Youth to Wilderness – the adventures of ant-eaters and stone-skippers

Neil Shader

Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Neil Shader

“Can we go now?”

There aren’t many repeated phrases that can really make a guy smile, but this one – said several times by eager youngsters ready to get their boots on the trail – had me grinning from ear to ear.

“Can we go now?”

This is the second time I’ve gone out with kids and counselors from the YMCA’s Camp Letts on the Appalachian Trail, and the third time that TWS has partnered with The Y to get some kids out into the woods.  This trip brought five kids from the camp – Aster, Max, Chris, Marley, and Dwayne “the Sandman.”

This group was ready and raring to go – which was a bit of a surprise, as not one of them had ever spent a night out in the woods.  We started at Gathland State Park, near Frederick Maryland, and met up with two more kids and from Camp Letts, along with a pair of counselors, Trev and Ariel, who had been out on the trail for two days already.

We didn’t have far to go to get our destination – the Edward Garvey shelter – and the brief rainstorm that greeted us at Gathland had given way to diminishing clouds and bluebird skies.  As sunbeams filtered through the trees, we hiked along the ridgeline, the sounds of the kids laughing and talking echoing through the trees.  We made a few stops to make sure that nobody had any foot issues (better to catch them early than to wait for a blister) and climb on some rocks that offered a narrow view of the farms in the valley below.

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New Friends, New Names

In Appalachian Trail tradition, some of the kids were assigning themselves trail names – monikers that they’d call each other as we hiked.  Aster, an energetic 14 year old, quickly became “Cheetah girl” after she climbed into a tree and laid down on one of the branches, like a cheetah on the Serengeti.  The kids from the longer hike also took names – Alec became “Daddy long-legs” for his long stride, and Jasmine became “Pacemaker” for her quick feet.  Aster decided that my trail should clearly be “Nature Dude,” since that was what she had been calling me all afternoon anyways.  Dwayne “the Sandman” decided that his nickname was good enough as it was, and left well enough alone.

Spending time talking with the kids as they experience nature – many of them in an entirely new, completely submerged way – is both a rewarding experience for me, and the point of The Wilderness Society’s partnership with The Y and Camp Letts.  Now in its second year, the Y2W (or Youth to Wilderness) partnership has sponsored an even dozen kids to get out on the Appalachian Trail to experience the great outdoors and to learn about themselves and their relationship to world.  Most of the kids on the trip come from urban areas, where trees are found planted singly along the sidewalk, and wildlife comes in the form of rats scurrying down alleyways and pigeons pecking crumbs from the sidewalk.  While the wildlife viewing on the trail isn’t spectacular (at least, not with more than a half dozen teenagers alerting everything in a 2-mile radius to our presence), there are still more birds, chipmunks, squirrels, and the occasional deer there than they find at home.  All of this adds up to an experience that they can take with them for the rest of their lives, and will encourage them to seek out more opportunities to get out into the natural world.

And A New Diet Fad

After getting to the shelter we went about getting dinner ready – which meant first getting water from the spring far down below the campground, and starting the fire to cook it with.  Neither task was easy – the spring was almost a half a mile down a steep slope, and carrying full water bottles back up was hardly anyone’s idea of a good time.  The fire-making had its own difficulties, since the rain from the previous two days had given a thorough soaking to most of the twigs and branches.  But after a few false starts (and maybe a little cheating with the application of some kerosene soaked cotton balls), there was a crackling fire slowly cooking a dinner of red beans and rice.

In the meantime, while the fire was mostly a pile of smoldering twigs, a few of the more intrepid campers found a different food source: ants.

After watching Trev the Counselor pluck a large black ant with a lightly colored and purportedly sweet tasting abdomen from the dinner table, pop off the light tail-piece, and pop it in his mouth, both Dwayne and Aster were scrambling around the campground looking for the elusive “sugar ant.”

“You guys!” yelled Aster to the rest of the group, “I’m gonna eat an ant!”

The search did prove fruitful (antful?), and soon both Aster and Dwayne were nervously plucking the small round abdomens off of their own ants. 

“Tastes sour,” said Dwayne, losing his previous enthusiasm for the natural sweets.  Aster agreed, and the rest of us were content for our more traditional fare. 

“So much for the new diet fad,” said Trev. “Only eating things that eat dirt.”

After dinner, as the fire and sunlight both died down, a much more welcome treat came out: marshmallows.  Gathered around the campfire, the kids roasted (and occasionally burned) marshmallows, and began sharing their favorite campfire stories.  I shared my personal favorite – and one my dad always recited when I went camping – the classic Robert Service ballad “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” 

From the Peak to the Valley

The next morning, after packing up, we headed back out on the trail. It was going to be a pretty easy day – mostly downhill, and the weather couldn’t have been better, with clear skies and bright sunshine streaming through the trees.

Stopping at the popular Weverton Cliffs, we got our first view of the Potomac River and of sleepy Harper’s Ferry just a few miles upstream from our overlook.  Most of the kids had never seen a view like the one from the cliffs, and spent nearly half an hour crawling to the edge to peer down the mountainside or get a better look at the river crawling lazily past.  A few of them were shocked – shocked! – that in just a few short miles we would be walking alongside the very river that from the cliffs looked so far away.

We watched some vultures glide along the ridgeline at eye-level and took the obligatory photos along the cliffs before setting off down the trail. The steep switchbacks proved no problem, and soon we were down the hillside and along the C&O canal towpath along the Potomac, our last stretch before getting to Harper’s Ferry.

The path afforded a few good opportunities to test the time-honored skill of stone skipping, and soon the whole crew was scouting the banks for that perfectly round, flat skipping stone.  There were more than a few “ker-PLUNKs” of the less aerodynamic rocks, but also a fair number that skipped four, five, even as many as eight times before dropping below the water’s surface.

Shouldering our packs one last time, we returned to the trail, and headed upstream towards the historic town.  The end of the trip was pretty uneventful – a few grumbles about the lack of lunch, and some sore feet – but everyone was excited and in good spirits as we crossed the bridge into town.  A passerby saw our packs and asked “what’s back that way?” gesturing to the way we had just come.

“The Appalachian Trail,” one of the kids replied. “We just hiked it.”