(You can read more about our program structure here.)
We gathered at my house, loaded up into my car as well as a minivan (thanks Laura and Mike) and headed to Emigrant Wilderness. The ride up was pleasant, and the boys seemed pretty ready for an adventure... We picked up permits at the Emigrant ranger station near Pinecrest and eventually made our way to the trailhead parking lot, got all the gear in order, and headed out. The first mile or so was on a fire-road (the first 1/4 mile was actually paved), and we did a bit of backpacking adjusting and other backpacking subtleties as we began the journey.
We passed BEAUTIFUL scenery. Up a granite canyon along a roaring river, and over a few incredible bridges. There was some whining about the effort, but mostly the boys were into it and we gradually made our way up up up. Our total mileage that day was about 3.5 miles. I anticipated having to go to the farther and southern end of the lake, but we found an incredible campsite on the nearer northern side, and decided to camp.
It was a hot day and a sweaty hike, and many of us jumped into the ICY cold lake (though not for too long since it was SO cold)! We got camp set up, hung out, and explored the nearby area. There was a nearby dam that created Relief Reservoir, and a few of us went down to see if it was safe to walk on – indeed there was a large walkway on the other side of it that one could walk on, and the farther, western-most portion of the dam was also a spillway that let over the torrent of overflow water into (and creating) the river below. The walkway over the spillway was made of a metal bars so you could see the waterfall below you as you walked over. It was really spectacular.
Eventually, we made some dinner of mac and cheese. Yum! We had a circle about what to expect Saturday in terms of the morning and solo time. We made campfire, made smores, looked up at the millions of stars, and headed to sleep. Well, at least, Leader A, Elder B, and I did... I think many of the boys stayed up into the wee hours of the night talking and joking around.
The morning of exploration! We had a quick breakfast of oats, got camp packed up, (a few boys went for a morning dip in the COLD lake), and headed out to explore the area more for suitable solo spots. We started on the other side of the lake, crossing over the dam again, and onto the western side.
Along the way, Leader A and I asked a few of the boys to not rock climb on a particular location (side note: the previous day, A and I had asked boys not to rock climb higher than shoulder height to mitigate risk while still allowing play). They came down, but a few minutes later, we looked back and they were doing the exact same thing. This culminated in a pretty serious talk about risks, judgment, responsibility, group consideration, limits, rules, and trust. We outlined the pretty serious breach of trust that occurred and made it clear that this kind of thing had an effect, and would change how Leader A, Elder B, and I judged the solo spot they would want to choose, and how we thought about their ability to make good choices for themselves without close supervision. We reached the conclusion that the boys involved would not be able to camp in particular spots that were either farther away, or had big rock features to climb on... in addition to any other stipulations that would come up as we explored each spot. It was a somber moment, and we made it clear that this was not intended to punish or shame, but that their actions had consequences and cast doubt on their level of understanding situations and making smart choices. I think it struck a great balance of being direct and serious while also not leaving them simply with the lesson "do what we tell you to do", but rather to actually think about their actions.
... We had an impromptu lesson on managing the the risk of jumping off of rocks into the water. It was a strong desire for many of the boys to jump off a rock 10 or so feet off the water into the lake. Leader A gave a great lesson on how to check for rocks under where the rock was first... having to dive down in the freezing water first to make sure there wasn't anything dangerous. He then explained about the best ways to jump OUT from the rock in order to make it past the first foot or so and make a solid landing in the safe part of the lake... It was a great lesson in making good choices through preparation, and letting initial inspiration to do something potentially risky to be put to use in managing the situation. We then headed back over to the other side of the lake to find the additional spots for the remaining boys, and had a classic lunch of PB&J.
...After lunch each of your sons had some time to pack up their bags and prepare for their solo journeys. The evening before around the campfire each of them had some time to reflect and share about their intentions for their solo time. They shared their excitement and nervousness as well as ideas about how they might spend their time. These ideas included naked sunbathing for many as well as building rock towers, rock climbing (with safety very much in mind), journaling, meditating, exploring, and general reflection.
After bags were packed this conversation was revisited as we sat in a circle in the shade. Elder B, Leader P and I reminded them of our hopes for them that we had shared around the campfire. These hopes included that they experience themselves as an integral part of the natural world, that they be gentle with themselves, that they revel in their independence, that they have time to feel alone without feeling lonely, and that they make good decisions about their safety and risk assessment. We reminded your sons that we would remain at base-camp and would be there as a support for both they're physical and emotional safety. We expressed that while we hoped they would push themselves, we also encouraged them to take good care of themselves and use our council should they need it during their solo time. Off they each went, bags packed, water bottles filled, sunscreen applied, off into the afternoon to begin their solo time. Within about the first 20 minutes a few nude boys could be seen across the lake soaking in the afternoon sun, reveling in their new found freedom...
We had designed a return the next morning that included waiting until the sun hit the west shore of the lake. Your sons gathered with those that had camped nearby and then walked back together to base-camp. Once all had returned we had an initial conversation where they each shared 3 things they loved about their solo spot, and 3 things that sucked about it. They each shared a variety of experiences and began to describe their experiences with some initial details. We then all ate breakfast together, split up the group gear, filled water bottles, and broke down base-camp together. At that point we invited those who wanted to to have a more formal Council to share the stories of they're solo time in greater detail. Almost all the boys chose to partake with two of your sons communicating that they didn't feel able to listen without interrupting.
Ten of us sat together while the other two threw rocks into the lake from a nearby and visible spot. The boys in Council shared the stories of their solo time. They described challenges, frustrations, successes, realizations, and humorous moments. We reflected back to them the pieces of their stories that struck us as well as how proud we felt for each of your sons in a variety of ways. While all of their experiences were different, they each expressed a sense of pride and independence.
The walk back was about 10 times easier for your sons, both because of the descent as well as the elated spirit of the group. We stopped at multiple moments appreciating the beauty of our surroundings, throwing rocks into the river, and resting in the shade. At the end of our hike we surprised your sons by jogging the last mile to get our cars while they waded in the river with Elder B and he treated them to an ice cream of their choice.
We split into our separate cars and began the journey home, returning exhausted, sunburnt, refreshed, and all of us a bit more mature. It was by far the most incredible trip we've shared, and though I'm back at work now, without the bandwidth to describe the magic of our trip with greater detail, it was truly magical. We hit a beautiful stride in our co-facilitation and each of your sons impressed us in their own personal way. It was our last trip together, and while endings are always bittersweet, the sweetness of this one far out weighed the bitterness.
Your SSP Leaders