Monday, June 8, 2009

First Time Outdoors Students Visit the Gates of Narnia

Introduction from John:
As a parent, it's always gratifying to see your kids "give something back". Our son Matt and his wife Rebecca just finished their first year teaching high school in Opelousas. To culminate the year, they gave 8 students the trip of a lifetime. Four days and three night floating the Buffalo National River in Arkansas was the backdrop to an amazing experience for this group of kids. These students had no canoeing, camping or other real outdoor experience before this trip. Matt is my "guest blogger" for this email. I think you'll enjoy experiencing the river through this blog entry.

First Time Outdoors Students Visit the Gates of Narnia

My wife Rebecca and I have been teaching high school at the Magnet Academy for Cultural Arts in Opelousas, LA for the past year and all of our hard work finally paid off with the opportunity to take eight of our students on the Buffalo River in Arkansas. It was their first real outdoor experience and well worth the work we put into it. We spent four days and three nights on the river, and they experienced many of the joys and miseries that make the outdoor experience so special. They slept on the ground, ate food off of rocks, made s’mores (a first for several), paddled until they got blisters, swamped canoes, rescued their swamped canoes, skipped rocks, hiked in their rain gear, jumped off of rocks, swung from ropes, and visited “Narnia”.

Our trip began with the obstacle of finding enough decent gear for eight first time campers. Rebecca and I sent emails and made calls to all of our friends who we thought might have gear to borrow. We had lists of who offered what and who needed what. It was really a big mess to try and figure out. Luckily, my parents have tons of leftover gear from an adventure crew they used to lead, and Rebecca’s brother Loren also had a lot for his group of students at Hope for Opelousas. Before we even left for the trip we had spent many many hours working with organization, planning, and gear.

When we finally got on our way we were definitely ready for a vacation. The river was spectacular, the first two days provided crystal clear water and beautiful warm weather. With all of the trials trying to get eight students onto the Buffalo we were not able to start our first day’s paddle until 5:00 and still had several miles to paddle. By the time we got to camp everyone was tired and hungry. We collected an enormous amount of fire wood and burned it all up to have a bed of coals on which we cooked our first meal. We made pizza inside of pita pockets and cooked them in foil packets. The kids were so hungry they were using rocks as spoons to eat the extra piazza sauce from the can. We then played music, made s’mores, and hung out around the fire. From there it was straight to bed.

Our second day was much more relaxed, we were able to pull out art supplies and skip rocks. Somehow it is just more fun to draw on each other than on paper, oh well. For the students, one of the very frightening things about spending several days away from modern amenities was going to the bathroom. The students coined the term visiting “Narnia”, and in order to insure privacy they went in groups and left several brave friends at “the gates of Narnia”. For each of the challenges of life in the woods they were able to come up with their own unique way of coping.

On the morning of the third day we planed to hike from our camp to a knife edge ridge (a narrow ridge about the width of a sidewalk with cliffs on either side). We woke up to dreary, drizzly weather and contemplated skipping the hike, but it is always the somewhat miserable experiences that you remember the most, so we had them all put on their rain gear and get ready for the hike. To begin you have to walk quite a ways through waist high grass then along a dirt road. We then climbed from the road up the side of a hill and onto the ridge. As it was still rainy most of the kids were not up for walking across. Two of them did though; it really is scary especially in the rain. Afterward when we asked them if they were sacred they said “No you wouldn’t have let us do it if it was dangerous.” It’s a little disconcerting to have that kind of trust from someone.

When we got back from the hike we packed for our longest day of paddling. The weather in the morning was beautiful and we were able to jump off of several rocks into the river and do a couple of rope swings. It was really a fantastic day for a while. After lunch we had an experience which really made the trip memorable. There was a bend in the river where the entire flow passes through a fallen tree. When approaching it you can tell that it will be bad but as hard as you can paddle to get away from it the current is strong enough to overcome. It swept all five of our boats into the tree and flipped three of them, we had gear everywhere, three boats floating down the river and six people trying to swim to shore. By the end of it we were able to recover almost all of the equipment, but everything and everyone was soaking wet, even our dry boxes containing our sleeping pads, stove and cooking equipment, and tents were sloshing with water. To make matters worse it started raining; but even this could not dampen our students' spirits. One of our students confessed, “I wouldn’t want to do it again but it was really exciting.” We finished the last several miles and set up our wet equipment on a wet, sandy gravel bar in the rain then we settled in for our last night. In order to stay warm we had to get everyone dry, so we all sat facing one direction and let the kids dry off and change in the back of the tarp. Finally once everyone was in dry cloths the rain stopped and we cooked our last meal. Needless to say we were all exhausted and we made it an early night.

We woke up early on the last morning and paddled out 9 miles in the rain to Gilbert. We all changed into car cloths and headed to a restaurant for an early lunch. Even after a real difficult last day and a half, all of the kids were in high spirits. Many said it was the best senior trip they could imagine and all hoped to have more opportunities to do things in the outdoors in the future.

When we returned home at 9:30 p.m. Rebecca and I laid out all of the equipment in our garage to dry. Then headed to bed after deciding to deal with the mess in the morning!
We would like to give a special thanks to Pack & Paddle, John and Becky Williams, Donna and Nathan Carriere, Loren Carriere and Hope for Opelousas, Wes and Kris Franciol, Jason and Jenny Cohen, Ashley Carriere, Jamie Gondron, Jessica Howell, and all of the parents. Without your help our trip and this amazing experience for our students would not have been possible.