Plan B

By Mia, Class XI

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Mia (in front) backpacking to camp.

When I signed up for the Wind Rivers outdoors summer trip last fall I figured that I knew what I was getting myself into.  I’ve taken outdoors every term, and even gone on multiple summer term trips before.  However, this year, it did not go quite as expected.

To begin with, the students were the driving force in the planning process.  At the time the trip was announced, all that was planned was that we were going to the Wind River mountain range in Wyoming.  Every few weeks we would meet as a group and attempt to figure out where in this massive range we should go.  One thing that we knew for sure from the beginning, was that this trip should include many different aspects of what we learn in the outdoors class, including backpacking, climbing, packrafting, and fly fishing.

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Having a vague idea of what we wanted to do was not nearly enough, though, so we divided up, each conquering one aspect of the trip.  I was in charge of the climbing, and spent more than one weekend poring through guide books dreaming up dangerous ridges for us to scale.  Of course, these dreams were promptly crushed at our next meeting by Watkins, the voice of reason, who pointed out that it just wasn’t realistic to haul 15 people up a twenty four hundred foot climb in one day.  I wasn’t the only one with dreams of grandeur: at one point it was proposed that we would hire llamas.  (Honestly, of all of our far fetched plans, I’d say we were the most sad to let the llamas go).  Eventually though, we found a backpacking loop that was perfect for us, making it so that we could hike a respectable distance, climb a nice, easy peak in the Cirque of the Towers, and leave plenty of time for floating in our packrafts.

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Students making the most of record snowfall across the Intermountain West.

By then, it was winter and the planning was set aside as we revelled in the record snowfalls and the skiing that that brought us.  Therefore, it came as a slight surprise when, soon after summer began, we received an email from Watkins requesting another planning meeting.

What we learned during this meeting came as even more of a shock.  That record snowfall that we had reveled in a few months before had also hit Wyoming.  The range had 190% of its average snowfall for that time of year.  For us, that meant that the trails were still snow covered, and even more problematically, the road to the trailhead still hadn’t even been plowed.  And, don’t forget, this was a mere six days before we were scheduled to leave.

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Cliff jumping at Island Lake.

With this in mind, we said goodbye to our meticulously laid plans from before, and decided as a group that no, we would not be going to the Wind River range as expected. Now where do we go?

Due to limited time and gas money we would have to stay fairly close to home, but that still left hundreds of viable destinations.  There was a backpacking route in the Tetons that looked exciting, a backpacking and rafting trip in Yellowstone, hiking in the Uinta mountains of Utah, and canyoneering in Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, just to name a few.  

The Tetons were soon out because they also had far too much snow.  Yellowstone looked amazing, with a five day backpack, and then a packraft float down the lower Yellowstone river.  However, we soon discovered that it was, in fact, illegal to go to that stretch of Yellowstone thanks to it containing the largest population of grizzly bears in the lower forty eight.  Not wanting to be mauled by a grizzly put an end to that plan pretty quickly, so we moved on to Escalante.

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Students put their fly fishing skills to use and caught fresh trout for dinner.

Escalante is a beautiful, remote stretch of desert strewn with canyons and rivers perfect for rafting.  We devised a plan to packraft down a canyon and even try out our canyoneering skills.  The downside was the forecast for high 90s temperatures, but we would be fine, as long as we were near water…Except that there wasn’t water.  The river that we had proposed to float was dangerously below its normal capacity, and therefore unfloatable.   With such high heat, the lack of water was a deal breaker, so we moved on to the next plan.

The only plan left at this point was to backpack the Uinta mountain range. And although they are a lovely mountain range, no one was particularly excited about this option.  The Uintas are close to home, so we already had explored them a fair amount. But with less than a week to go, what other choice did we have?

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Rock & Ice

Another meeting was called for the next monday, two days before we left.  Even though we knew we would go to the Uintas, that still left us with a lot of options for where we could explore.   Eventually we put together to a loop through basins and over passes, with the main attraction being the plethora of lakes available for us to float in.  We would still climb, and hike, and packraft, and fish, all the important aspects that we had started with back in the fall, and now, because of the abundance of snow, we would also ski.  

That Monday passed in a frenzy of planning as we drew up a menu, a hiking route, and a gear list, meanwhile adjusting ski bindings and looking through bin after bin of cook stuff for elusive camp spoons.  

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And at 9 a.m. on the 22nd, we all showed up at Waterford with full backpacks, spent a few hours organizing food and loading gear on to the bus, and then we were off.  

It’s a scary thing to have planned a trip and suddenly see it become a reality.  I’m sure that every one of us had thoughts going through our heads vaguely along the lines of ¨is this actually going to work?¨  Having planned the trip ourselves from beginning to end was a far different experience from all of our past outdoors trips, which had been more along the lines of ¨so, what are we going to do today, Mr. Watkins?¨  Now we had to take ownership of what happened, good or bad, which was frankly a terrifying prospect.

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However, when it came down to it, I’m glad we went to the Uintas.  They are very different from the dramatic, rocky peaks of the Wasatch, or the Wind Rivers for that matter, but they have a beauty of their own.  Every dip in the earth is filled with water, making for some stunning mountain lakes. Because we went in late June, it was prime wildflower season, and in many places it was actually impossible to walk without trampling a few dainty little marsh marigolds underfoot.  There was an abundance of fish, and the wide open skies meant that we could fall asleep beneath a blanket of stars.  

The responsibility that we had assumed during the planning process was not over.  Every day, two of the students would be given the map and compass and told to lead the rest to the next campsite.  Unfortunately, thanks to the network of trails, only a small number of which were actually on the map, it was very easy to get lost.  And after a long day of hiking, it is not a welcome thing to hear that you have been walking in the wrong direction for an hour.  Soon tempers began flaring, even leading to a mutiny at one point, leaving the chosen leaders powerless and the angry masses without a map.  Eventually the actual trail was found and peace was restored, but we had learned in the process that in order to make it through we would have to work together and all have an equal say.

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I feel confident that every one of us on that trip learned real life skills that we will carry into our future adventures and everyday life.

And don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t solely a good experience because of the challenges.  We all became closer friends than ever before and enjoyed the wilderness to the utmost.  We hiked, climbed, fished, rafted and skied.  We also spent time sitting on the shore of lakes reading, and around fires playing truth or dare.  We walked through the woods at night singing, and one night over dinner had a massive snowball fight.  We are far from all grown up, but if I look back and see myself entering outdoors in 7th grade, I have definitely grown.  Outdoors, and the opportunities it gives me, such as this one, has taught me so much, and even more importantly, has brought me closer to some of my closest friends.  

So, as we hiked along a trail hundreds of miles from the one we had originally planned to hike, when Watkins asked me if I would help to plan next summers trip, of course the answer was yes. I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity for the world. We’re supposed to go to Washington. But who knows what will happen.

See more photos from the trip here.

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