We are happy to announce that Noah Brodsky and Walker McDonald have signed on to lead Expedition Camp this summer.
It has become something of a tradition to receive a letter from the co-leaders of Expedition Camp, Pine Island’s six-week program for fifteen-year-old boys, sent back with the driver who meets them a week into the Allagash Wilderness canoe trip to resupply them. Below are excerpts from this year’s letter from Expedition Camp directors Ben Schachner and Sumner Ford. These excerpts are also included in the Pine Needle.
July 6, 2013
Five days into our trip we’ve covered about forty miles by canoe and on foot. Yesterday, hefting the canoes onto our shoulders, we portaged the roughly three-mile dirt road and grass trail from our Round Pond North campsite to the put-in on Allagash Lake. Jay, the park ranger at the put-in, who bears a striking resemblance to Gimley from Lord of the Rings without the double-sided war axe and battle helmet, asked us in passing how the grays and blues were doing; turns out he had read the Down East article and he mentioned that his wife had a long list of questions for us about the War Game…
…We spent the rest of yesterday afternoon and evening lounging on a large section of sun-baked glacially scarred rock jutting out into Round Pond. The rest was much needed. Half the portage was on an open dirt road with no shade and plenty of horse flies and mosquitos. The day before that we began our paddle, battling a strong headwind in Black Pond up to the mouth of Caucomogomoc Stream and ended the day walking, hauling, and pushing the boats up the Horserace in waist-high water. Our second day on the water was a twenty-five mile push to Canvas Dam, which included a healthy headwind on Chesuncook Lake and on the Penobscot Corridor. The boys have maintained an unwavering determination through the trip though, and spirits are high. They’ve assumed their daily roles and responsibilities with gusto and they’ve become more cohesive as a group already. We have enjoyed our daily debriefs, and the boys are open to suggestions and seem eager to learn, and amongst them all runs a strain of excitement and curiosity about what lies around the next bend in the river and what each new day will bring…
…Hope all is well back on the island. We all miss PIC and the island life, but we’re steadily fall into a comfortable routine on the rivers and lakes of the north Maine woods…See you in a week and a half!
Akka Lakka! Ben and Sumner
The following is an excerpt from The Pine Needle archives.
Written by Kit Smith, photos by Stephen Manker (2010 Expedition Camp co-leaders).
The sun hides behind a thin fold of clouds. Waiting for it to dip below the haze and come into view, we settle in for our last panoramic view in Vermont’s Green Mountains. It is fitting that we should end our 2010 Expedition Camp hiking trip as we started it, with a brilliant sunset. The mysterious mountains of Canada stretch north behind us. We think we can see the Peak of Lincoln in the distant south where we began our trek. The shimmering rays play on the waters of Lake Champlain, creating a blinding shaft of light. No one seems to mind the chill breeze that rips up from the valley. Once again, Aidan pulls the camera out. We snap some photos of our last night in the wild. I feel the beginnings of closure for Expedition Camp 2010 and I savor it. We have traveled a long way and spent many long days together. Steve and I look at the boys and beam with pride.
Preparing the 14-day canoe trip that kicked off Pine Island’s 2010 Expedition camp was no easy task for Steve and me, but Ben Swan had given us plenty of time and plenty of resources with which to prepare. We had talked in detail with Matt Clarke, a former Expedition camp leader and PIC veteran, about logistics and itinerary. Lindsay Clarke had helped us fine-tune our paddling skills and general river knowledge. Combining input from Matt and Lindsay with our own tripping experience, Steve and I gathered all the maps, tools and food we needed to head out for the Allagash for the longest trip sent out from Pine Island in recent memory.
At the last moment, one of our boys, Otto, went down with a shoulder injury, making it impossible for him to paddle, so we needed a quick replacement. It was a tough blow, since both Steve and I thought Otto would have been like a third counselor. We made a few quick calls and found that my younger brother Cody happened to be available. Soon we had signed on our tenth man. The boys were sad to leave Otto behind, but he would never be far from our conversations on the river.
Our first few days on the river were dazzling. Sandy beaches, cool blue water, and sharp cheddar cheese filled us up. Our one big wild card was Noah, a first-year at Pine Island with little outdoor experience. Although Noah had trouble at first adjusting to the challenges of camping in the northern Maine wilderness, he turned out to have a level of resilience and adaptability that I don’t think anyone, perhaps especially Noah, could have expected. To make a long story short, Noah ended his Pine Island summer as a rugged War Game specimen, romping boisterously through the Norridgewock wood like some character out of a James Fennimore Cooper novel. His transformation was remarkable to watch.
As part of our Expedition Camp program, each night before we went to bed we openly discussed the mistakes and successes of the day in a ritual we called “debrief.” At first, the boys were a little tentative to open up. They were a little uncomfortable bringing up touchy subjects. A few days into the canoe trip, Gabriel “Gab” changed that. He believed that the boys, including himself, needed to be more responsible and more accountable. Gab spoke about how Steve and I were doing too much. He called for the other boys to take a more active role in directing and organizing the group. He wanted the boys to take charge of Expedition Camp. It was exactly the kind of attitude that Steve and I had been hoping the boys would adopt at some point. It was the first of the many moments where the boys impressed Steve and me with a level of maturity that I would have never expected from 15-year-olds.
While I have spent entire athletic seasons with a single team, never have I spent as many days, 24 hours a day, in close quarters and under sometimes stressful conditions, as I did with Expedition Camp. There was never a tune far from Jack’s tongue, an attribute that Ernest Shackleton would have appreciated and valued in his exploits on the Endurance. Around meal-time, Steve would swap cooking tricks with Charles-Elie and John. Gab expected us to set the bar high and held everyone to that standard. We could always count on Noah for a random fact when the rest of us didn’t have the answers. When the group faced an obstacle, Colvin could always find a way around it. And if we ever forgot what we were doing, Aidan would remind us to stop and take a second to look around. The one thing that the boys all had in common was the depth of their character. They never stopped surprising me. There were some times when the boys or Steve or I were not at our best, but we would always find a way to resolve the situation. We had all set our goals from day one, and we were always quick to remind each other that we were in it all together.
The entire program, including the canoe trip through the Allagash Wilderness, the work week at Whitehead Island, the hike on the Long Trail in Vermont, time in camp, and the War Game, provide an endless stream of memories, but always it is singular moments that seem to come to me and bring the whole summer into focus. One such moment is seared in my memory: somewhere on the Long Trail, a single, purple, five-petaled blossom sways back and forth among a sea of ferns. I gratefully lay the pack down, rest, and draw a deep breath. I can picture the boys’ smiling faces the best when I think about that single blossom. I can hear their laughing when I go back to that last sunset on the Adam’s Apple of Mount Mansfield, to the beach at Jaws campsite early one morning, or to the rocks out in front of the lighthouse at Whitehead Light Station. Each time I thought I knew the boys, they would say something unforgettable that would make me pause. Cody once pointed out to me that he and I hadn’t spent so much time together since my high school years. We were brothers, but what really connected us was that canoe trip. We shared long afternoons on cool rivers and long lakes. I guess it was those singular moments that made all ten of us feel like brothers. Those are the memories that burn the brightest.
Our annual publication, The Pine Needle, is hot off the press and on its way to mailboxes around the world. We’ll bring you a few highlights from the newsletter here, beginning with this article written by Forrest Brown, co-leader with Sumner Ford of Expedition Camp 2012.
It’s the tenth day of the two-week journey, and today the campers are rising early for a sunrise paddle. Fog is barely beginning to lift as they wake in the near dark. It’s 4:00 in the morning, and the only sounds in the campsite are those of eight people breaking camp with practiced efficiency. Canoes are being put back in the water and loaded with dry bags and coolers. Two boys stand in an improvised kitchen preparing the morning’s breakfast, while two more pore over the maps of the day’s itinerary for a final time. Water bottles are being filled beside the lake, and the campsite swept for lost gear and overlooked trash. Each and every one of them is busily preparing to get on the water, and by 5:00 they will be paddling: Pine Island’s 2012 Expedition Camp is on the move once again.
The goal of Expedition Camp is to bring boys who have enjoyed going out on camping trips one step closer to being able to lead trips themselves. The first four days of Expedition Camp (whose dates are the same as the regular Pine Island season) are spent in a crash-course of trip planning, preparation, and execution. Ex-Campers plan meals, prep hardware (such as camp stoves), study maps of the trip, and become familiar with planning for emergency situations and alternative routes. It takes both practice and experience to become a true outdoorsman, and while the scenario described above gives the impression of a group of boys who knew exactly what they are doing, that wasn’t necessarily the case when we first left the comfortable life on Great Pond.
Pine Island is well known for its hiking and paddling trips, and the valuable camping skills that boys learn on these trips. However, as a camper there are still many aspects of these trips in which you are not involved: the planning of itineraries, meals, gear, trip logistics, and evacuation routes for emergency situations. As a camper you may be encouraged to look at a map, or even occasionally to help cook the evening’s meal. You may be encouraged to learn to set up your tent properly, and to rig a tarp between trees. You may have your knife taken away because you have failed for the umpteenth time to show an understanding of how to use it safely. As an Ex-Camper you are expected to master many of these skills to take a step up in taking responsibility for yourself.
Expedition Camp may sound like a pretty intense experience, but while there are surely intense moments to be had on the water and on the trail, Expedition Camp is actually not any more challenging than the senior trips Pine Island sends out. The first expedition takes place in canoes, and begins on the West Branch of the Penobscot River. After moving through various lake and stream systems, a short portage brings the journey to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, which flows north, and eventually leads all the way to the St. John River on the border of Canada. This trip is designed to include some less lengthy days of paddling in order to have time to focus on developing skills in navigation and daily planning in the wilderness. A major skill on which we focused this year was the making and breaking of camp in a timely manner. We worked hard, but we also spent a lot of time swimming, basking in the sun, playing cards, and reading around the beautifully maintained campsites in the North Maine Woods.
With the canoe trip under our belts we returned to PIC for some well-deserved R&R back at “Camp-X,” the newly upgraded KCI and Third Cabin on the mainland. While we only spent a handful of days at Camp-X, it was still home, and we treated it as such. A Coleman stove allowed us to brew coffee and hot chocolate when we were stuck on the mainland on rainy days, and a large central table provided area to lay out our plans as a group. However, Expedition Camp never stays one place long, and our wanderlust soon overtook us.
Our second expedition brought us to Whitehead Island for a service project. The project involved moving a lot of heavy rocks for road repair. To our surprise the boys took to the work with great enthusiasm, but our contract to pave the road leading from the Barracks to the Light Station dock in stone was a short one, and we were soon back at Pine Island preparing for the final journey of the summer.
Vermont’s Long Trail is a trip that remains unique to the Expedition Campers at Pine Island. It is also the culmination of the Ex-Camp experience, and the most difficult of the trips. At 13.7 miles, the longest day would break the average human. The Long Trail is where an Ex-Camper’s skills are put to the test after many weeks, over nine days of rugged hiking. The 2012 Expedition Camp team proved more than capable of surmounting every obstacle the Long Trail threw at them. Comments from the caretaker of Mt. Mansfield’s Taft Lodge, where the last night of the hike was spent, included, “Could have smelled better, but what can you expect after nine days?”
While I have done my best here to capture as many aspects of Expedition Camp as I can, it is impossible to describe fully the feeling one gets when one is finally and truly isolated in the wilderness for an extended period of time. Expedition Camp is a little bit Henry David Thoreau and a little bit Ralph Waldo Emerson. From marveling at the raging waters of Allagash Falls, to watching the purple sunset from Mt. Mansfield over Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks beyond, Expedition Camp is simply… well, Xtraordinary.