Youth to Wilderness

The Inaugural Y2W Class

Getting Youth in to the Wilderness – that was the simple goal of the budding “Y2W” project the climate team launched last August as a joint undertaking of The Wilderness Society and The Y – in this case, the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington. As reported on below by our intrepid hiker and youth mentor, Neil Shader, this maiden hike was milestone for all involved. It worked for The Y – because TWS made it possible for four city kids to hike a beautiful portion of the Appalachian Trail.

It is impossible to fully capture the power of someone’s first 25 mile vista across the Blue Ridge Mountains, but it can only be good for the future of public lands protection. Thanks to Neil, Flip Hagood, JP Leous, Nora Johnson, Tim Richards and the Recreation Team for inspiring and carrying out our first of what I hope will be many “Y2W” projects.

David Moulton, Director of Climate Change Policy

What happens when four kids from Washington DC and the surrounding suburbs find themselves in the heart of one of the most iconic wild places in the country?

No, it isn’t MTV’s latest reality show – it is a new collaboration between The Wilderness Society and The YMCA that we all know and love from their excellent network of camps and community centers, and one noticeably catchy disco tune.

The Youth to Wilderness collaboration, in its fledgling year, teamed up staff from The Wilderness Society and four vibrant, energetic, and boisterous teens and two counselors from The YMCA’s Camp Letts, near Annapolis, Maryland. Together, the group hit the Appalachian Trail, tackling the Maryland stretch of the legendary path.

Campers Antonio, Erica, Nejiyyah and Solomon, along with counselors Kweku and Sandra (and myself) all took to the trail for a 3.5 day, 41 mile trip down the trail to get a feel first-hand for one of the longest and most famous hiking trails in the world.

Starting at the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, at the appropriately named Penn-Mar Park, the group headed off down the trail – 920 miles from the south end in Georgia, and 1080 miles from the north end at Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

Trekking south, it was quickly apparent that kids – ages ranging from 12 to 16 – were not as familiar in the woods as many of the other patrons of the trail. Sights like a small clearing in the trees that offered a view of the countryside or some of the large, colorful moths that many hikers just pass by were instantly spotted by the kids and given inspiring “oohs” and “ahhs.”

“Was that a bear?” was also a frequent question – usually whenever a noise from off the trail was heard, but not seen. Fortunately, bears were hard to come by, and everyone (and their food) was safe from ursine visitors. This certainly did not stop Solomon, the comedian of the group, from scrambling to find something to defend himself with when Kweku, whispered “I think I hear a bear” early one morning. Speed is usually not a trait that teenagers display at 6:15 in the morning, however the possible visit from a black bear certainly changed that.

The kids out on the Appalachian TrailSore feet and backs couldn’t dampen spirits – even on longer days when kids that rarely walked more than a mile and a half per day were trekking 8, 10, and even 16 miles in a single day. Nejiyyah, was completely indefatigable, often bounding ahead on the trail like rabbit with a backpack while the rest of us plodded along.

Throughout the trip, the kids were introduced to concepts that were very foreign to them – like filtering water from a stream before drinking it, and building a fire from just the sticks and twigs lying around. On one trip down to a remote spring for drinking and cooking water, Antonio, one of the boys noticed that a large swath of trees near the trail were missing. He asked me what happened, since aside from occasional parks or road crossings, the trail goes through deep woods. At first I thought it might have been storm damage – spring and summer storms in the hills of Maryland can pack a wallop – which brought a response of “wow, that’s bad.” Closer inspection, however, revealed that the missing trees were actually due to a logging operation, Antonio’s response was terse, but deep: “oh…that’s worse.”

Just a short time in woods led to remarkable changes in the kids. Erica, one of the older kids, began the trip with her iPod blaring tunes for the whole trail to hear. But as the battery wore down, sounds of Miley Cyrus and other popular tracks faded away to birds singing and the gentle whisper of a breeze through the oaks and maples along the trail – and no one really noticed. And while sounds of civilization like car traffic were welcomed as we approached Harper’s Ferry, everyone still spent time gazing out over the Potomac River at Weverton Cliffs and taking in the breathtaking views.

Possibly one of the most telling sign of a good trip out into nature was the reaction when we returned to Camp Letts after 3 nights in the woods. As their friends circled around them, every one of the Y2W campers said a variation of the same thing: “it was awesome!”

Special Thanks to David Moulton and TWS Climate Team for initiating the Y2W partnership.