foot travel. Clark Lake showed approximately 24" of ice, which the group determined was plenty thick for safe travel. To be extra cautious, we used a spud bar as we went to check for any anomalous weak spots in the lake ice.
After crossing a portion of Clark Lake, we stopped for a lunch of peanut butter and banana tortillas, fresh apples, and a shared bar of mint dark chocolate. Food was an essential component of this trip, and the students prepared a menu that was almost entirely vegan and gluten free, save for the flour tortillas. After a hearty lunch, I proposed a silent walk; I like to offer silent walks as a way of broadening our understanding of communication, and to allow for a deeper connection to the world around us.
The silent walk began with the added challenge of filtering lake water with Aquamira, a chlorine based product that kills bacteria, and also requires good attention to detailed instructions. After a few tries using improvised sign language to explain the process, we treated our water, and were on our way. Before entering into silence, Avry posed a question to reflect on, and we determined that the silence would be broken by sharing our thoughts on the shore of Loon Lake. The question to reflect on was: "Think about a place where you feel your truest self, and share your gratitude for that place." Over the next hour or so we followed the navigation and leadership of Claude and Joe. The two had a difficult task of leading the group over steep terrain, and following a map and compass through unmarked woods, all in silence. There was lots of laughter, plenty of smiles, and a healthy dose of nature appreciation. When we finally reached the shores of Loon Lake, it was almost too peaceful to break the silence.
After reflections on nature, self, and gratitude were shared, we headed across Loon Lake to see "The Champ," the largest Pinus resinosa (red pine) tree in the state of Michigan as measured by DBH (diameter at breast height). This large tree is just one amongst a forest of giant white pine, hemlock, sugar maple, and yellow birch that dominate the old-growth forest of the Sylvania Wilderness, one of few such areas left undisturbed in the midwest.
As night drew closer, we set up camp on the shores of Loon Lake. Some were in hammocks, some were in modified winter tents, and leader Madison made a home nestled in the snow under her tarp. Over Whisperlite and Dragonfly stoves, the cooks for the evening prepared a stew of chickpeas, corn, red peppers, kale, and onions, and served it along with brown rice. After enjoying a hearty meal, hot cocoa, and cleaning up camp for the night, we headed down to the lake to see a night sky that can only be provided by winter in wilderness area.
The stars shone bright over Loon Lake. Orion, Cassiopeia, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, and the north star Polaris were a few recognizable constellations in a brilliant sea of tiny dots of light. We laid on the ice covered lake, and for a moment in time, were alone in a silent wilderness. The rest of the night was spent keeping toasty in zero degree sleeping bags, and resting for the trek back to campus the next morning. Barred owls and northern saw-whet owls called through the woods, stars shown through the hemlock forest overhead, and the world waited for the day to break and light to bring warmth to a frozen wilderness.
An overnight low of 11 degrees greeted us on Sunday morning with frosty trees, pink skies, and frozen boots. To a hearty bunch, frozen boots are a small impediment, and can easily be overcome with a simple boot dance, or a few trips up and down the hillside to fetch water from the lake. Breakfast was a classic combination of instant oats, dried cranberries, freshly ground peanut butter from the Conserve School kitchen, hot cocoa, and french press coffee.
Following the leadership and navigation of Margo and Milly, we packed up our camp, and headed across Loon Lake, following a southerly bearing back to Conserve School. That morning was spent enjoying the sunshine, watching the clouds change from cirrostratus, to altostratus, and savoring the time spent together. Later in the afternoon, Ella J. joined Margo and Milly to lead us across Loon Lake, and along the portage trail to Florence Lake. Upon reaching Florence Lake, the student leaders decided that the ice was a bit unsure, and chose to take us on a safer route through the woods. Following their map and compass they successfully navigated off trail to reach the shores of Big Bateau. Big Bateau is the home of Conserve School's canoe launch, and the only water access to the Sylvania Wilderness area from Wisconsin, a unique feature of the Conserve School campus that is not taken for granted.
Upon reaching Big Bateau, the student leaders agreed that the final walk to campus should be taken in silence. They asked the group to reflect on the following question: "What lessons have you learned on this trip?" I had one thing to say before we entered into silence. In a bellowing voice I yelled "Big Bateau! Aaa-oooooooooo!" The group responded with a joyous wolf howl, and then fell into silence as we walked on to Big Bateau, the final lake crossing of our Sylvania Traverse.
In their words:
Claude - "I learned that it's important to be ready for anything but that there are some things you can't be prepared for. It's often those unexpected things that make the trip so memorable. For example, that ridge that was steep as heck that we had to overcome without communicating verbally... that was awesome and one of my highlights of the trip!!!"
Joe - "I strengthened my relationships with people on this trip and with nature. By working hard together, eating meals with one another, and sharing the beauty of the landscape, we all became closer."
Avry - "I found a lot of comfort and beauty in the humanity and collective unity that was drawn out when we were in the wilderness, which is interesting because wilderness is so far from anything conventionally human. Although I do find a lot of parallels in the expansive growth of the untouched wilderness and our own sense of self. To share this discovery with a group of individuals was bonding and transformative."
Margo - "When we arrived at the golden stakes marking the end of our 9 mile trek across Sylvania Wilderness, I felt incredibly proud and fulfilled because of what my group had just accomplished. In the hour before this moment, in the final stretch of our trip, our group decided to remain silent so that we could properly reflect on our journey. During our temporary vow of silence, we were faced with several steep hills that we were forced snowshoe up, all while some of us were pulling our cumbersome and tipsy sleds. Being silent during this stretch definitely was a struggle at first, but I found that I was more attentive to others needs when I had to rely on other ways of communication than speech. Ella, Milly, and I were the leaders of the moment throughout this endeavor and we had to navigate, break trail, and take care of the rest of the group. Although, I felt slightly stressed because of this responsibility, I did improve my abilities to juggle all the different tasks of being a leader on an outdoor trip. I had to guide the trip but also make sure the rest of my group behind me was ok. As my group leader Madison said, I had to "look ahead of me and behind me at the same time". This trip challenged me in unexpected ways but also gave me the confidence that I can become an effective leader if I set my mind to it!"
Ella - " I'm thrilled to have shared the experience and gotten closer to everyone in such a short amount of time. I learned how to communicate effectively using no words and how to listen to others' silence. I also learned how to be goofy and appreciate a single moment and then push my body to see how it could tolerate the cold night, understanding that my feet were uncomfortable though not in danger."
Milly - "Traversing Sylvania for me was a lesson in gratitude and wonder. I was given the space to immerse myself in wilderness, and through that, I became more grateful for both the people I was with, and the world that I live in. Specifically, there was one moment during this trip when I felt most grounded to myself and the earth. We had finished dinner at our campsite on Loon Lake, and the sun had finally set back beneath the horizon, allowing the stars to appear across the sky. They were sprinkled like flour on a dark surface, scattered and glowing, appearing slowly from a deepening night. Together, we all walked out on crusted ice and snow just far enough to where we could see the full expanse of sky. By this point, our heads had all tilted back, our eyes straining to see every inch of galaxy and star that we could. I laid down on the frozen lake, my back pressed to the snow, and kept still. It was there that I emptied myself, and let myself be overcome with wonder and gratitude for everything that was before me and more. I took a breath, and felt the world fill my lungs."