On any other Monday, I would be on my usual mile walk to work down Rhode Island Avenue to The Wilderness Society office in downtown D.C. But today, I’ll be hoofing it a little farther, joining three kids from Camp Letts, a summer camp run by The Y, and trading the pavement for the rocky soil of the Appalachian Trail.
I met up with three eleven year olds - Arie, Phil and Allie, as well their camp counselor Lauren - at Camp Letts before piling into a bus for our 2-day hike on the Appalachian Trail. Two hours later, we were at Gathland State Park on the spine of eastern North America, meeting up with three more campers - David, Martin and Derrick along with counselors Trev and Tara - who were already hiking the full Maryland section of the Appalachian Trail.
The boys showed up hungry, and they had a nose for the ham and cheese sandwiches we had brought along with us. When the group saw the bus, the youngest of the boys group, David, yelled “MEAT!!!” and threw off his pack to grab a bag lunch.
After we finished our bag lunches, we all put on our packs and started out. The trail was relatively flat and rocky, and traversed a ridgeline of dry forest.
I had never been out on a trip with a group of young kids before, especially kids who had not spent much time in the outdoors. A few early blisters, and unfamiliarity with trekking up some of the trail’s hills put an early damper on the hike, but it was interesting to see how Trev, Tara and Lauren kept them moving, singing songs and pointing out some of the natural features along the trail.
After a couple of quick water breaks and we took a “packs-off” break near an opening in the ridgeline. From here, you could see the rolling hills in the valley below, and a vista uninterrupted by skyscrapers, or suburban sprawl. Arie and Allison, whose enthusiasm for hiking was waning quickly, forgot the weight of their packs and jumped up and exclaimed, “Ohh it’s pretty!”
Trev pulled out the map and showed me where he thought we were, “It looks like we only have a mile left,” he said. “Packs on everyone!” We all get back on the trail and hike for less than a minute when we hit a sign that says “Ed Garvey Shelter;” we are already at camp. “Whoohoo!” yell the kids and they run over to the little open-air cabin. There are two levels of bunk area, with and outdoor staircase that leads to a loft above. Trev sends all the kid up stairs to set up their sleeping bags. It is only 4pm and we have a lot of daylight left. Trev divides the kids into two groups, one to collect firewood and one to fill up water bottles. I stuck with the older boys who had already learned how to pick dry, dead twigs and sticks for the fire. We wandered around the camp area collecting wood for the campfire, which would cook our dinner later. I talked to the boys a little bit about the camp. They told me that they love it and that they want to come back next summer.
When the water group gets back, everyone got to relax around camp. The kids read through the trail book, play cards and chat and laugh together. One of the nice things about outdoor trips is that you get to know people on a whole different level and relate to people who you would not normally know. These kids were from different age groups, parts of the country, ethnicities and while they did not always get along, it was interesting to observe them interact in an environment at was nobody’s “home turf.” This was not their school or their hometown. It was a new experience for all of them.
After a dinner of beans and rice, we sat around the fire and The Y leaders pulled out a surprise (and campfire favorite) - Marshmallows! Lauren and I found some good sticks and passed them around to the kids. After many roasted (and a few burnt) marshmallows, the kids were worn out and everyone headed to bed.
The next morning, everyone was up by 7. We had a quick breakfast and the older boys and I walked down to collect water. We used filtration systems to get clean water from the springs along the Appalachian Trail, and the boys had already caught onto how to use the filter. Martin pumped water through the filters and Derrick and David traded his filled water bottles for empties. I was impressed with how quickly they had caught onto the process.
We carried all the full bottles back to camp and started down the trail. Most of the hike on the second day was downhill, leading down into the historic town of Harpers Ferry. The older kids in the crew were in good spirits, excited that they would be headed back to camp today. Derrick and Martin chatted most of the morning as they hiked. By late morning, we got to the cliffs that overlook the Potomac River and Harpers Ferry. From here we could see the trail that we would continue on in the valley below us. The kids were astounded by the view. Arie kept yelling, “I want to put this on a postcard!”
From here, we had a steep hike down to the river. Walking downhill on uneven ground is hard enough for anyone, but it was especially hard for a group of kids who grew up in the city and are used to paved walkways. “Will it get less rocky?” Allison asked, shortly before tripping on a stone on a stone in the trail and twisted her ankle. Fortunately, after a few minutes rest she seemed to be able to walk alright, and after a few slow steps, she seemed to gain strength and was able to move more quickly. Crisis averted!
At the base of the big hill, the trail traversed some traffic, and became concrete in places before we met up with the riverside trail. “Civilization!” they yelled. Our last few of miles were on the C&O Canal biking/walking trail that ran parallel to the Potomac River. We passed a bunch of bikers who cheered us on, which made everyone smile. We saw a river otter and a number of turtles which the kids loved. “Did you see that? I love animals!” squealed the girls. When we finally saw the bridge to Harpers Ferry the boys took off at a sprint to the bridge. They waited for us there and when we all got there we crossed it together. The bus home was waiting for us on the other side.
Once everyone was in the bus, we headed back to Camp Letts. The kids were abuzz with anticipation, “real food! A shower!”
David said, “I can’t believe we hiked the whole Maryland section of the trail… That is awesome.”