My Park Story – Elise’s Summer Reflections

Friends’ place-based educators connect learners with land year-round, but long summer days outside the structure of a school day allow for deeper youth experiences on our trails and rivers. Education Coordinator Elise Goplerud shares her reflections on the impact of these programs in this month’s #myparkstory.

Katahdin Learning Project’s summer youth programs wound down in August with our final hurrah–an overnight canoe trip. Most of KLP’s programs this summer were part of a collaborative series in partnership with local non-profits Katahdin Gear Library, Outdoor Sport Institute, and Katahdin Area Trails. Collectively named the Katahdin Region Outdoor Collaborative (or KROC, pronounced Kay-Rock), we offered eight introductory-level outdoor adventures to more than 200 middle and high schoolers at no cost. The spirit of togetherness shone in the programs and students, as we saw participants returning for more sessions. Each time, youth came in more engaged and more willing to take on leadership responsibilities. This summer, we hiked Barnard Mountain in the national monument, mountain biked on the trails at Hammond Ridge, spent the night at Lunksoos Camps, paddled in the Debsconeag Wilderness Area, and got silly as we walked to the Ice Caves. We explored highlights of the Katahdin region’s North, South, East and West. The kids experienced places they’d never been before and realized how much is in their backyard. I can guarantee you won’t hear any of these students say, “there’s nothing to do here”.

Five tents set up in a wooded campsite with two young people.
Here the kids are setting up camp at the Lunksoos group camping area (that Friends helped fund in 2021!) on our first overnight. It took a lot of assistance from leaders to get camp set up on day one but by our overnight canoe trip these kids were pros at it.

The kids had plenty of downtime to enjoy the woods without technology (and we didn’t hear any complaints!). However, many evenings also included guided discussions about how to recreate responsibly outdoors, plus storytelling around the campfire or while gazing at the stars. The students learned some history of the conserved lands that we visited,  the many types of management styles, as well as the importance of protecting land for wildlife and recreation. Our reflections got deeper throughout the season. A student who first arrived shy and unsure of the outdoors (our first trip, his least favorite part: hiking) was taking on leadership roles, volunteering answers to questions, and seeking more ways to get involved. In his own words: “It just feels really, really good to be out here in the wild”.

Four boys gathered on a riverbank. One is fishing.
George, our youngest participant, was enthusiastic about fishing and spent our first evening together on the shores of Lunksoos boat launch casting a line. After many attempts and tangled lines he hooked one! The excitement of catching a fish is contagious and everyone in the group came to check it out and celebrate George’s success.

On that final canoe trip, the scheduled paddle was modified due to wind and we had more downtime at camp than we expected. The leaders quickly huddled to brainstorm activities so the kids wouldn’t get bored. But before we could actually do any of these activities we saw kids digging in the sand, collecting firewood, and looking more content and at peace than we could have predicted. Free play is a hot buzzword in nature-based education but it’s generally in the context of toddlers and pre-K to early elementary students. We rarely talk about the importance of free play for older students or adults. Free play came so naturally to these middle schoolers– I believe in part because they did it on their own. No leader told them “it’s time to free play so get it in while you can” as in a school setting where their lives, including “free” play, is very structured. Genuinely free play with no time limits, rules, or boundaries made the difference. Leaders were shocked during the debrief when a kid said that one of his favorite parts of the entire program was not the games and activities we played but “how much freedom we gave them.”

Concerning student safety, the youths had proven to us over the summer that we could trust them. Leaders wanted them to experience genuine trust, absent the many common parameters that prevent them making choices for themselves. At some point in the trip I led a trust activity and instead of the typical debrief question “How does it feel to trust your partner,” I asked them “How did it feel to be trusted” which sparked new emotions and prompted moving responses.

Four young teens smile up at the camera from a cave entry with iron climbing rungs in a mossy rock.
The kids felt like true explorers as they descended into the dark Ice Caves in the Debsconeag Wilderness Area. We checked out every nook and cranny that we could fit ourselves into. Along the trail we told jokes and riddles and laughed the whole time.

There was something different and amazing about these programs that you don’t see on day programs with the schools. I saw a hunger for wilderness and freedom that I hadn’t seen with the other groups we work with. Sometimes in this line of work I get discouraged because I’m told by some teachers and parents, and we hear in the media, that “kids just aren’t interested in the outdoors anymore. They only want to spend time on technology”. But this summer proved to me that those people are wrong. Youth do want to be out here and connection to nature is just as innate as our ability to breathe. Youth just need the opportunity to be in the wilderness, take on responsibility, exercise creativity, and be a little wild.

Learn more about Katahdin Learning Project and view the 2023-2024 program catalog for Katahdin Region school districts.

All photos: Credit FKWW