Students sharpen their survival skills on a 14-day adventure in the Adirondacks
As the group pulls away from the trail, the dense vegetation of the Canadian West Lakes wilderness closes in behind them, as soft and final as giant hands. Eight hikers enter an intricate dance of being lost – and barely found. Hunched under full sacks, speaking little, they embark on a journey whose outcome is as dark and mundane as the wetlands ahead, and one thing is perfectly clear: they will not return the way they came.
Welcome to the SUNY Potsdam Wilderness Education program and the crown jewel of five months of preparation – a 14-day slog through one of the largest wilderness areas in the Adirondack Mountains.
The journey promises unparalleled beauty and raw, tactile encounters with nature. It’s about surviving, planning and watching plans fall apart, figuring out how to get to the next location, and taking minimal mosquitoes to bed at night.
Call it a boot camp for tomorrow’s leaders. Students in SUNY Potsdam’s Wilderness Leadership track must show they can apply what they learn on campus to real-world settings, and these annual late-summer trips are bolstered by skills in ice climbing and winter expedition. The program offers a minor degree designed to train field instructors in the areas of outdoor recreation, environmental education, guiding, challenge programs, and therapeutic work with at-risk youth.
Each of the eight participants will be thoroughly tested. When the forest canopy closes in and the landmarks disappear, they grope for a map and compass and try to determine their location. They must understand how to navigate a swamp and avoid terrain that poses too high a risk of fractures. They find their way to drinking water, clean it with iodine, take a break at a predetermined time and carefully bury human waste.
Hoisting loaded bundles, they continue. Faced with the blank slate of the forest, the individual charged with leadership for the day synthesizes a host of different options for moving through the woods, balancing logic against the occasional impulse of panic, and trying to determine the degree of risk of getting to the next stop. Student Riley Notarthomas describes the logic, emotion and pressure of leadership thus:
“The mental challenge is that you not only face the same difficulties as everyone else, but that you are in the lead. You are the one making the calls. You have to be one step ahead of everything. You have to so put aside your personal discomforts. When dealing with the stress of juggling tasks, it can be easy to overthink and get frustrated. You need to be humble enough to let your followers help you out when you need them. Sometimes , it’s best to let others make the decision – that’s actually good situational leadership. You need to have respect for your followers, and you want them to respect you and trust you. This requires trust , focus, a cool head and a positive attitude – qualities that can be very hard to come by after a long day in the woods, when things are going south and we should be going north.
Risk – a small word with a huge meaning. How students determine its base in reality versus mere perception and how they proceed from there is central to the journey. It is not easy to disentangle real risk from innate human fear. The process of obtaining the necessary clarity – enhanced by the natural elements – not only helps shape leaders; it also contains lessons that students can apply across the spectrum of their experiences.
“A real risk can be crossing a fast river at waist height with a 50-pound pack on your back,” says Adam Wheeler, SUNY Potsdam’s wilderness education coordinator, who is overseeing the trip. “A perceived risk could involve climbing a steep rock face while being secured on a secure rope system. The risk is in the eye of the beholder. An individual’s perception of this risk may either be an experience that creates extreme panic and fear, or create an increased sense of discomfort which, when addressed correctly, leads to personal growth.
As daylight wanes, tents pop up and cooks come out. Hikers ignore the pain in their muscles. The reward of the day shines in the background – the surface of a lake, distant and timeless, reflecting a smoky sunset. The group hoists their food up the trees in hopes of deterring a nighttime bear visit. They form a circle and it’s time for the debriefing.
The day’s events, leaders and followers go under the microscope. Everyone has to put up with it, and the criticism lands firmly and honestly. No feeling is spared.
“Instructors are very judgmental and encourage honest feedback from the leader, so they can improve the second time around,” Notarthomas says. “Each learns from and challenges each other, helping us assess our strengths and weaknesses as individuals so we can better communicate and cooperate as a group.”
Notarthomas has been burning for months to take up this challenge. Like other students and most of the country for that matter, COVID-19 has had him feeling cloistered since the spring, a little sick from the streaming electrons of a computer screen, and tired of living by proxy, “lacking much adventure or physical interaction.”
The journey began five months ago, where all these adventures begin – the SUNY campus in Potsdam. The group spent days planning routes and options, measuring risks and developing contingency plans for everything from broken bones to the sudden onset of a high fever. The desert is a terrible place to get sick.
This year, Covid-19 presents its own challenges and lessons, and the group builds a scenario for dealing with the disease, should it strike. They are quarantined and tested negative for the virus just before the trip, but are determined to act as if they could contract the disease from each other at any time. They practice social distancing and increased hygiene, refrain from sharing food, and sleep in capsules that expose them to the same person throughout the journey.
With teamwork at the forefront and egos tucked away in a small backpack pocket, the group goes deeper into the wilderness. Like cramped fingers that have been held too long in a fist, their senses slowly unfold. The buzz of nervous thought fades away, replaced by the sound of birds and the feel of rough, solid earth. Group members begin to feel more connected to the ground and to each other.
Many have returned from these trips feeling that the trip changed their lives in a fundamental way. Mike Yuhnke was adrift academically before transferring to SUNY Potsdam and began taking all of the wilderness education electives offered by the college. In the years following his graduation in 2012, he would climb high peaks in Central Asia and South Americacycle across the United States and lead troubled youth on expansive 64-day journeys through Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, where groups would delve into negative behaviors and forge new ways of dealing with the world.
“I owe the program a lot and I give Adam Wheeler a lot of credit,” Yuhnke said recently. “He spends a lot of time one-on-one with his students in the classroom and in the field, pushing their skills and challenging them to think pragmatically and grow. As a result, he produces many high caliber professionals who go the world and excel in everything they do.
Wheeler’s party covers 65 miles by the time they finish, entering Moose River Plains near Inlet, NY traveling south to resupply their food in Piseco, NY, then heading north. Because they spend the majority of the trip bushwhacking away from the trails, they pass through unfettered wilderness that few will ever see.
Despite the pressures of leadership and survival and the fact that two weeks in the woods is no joke, Notarthomas is able to experience a much-needed escape and even completely obliterate the outside world, if only temporarily.
“In 2020, there are just too many things to worry about,” he concludes. “The outdoors in general offers this timeless escape from society, with a sense of solace in the natural world. We are grateful to share such a real experience with each other.