Camping is back at CA! After a lengthy absence from off-campus experiential learning due to COVID-19, Colorado Academy Middle School Principal Bill Wolf-Tinsman was ready to take all precautions necessary to bring back the Eighth Grade backpacking trip. This late-September adventure has been a capstone tradition for Eighth Graders as they kick off their final year of Middle School.
For three days and two nights, students retreat into the wilderness, carrying supplies on their backs, cooking on camp stoves, and sleeping in tents miles from civilization. The experience helps build leadership and social skills and creates new bonds among classmates as they approach Upper School.
Working with vendor Kent Mountain Adventure Center, a long-time CA partner, the students are divided into seven patrols and bused to various locations within or near Rocky Mountain National Park. The trip kicks off with a “patrol circle”—the moment that students find out who will be in their group, who their KMAC leaders are, and who their faculty team member will be. This information is intentionally kept a mystery from students until right before departure.
“There is always a lot of excitement,” says Wolf-Tinsman. “Starting off this way is kind of like opening a birthday present; it begins the trip with a wonderful energy, while giving students the chance to show off their flexibility and resiliency muscles.”
“One of our goals for the trip is to give the kids the chance to rediscover each other in a new setting,” he says. “Sometimes by Eighth Grade, students have settled into a friend group. Having the chance to be on a trip with some students who may not be on your shortlist reopens these circles and creates the opportunity for new friendships to form.”
Students agree that the approach works.
“I was surprised at how easily our group connected,” says Hannah Smith. “I was worried going into the trip that I wasn’t going to have a ‘good group’ or any friends in my group, but after I got to camp, my whole group just bonded immediately.”
The remote setting, required teamwork, and strenuous time on the trail allowed Natalie Gottlieb to become closer with students in her patrol. “People act differently when they are away from their friends,” she says, “and hiking is a great way to get to know them better.”
Jackson Roads agrees. “I did not expect how fun it would be to be in a group where I didn’t know almost anyone well. We got along surprisingly well.”
And by being a helpful, contributing member of the team—with classmates outside their regular friend circles—students had opportunities to present themselves in a new light.
“I learned my classmates are very good at working together,” says Hannah. “During the trip, there were many times for people not to step up and help others, but in my group they really did. Whether it was helping lift packs on each other’s backs, washing dishes, or collecting water and purifying it.”
Another goal of the trip is to push students and challenge them in a variety of ways—physically, mentally, and socially—allowing them to lean in and find new strength in themselves.
That included a demanding hike on the second day.
“Our Day 2 hike was 10 miles round trip,” says Sara Monterroso, Middle School Spanish teacher. “I saw several students who were tired, but they found ways to stay cheerful, played games on the trail to stay engaged, poked a little fun at their tiredness, and shared snacks with each other. I saw students who felt a little scared of heights push themselves to scramble up some boulders to enjoy the view and share a mountain birthday treat with the group. And I even saw students push through very real physical challenges—asthma, a turned ankle—to reach our goals.”
With struggle comes reward, adds Forbes Cone, CA’s Director of Experiential Education. “My hope is that students gain an appreciation for simply living away from the comforts of home, as well as gain a sense of accomplishment for persevering through something challenging and uncomfortable.”
In Cone’s group, one student was having a difficult time reaching the summit of Mt. St. Vrain, but plodded slowly— step-by-step—to the top. His feeling of accomplishment was obvious—he wasn’t sure he could make it, but ultimately persevered. And his classmates were there to cheer him on.
“Everyone was so nice and supportive when we were struggling,” says Mara Harris.
During down time, students played games, practiced their Spanish and French, and observed Colorado’s stunning landscapes.
“It was interesting to me that one of the biggest challenges for my group was to actually get them to slow down and take in the beauty of their surroundings,” says Monterroso. “Students can be so goal oriented that it’s easy for them to forget that the journey itself is the goal.”
Mr. Wolf-Tinsman is delighted with the experience and the students’ reaction. “The kids were eager to be together, the weather was fantastic, the scenery was amazing,” he says.
“The most challenging part for me was leaving,” says Hannah. “I had so much fun on the trip, and I didn’t want it to end.”