Nine middle-schoolers and the “storm of the century!” Sounds like a disaster movie tag-line, no? But instead of disaster, our recent backpacking trip with Arbor Montessori students was a rousing success.
These seven young men and two young women were at ease in the woods, despite this being almost everyone’s first true backpacking trip. Though they were laden down with gear, food, and water, they rocketed down the trail together (forcing their teacher and two guides to hustle to keep up), completing the first three miles of their adventure in only an hour. Tents were set up and firewood was collected almost as efficiently. Though we needed to teach them how to adjust their packs, purify water, hang ropes from trees (to hold our food bags at night), and cook backcountry meals, every moment of this trip was a joy – from sitting around a warm campfire to kneeling in mud during a torrential rainstorm.
Arbor Montessori has an excellent outdoors program run by Mark Warren at Medicine Bow that serves their elementary grades, so most of these middle school students have experience camping, building fires, identifying plants, and hiking. One young man remarked that backpacking is the natural extension of the adventures they had at Medicine Bow. I couldn’t agree more, and look forward to more trips with graduates of Medicine Bow.
Driving through Grundy County, Tennessee on the way to Savage Gulf, we smiled at the colorful names of their candidates for elected office: Hubert Dewayne “Turkey” Hargis, Ladue “Boo” Bouldin, and Phillip “Rabbit” Stevens. Upon arriving at the Stone Door Ranger Station, the ranger on duty told us to be careful of flash floods. Though we took his advice to heart, as we asked him more questions, we found out that flash floods are really only dangerous for rangers who drive trucks around the park and do little hiking. So, with this ominous but confusing advice, we embarked on our 3-day backpacking trip into the Savage Gulf Natural Area.
With mild temperatures and beautiful terrain, everyone’s spirits were up as we ate red beans & rice burritos for dinner and roasted marshmallows for s’mores in the evening. The evening was so relaxed, I was surprised to see it was midnight when I finally glanced at my watch before bed. At least this was a group of teens who would sleep in the next morning…I thought.
At 5:30 am the boys awoke and began wrestling in their tent. By 6:30 we were all out of our tents and packing up, still in high spirits. Rising early meant we had more time to complete our 7-mile hike to Saw Mill campsite, and we were able to pack up dry tents, despite the thunder beginning to sound in the distance.
To my surprise, the students chose to hike the Rim Trail for views rather than the Gulf Trail for waterfalls. We got to pause at several panoramic overlooks before arriving at the most impressive cliffs above Stone Door (a fissure in the rock cliffs containing 140 steps from top to bottom). Though drizzle had begun, we were able to take a snack break and stare at the view in front of us before hiking down stone door and into the canyon.
I had promised the students “swimming” at Laurel Creek. Every year I’ve done this hike, Laurel Creek has been a cascade of waterfalls, whirlpools, and deep pools. But today, it was empty. Bone dry. In fact, we ate on the creek bed and the boys began their series of faked “dangerous” photos (see photo to the left).
After lunch, the next creek was dry. And the next. And even Big Creek was dry at the base of the canyon. I began to worry that Schwoon Spring, our water source at Saw Mill campsite, would be dry. Luckily, it was flowing heartily. All of the water from the surrounding plateau flows into the canyon, but in dry weather it stays below ground, save for a couple springs and sinks (such as Schwoon) that flow year round.
Our group spent a couple hours at the spring (which is truly a small river flowing out of a cave and dropping into a deep sink (another cave). We collected water, dunked our heads in the water, and crawled on our bellies through sticky mud in a cave to have a underside view of the waterfall where Schwoon Spring falls into the sinkhole.
Returning to camp, we began cooking dinner under the tarp while a few students went with the other guide, Catie, to hang rope in trees for our food bags. And that’s when the sky opened up. Though we only caught the far corner of the “storm of the century” that flooded Nashville, I can truthfully say that I’ve never seen so much water come from the sky in such a short period of time. Though our heads were dry, water began flowing on the ground underneath our tarp, until we had a river of mud and rainwater at our feet.
After 45 minutes of kneeling in the mud, our chefs for the night had dinner ready. Then the rope-hangers returned – with big grins! They had the best adventure, trying to throw rope up in trees in pouring rain. Soaked to the bone, they changed clothes and then joined the rest of the group for a warming meal of Backcountry Shepherd’s Pie.
Laurel Creek Before & After the Rainstorm:
I was very impressed at how relaxed all the students were in the storm. One young woman just put on her rain pants and plopped down in the water and mud and continued to chop carrots. Another put on dry clothes in his tent, but then put the wet ones back on and came back out in the rain!
Everyone stayed dry in their tents overnight and on our last day in the woods, Savage Gulf had been transformed. Big Creek was flowing with 2 feet of water. Laurel Creek now contained waterfalls, cascades, and eddies. It was quite amazing to see how much water filled the canyon after a rainstorm. Though our big joy was getting to hike with this group of students, we were very lucky to see Savage Gulf in both its dry and wet iterations.
As we walked up the steps of Stone Door, many of the students wished they could stay longer. Though I was tired and ready for a shower, I shared the sentiment of wanting to visit Savage Gulf again and again with this group of teens.
I truly look forward to the next Arbor Middle School Backpacking Trip and am disappointed the graduating 8th graders will not be able to join us next year. Congratulations on graduation!