Outdoor semester on the Catamount Trail
March 13, 3008
By Greg Duggan
Last Monday night, a school night, nearly a dozen teens sat on the floor of a yurt at On the Loose Expeditions in Huntington, chowing on beans, rice, cabbage, salad and chicken as wind slapped at the canvas walls.
The youths had no intention of taking the bus to school the next morning, or catching a ride with a friend. Instead, they would sleep in the bunks of the yurt — a circular, domed tent — rise before the sun, cook breakfast and begin cross country skiing towards Bolton.
For the past two months the teens had slept in other yurts, a tent or snow caves — snow coffins, the teens called them, because of the shape — turning the forests, mountains and lakes of Vermont and New Hampshire into their classroom.
The 10 students, a teacher and two assistant teachers are cross country skiing along the Catamount Trail, which runs 300 miles from Massachusetts to Canada, and earning high school credit during the trip. Organized by Kroka Expeditions, a self-described “Earth Living Skills School,” the New Hampshire – Vermont Semester: A 600 Mile Journey By Ski and Canoe introduces students to education unavailable in a traditional school.
Once the teens have skied the length of Vermont, they’ll hunker down at the NorthWoods Stewardship Center in East Charleston for a few weeks respite from the nomadic life. But come April, they’ll take to canoes and continue their journey by paddling down the Connecticut River.
“My mom found out about it. She told me about it. I was in a transition between schools and needed something to do,” Eric Hall Reindel, a Williston resident, explained after finishing his meal in the yurt. “I hopped on the bandwagon.”
Hall Reindel plans to return to the Lake Champlain Waldorf School for his senior year in the fall. But for the second half of his junior year, the Vermont Semester made sense. “Eric was needing a break from a traditional classroom,” said his mother, Addie Hall. “He’s a dyslexic student. He’s not a candidate for foreign exchange, because he doesn’t study a foreign language.”
After a trial weekend at Kroka’s base camp in Marlow, N.H., Hall Reindel was sold on spending more than five months in the woods.
“This is a stretch for him. He likes to snowboard, play soccer, but he’s not a diehard outdoors kid, and we’re not a camping family,” Hall said. “To go from zero to winter camping was a big leap for him. I think this is really stretching him.”
Taylor Schultz of Portland, Ore. uses flame to
build her own spoon during Kroka's
The learning experience
Since the semester began with almost a month spent in Marlow while getting ready for the trip, Hall Reindel and his fellow students said they’ve been learning how to survive while living close to nature. Before they even left on the trip, they carved spoons and knife handles, slaughtered a pig and butchered a deer for food.
“It’s really basic essential living skills,” said Jesse Cottingham, a student from western Maine.
On the trail, under the guidance of teacher Chris Knapp, students learn biology by studying local plants and animals, and meteorology by tracking the weather. They keep journals for sketches and daily observations.
“There’s a set curriculum, but of course it’s somewhat flexible depending on what they encounter,” said Lisl Hoffer, the semester programs coordinator for Kroka.
More formal lessons come when guest teachers drop in to give classes on drawing, the environment and ecological history of the region.
And as one student said in the yurt, “I think a lot of the learning is not going to happen until we’re home.”
The students admitted that it hasn’t always been an easy, or enjoyable, experience to live so closely within a small group, or to spend long days slogging through rain and snow while carrying heavy backpacks and trying to balance on skinny cross country skis.
“It ebbs and flows like a tide,” Cottingham said of how much he enjoys the trip. “We’re coming together from so many walks of life, learning to be a close family. It takes lot of getting used to. I wouldn’t have necessarily bumped into all you guys walking around, so it’s cool this brought us together.”
As another student said, “Anything worthwhile takes a lot of work.”
For all the challenges the trip has brought, it has also left the students with striking memories, like hiking Mount Abe in 10 inches of fresh powder.
“Stunning,” Celeste Beyer of Montpelier said of the hike up one of the state’s 4,000-foot peaks.
Other students enjoyed building and then spending a night in a snow cave. Others have simply relished the tranquility of nature.
“The silence is pretty amazing sometimes,” said Solina Rulfs of Rockland County, N.Y.
She and her classmates still have plenty of time left to enjoy the wilderness. After leaving On the Loose, the group planned to head to the cross country trails of Bolton, and then to Green River Reservoir in Morrisville. Hoffer said the group expects to reach NorthWoods around March 27.
After a few days of rest, the students will begin preparing for the water portion of the trip by making paddles and building a large canoe that can hold up to seven people.
By late May, the group will return to Marlow. The students graduate from the semester on June 14.
Asked if the outdoor semester beats sitting in a school classroom, the students had an array of responses: “They’re totally different;” “way better;” and “I don’t think you can compare them.”
Said Beyer, “You learn to play while you work.”
The current Vermont Semester costs $12,000, and next year’s tuition will jump to $13,000, though Hoffer said Kroka has scholarships available. The organization also offers a fall semester in Ecuador. More information is available online at www.kroka.org.