Story and photos by Julia Levine
A few weeks ago I was placed in a work program at Packout to assemble the food we would need for our five day wilderness trips. It was a hectic couple of hours weaving through the pantries and grabbing what was needed: a block of cheddar cheese from the fridge, jars of sun butter off the shelves, “cow pow” or powdered milk separated into plastic bags. We would bring all the food we collected back to the table, organize it into meals, and check it off the list. Our trip leader Chris told us everything would need to be carried on our backs, so it all had to be as light as possible. I remembered this as I selected small bags of dehydrated vegetables, the little shriveled carrots, stripped of their water looked foreign and strange. I eyed the dehydrated chili with uncertainty and wondered if the food would taste good, if there would be enough, and if we would, perhaps, get to have dessert on the trail.
Flash forward a couple days and Backpacking A is on the van getting ready to leave Chewonki Neck. Ansley, Kaitlynn, Diana, Dan, Lucy, and I sit expectantly awaiting the start of the trip. Adriana who helps teach math and Chris from Outdoor Classroom will be leading us on this adventure, “Knuckle up if you’re buckled up” says Chris. We fasten our seatbelts and raise a fist to the ceiling of the car. “Ok. We’re ready to go.” The stereo goes on, we pull out of the driveway. Many of us, tired from waking up early and lulled by the motion of the car promptly fall asleep.
A few hours later Backpacking A is climbing down Old Speck, our highest peak of the trip. Fog envelops the mountain and strong winds whip around us. I dig my trekking poles into the dirt and brace myself with each step. It is slow going down the mountain. My fingers are cold and It takes me a while as I fumble with the zipper of my sweater, opening my pocket for just enough time to stick in my hat and avoid having it blown off my head and down the mountain. Taking steps forwards we are pushed back by the winds and have to fight this push to keep moving down. When A particularly strong gust roars over Old Speck we pause altogether to regain our footing. In the midst of the terrifying winds I look over the foggy landscape and see that there are a few patches where the clouds have broken and bands of sunlight slant through the fog and illuminate the trees, their leaves already changing into the vibrant fall shades of red and orange. We eventually make it to the bottom and hike the rest of the way to our first camp site. I won’t soon forget the torturous winds climbing down Old Speck, but I know I’ll always remember too the amazing views and the accomplishment we felt when we’d reached the bottom.
It was in the first couple of days that we were introduced by Chris to “hardcore points” that we could earn while backpacking and cash in at the end. These points, which we would gain collectively would be awarded if anyone went above and beyond what was necessary and did something “hardcore” on the trip. On the first day I earned us a point by eating a whole apple, save for the stem, so we would not need to pack it out. For our excellence in the face of the winds on Old Speck we each earned five points. We earned points for various things on the trip and completed a couple of campsite challenges to receive our “points menu” or list of things we could purchase with our points. We ended up with about 100 points and decided on three things: a vaguely titled “bag of fun” (which we learned contained a blow up beach ball and a card game), treats in the van on the way back to Chewonki, and last but definitely not least a two hour period of time during which Chris would wear his banana suit. Everyone who saw us on the trail that day, I’m sure, was quite confused by our assembly: six students, a normally dressed adult, and a walking banana.
Probably the hardest day of the trip was backpacking in Muhoosuc Notch, supposedly the hardest mile of the Appalachian Trail. We climbed over, up, under, and around seemingly endless narrow fields of boulders. It felt often that we were not backpacking as we had signed up for but rock-climbing. At several points along the notch we had to remove our packs and slide them through the rocks before climbing down after them because the space was too small to fit. We spotted for each other as we climbed. I stopped on a small stretch of dirt between two boulders and saw something moving on the ground. It was a little snake and I picked it up (3 hardcore points awarded) and we gently passed it around. A couple hours later, still in the notch, we stopped for lunch before continuing on. It took almost four hours for us to complete this single mile of trail.
To entertain ourselves while we backpacked we played games like contact, solved riddles (My favorite riddle: If beauty is in your hand what is in your eye?), solved minute mysteries, and sang songs. We all got to know each other better and I could fill pages more with all of our memories. Some personal highlights include learning how to do almost everything from Ansley and Diana who were both experienced backpackers before the trip, walking with Lucy and making up cheers about traction and how to not fall down a mountain, being a co-leader of the day with Dan, spending time with Kaitlynn and hearing about how she woke up Ansley every morning by poking her nose and saying “good morning” in the same voice she uses when talking to Greta, the baby cow at the farm. It was a challenging and rewarding trip and I’m grateful to Chris, Adriana, the rest of my classmates on this trip, for making it so great.