Photos and writing by Carly Rundle-Borchert
Early on the morning of June 19th twenty high schoolers, stemming from various backgrounds, met at the Wilderness Inquiry headquarters in Minneapolis to pack out for their five-day, four-night camping trip in Voyageurs National Park. The group of students had applied through their schools to be a National Park Teen Ambassador. For the past 7 years, the Voyageurs National Park Association has partnered with Wilderness Inquiry and the National Park Service to empower young people through the Teen Ambassador Program. Every year, this program introduces more than twenty Minnesota high school students to their national park, empowering them through hiking, paddling, and experiential learning.
Upon arrival, each student was paired up with a “bag buddy”. Hesitantly, they removed all of their homey belongings from their familiar bags and shoved the contents of their contrasting cultures and upbringings into a shared waterproof sack. Keeping one’s things segregated within the pack isn’t practical when the goal is to make everything fit.
Once the trailer was Tetris-packed full underneath five Voyageur canoes, our group began the journey towards our northern destination, the shore of Minnesota’s Lake Kabetogama.
We arrived at the Ash River Visitor Center after a five-hour van ride. The ambassadors were not expecting a five-mile canoe paddle to their campsite, or more importantly to dinner. But happy to be out of the van, they worked together loading the canoes and, for many of them, paddling for the first time, though this wasn’t the only “first” they would experience.
Within the first hour of our paddle, an eerily melodic call echoed across the lake and a hush fell over the boats. For many, it was their first time hearing a loon, and later that night it would be their first time seeing a lightning bug or smelling pine air that rich and fresh.
“I’ve never slept outside before,” said Jonaldy, anticipating his first night in a tent.
I asked the two boys sitting behind me in the canoe, why they chose to apply for this program. “I needed to find out if I was a city boy or a country boy”, said Brenden, who had been yelping about bugs since we got out of the van.
“You’re a city boy for sure,” laughed Jonaldy.
When we floated into our campsite 90 minutes after our paddles touched the water, one of the girls shouted out a statement that would be quoted for the rest of the trip. “Oh we in the woods woods!” The following morning I asked Jonaldy how his first night sleeping outside went. He explained that he didn’t fall asleep until 1AM, because he heard “wolves howling”. I’ll be honest, I didn’t entirely believe him until later that day.
Back at the visitor center park rangers and officials shared their knowledge with the Teen Ambassadors and Wilderness Inquiry about wetland ecosystems, fresh water testing methods, and the wolf population in Voyageurs National Park. According to a researcher on the Voyageurs Wolf Project, 60-70 wolves reside in the Park, many of which have GPS collars to help researchers understand their hourly movements. A tracking map confirmed that a wolf was a kilometer away from our campsite the previous night, Jonaldy was right.
The group of teens laughed, learned and grew more and more everyday. Only a small nudge was needed by the Wilderness Inquiry leaders when it came to socially melding the teens. Their creativity flourished in their free time, playing their own games, sharing their own stories. On the third day Wilderness Inquiry structured an activity where each teen would sit solo at their own isolated spot on the campsite for 20 minutes. They were to sit, observe, think, then either free-write or create a haiku poem. This is what emerged.
Teen Ambassador Poems:
“As I breathe in the air
The simple ways of nature
Calm my anxious soul.”
“Nature is simple.
But, simple is hard to find
So savor your time.”
“I will live my life
unafraid of my thoughts
with my head held high”
“The trees here see all,
They are everlasting
and hold years of truth.”
“This is their only home.
This is their refuge from us.
We are the foreigners.”
“Water are dancing
Surrounding by the big lands
The wind are pushing water.”
Teen Ambassador Reflection:
“I feel the wind blowing in my hair, helping me think about my breathing. When I look out into the far end of the other side it makes me not want to leave this place forever. It reminds me of my home back in Ethiopia. It gives me hope to go back one day and visit my motherland. I have realized how much I have missed out on, what is/was actually a part of my life once. I feel disappointed in myself for not being able to adjust easily to this life outside of the city. This place brings me at peace and helps me forget about all the worries and the struggles I have been going through. What can I say this is the creation of God and the beauty of nature.” -Anon
Hearing the students’ bravely voice their deep and insightful thoughts on nature, and its connection to their own lives—in front of their peers—left me blinking away tears. It was truly a beautiful thing to see. A shared vulnerability seemed to bring these kids together and draw them out. This was expressed by Sandy, a 17-year-old girl from St. Paul. “I’m usually a very shy person but here I talk more. I think I’ve got a little… well I’ve gotten out of my comfort zone a lot. I had to push myself a little bit.” said Sandy.
Sandy described her favorite moment from the trip, “It was breathtaking.” I asked her to expand. “I was laying down on the rocks with a few people. We were silent, not talking. It was really calming and relaxing. The sun was going down… I never really have quiet time unless I’m by myself at home, but then I usually have music on or I can hear the noise of the neighborhood. I’ll have to get used to that again.”
When I asked Sandy what she would miss the most she said, “The view, the ocean, the people I met here—we kind of connected—and the staff, seeing new flowers and trees, seeing what’s out there—little animals—baby frogs and baby turtles.”
To Sandy, Lake Kabetogama was the ocean—the biggest body of water she’d ever seen, much less canoed across. Whether she meant to say “the ocean” or not, I don’t know, but I found it very sweet.
The last day was filled with many emotions. The teens held an excitement to go home, a sadness to say goodbye, and a dread for the long paddle followed by a longer van ride. But hiding in the midst of the rainy paddle and the sleepy van ride was a surprise. Back at the visitors center the Teen Ambassadors would be awarded their Junior Ranger badges and would make their pledge.
As the rain poured on our last paddle, saturating everything and everyone in all five canoes, songs called out and echoed back from boat to boat. But it wasn’t the loons this time. In this moment it was clear to me that while the teens waterproof sacks did their job of keeping the water out, they inadvertently accomplished the same dissolve of differences that the vans, canoes, tents, and wilderness did for the kids. Because out here in the woods woods we all get wet, so why not sing in the rain?