This year, we’re leading two overnight trips with the students in the High Adventure Club at Kingfisher Academy. Usually, we design Kingfisher camping trips around a campsite that is no more than a half mile from the bus. But since we’ve been working with Kingfisher for more than a year, we decided to plan a backpacking trip this year.
As usual, during the week before the trip, we helped the students pack their clothes and other gear into backpacks. I was excited to see the students who had experience on last year’s camping trips teach the new students. “We put all of our clothes in plastic bags to protect them from the rain.” “It’s best to strap your sleeping pad to the bottom of the pack.” “Using a headlamp is a ton easier than a flashlight.” This was the easiest pre-trip experience I’ve had at Kingfisher Academy, thanks to the students!
Unfortunately, when Sarah (the second Sure Foot guide for this trip) and I arrived at school on Monday morning, we found out that one student was sick and another couldn’t go on the trip because of her grades (report cards had come out on previous Friday). With sadness for the loss of these two participants, but excitement because of the great weather forecasted for our trip, we loaded gear onto the bus and set out for the Panther Creek Falls trailhead.
Prior to this trip, we did have some experience backpacking with a group of Kingfisher Students. Last year, one of our groups of Kingfisher campers chose to backpack to a campsite one mile further down the trail rather than stopping at the one we planned to camp at. But only one of those students was still at the school this year. So I really didn’t know what to expect from this group.
But I knew the hike would be difficult: the Panther Creek Falls trail is rugged and has a few significant uphills. Plus this group of students are young (some as young as 10 years old) and still learning how to behave in the woods. But this was the perfect trip to try something more difficult. Since no rain was predicted for our trip and the temperatures were to be mild, a difficult hike wouldn’t destroy morale. Instead, it could challenge the students to learn more about their abilities and grow their self-confidence.
When we arrived at the trailhead, the kids all hoisted their backpacks and set out at a fast clip. They were on the trail so quickly that I had to corral them for a group photo a quarter of a mile down the trail. One young man was so energetic and excited about the hike that he asked if he could walk (with his pack) forward and back on the trail while everyone else rested.
Fatigue set in quickly and the pace slowed. After a downhill, one student stumbled and twisted his ankle. So, a little more than an hour into the trip, I was already using an ACE bandage. Luckily, this mishap happened less than 100 yards from our campsite, and it’s amazing what lunch and rest can do for an ankle. But early afternoon, everyone in our group was back up on their feet, tents pitched, bellies full, and off on a day hike to Panther Creek Falls.
The Panther Creek Trail is special because, as you near the falls, the trail climbs up onto the cliffs above the creek and winds through beautiful and rocky passages above the water. Trail crews have built cable railings to add safety to the route, but the hike still feels adventurous. Unfortunately, a little too adventurous for some of our campers. While Sarah went ahead with one
group (surprisingly, the younger students) who flew down the trail, I stayed in the back with a group of kids who clung to the rocks and cables as if every step was towards doom. On many of our other day hikes and outdoors activities over the last two years, these students have been more than capable and often excelled. But today, their confidence was low. There’s definitely a different feel to a hike when you begin at a primitive campsite as opposed to when you begin and end at your vehicle?
Despite the trepidation and slow pace, we soon arrived at the waterfall – one of my favorite in all of Georgia. I still have yet to come here in the summertime, but the pool under the falls looks excellent for swimming. This time, we only waded in the chilly water, exploring the falls and then quickly going back to shore to bring our numb feet back to life.
The walk back to camp tired us all out – for good reason. We had walked 6 miles! But I told stories and as usual, a good story acts as a tether, pulling hikers down the trail.
That evening, though it was cold, the students collected firewood, cooked dinner, made s’mores, and completed all of our camp tasks. Compared to our first night on Cumberland Island last year (where we had the privilege of running water and bathrooms), this evening was a cinch. The students knew what had to happen before bed and got it all done efficiently.
The next morning, we awoke to golden sunlight streaming through the trees. We spent the morning searching for geocaches hidden nearby and removing a large human-built campfire structure. This was the largest “service project” Sure Foot has ever done. Our goal was to reduce the human impact on an already high-use campsite by removing the rock structure that draws so many campers to this area. Here are the “before” and “after” photos:
Overall, the beauty of this trip was in watching kids who do not have a great deal of wilderness experience gain more and more confidence. I usually believe I’m being an activist by teaching people to be conservationists. And though I believe many of these students will continue to care for their environment and spend time in the outdoors, my biggest hope for this trip is that it influences these kids to be confident adults – in no matter what activity they do.
I don’t think the students realize what a symbolic act we accomplished on this trip: we each put everything we needed to survive (and even thrive) on our backs and walked away from civilization, only to create a small home in the woods, live without walls, running water, or electricity, and emerge from the experience successful!
This is how Sure Foot Adventures facilitates personal transformation. Sarah and I did not deliver drastically different kids home to their parents on Tuesday evening, but a backpacking experience cannot help but shift them internally. I am thankful have shared this time with such good kids.