Stannard, Vt. — On a blustery April day in the Northeast Kingdom, a group of six teenagers with sun-tanned skin, bright eyes and dirty feet are busy inside a small cabin sharpening axes, writing in notebooks, and packing Ball mason jars full of popcorn and cookies. The whir of a sewing machine in a loft above them fills the space.
Meanwhile, at a campsite in a field a quarter-mile away, eight others weave pack baskets out of strips of Ash, nap or prepare lunch.
The 14 students are participants in a 19-week journey on skis, canoes and bikes throughout Vermont. The semester program is organized by Kroka Expeditions, an experiential learning group based in Marlow, N.H.
The group set out the day before Valentine’s Day at Somerset Reservoir skiing into a blizzard, making just five kilometers in whiteout conditions before establishing camp. While the winter was cold, students looked on the bright side: they also had some of the best snow conditions, which made for minimal boot packing.
They skied 412 kilometers north on the Catamount Trail before arriving in Stannard after some 50 days on the trail — and there was still plenty of snow.
While Vermont has contributed the largest number of student participants, the students are a diverse bunch and each has come for a different reason. Finn Mahoney, 16, Tamworth, N.H. has participated in Kroka’s programs since he was 10 and has been looking forward to this semester since hearing about the program from past graduates.
“It’s this ‘vision quest’ that they talked about,” he recalls. “It was this incredibly challenging, but incredibly rewarding experience and I knew from the first time I heard about it that I wanted it in my life.”
Jazmine Moffett Steinke, 18, from Toronto, Ontario, works at an outdoor education organization with younger kids.
“I wanted the adventure,” she says. “I wanted to see how far I could go on my own power.”
When Vermont Sports caught up with them, they were busy resting, repacking and planning for the expedition’s next phase; paddling west on the Lamoille River to Lake Champlain, then turning south to Whitehall, N.Y. The final chapter will be a bike ride east and back to Kroka’s farm later this spring.
A different approach
This is not a light expedition. Students haul packs containing, in addition to their personal gear, a communal tent made of Egyptian cotton, a titanium cooking stove and a full pot set.
For Forest Swanborn, 16, of Shelburne, this new way of traveling and living in the outdoors was a jarring shift away from the backpacking he knew on the Long Trail.
It takes them at least two hours to set up camp and when they’re finished, the tent has a thick pine bough floor, a space for cooking and sleeps all 14 students and their two instructors.
“When camping in the winter, you have to get your tent set up, cook on your little gas stove and you sleep; and then get up and get out in 30 minutes the next morning. In the beginning, it was annoying and monotonous to take two and a half hours to set up camp.”
This style of travel took some getting used to, but by the end of the ski trip, they were rapidly setting up and taking down the campsite in silence, following their motto “fast and relaxed.”
“The difference between this and ultra-light camping is at the end of the day you have a house with a woodstove,” says Swanborn. “You can even take off your down jacket while you cook.”
“For the first month and a half of the semester, none of us had a moment to think because everything was moving so fast and there was so much we had to do,” added Finn Mahoney. “And then after being on the trail, we learned this way of living enough that we could do everything quickly and efficiently because we now know what we have to get done.”
Maja Landowne, 16 of Phoenixville, PA, agrees.
“You have to adapt to it,” she says. “It’s completely different, like moving to another country.”
While the group packs out what they pack in, the group carefully harvests dead wood for fires and uses living trees to support their tent without cutting them down. Students call this a “localized high impact” ethic. They use pine boughs for the floor of the tent and harvest wood for fires and shelters in a manner that aids – not harms – the health of the forest.
“The goal is that when the snow melts, you won’t know we were there,” says Landowne. “A group won’t return to the same site twice.”
An education in the woods
Drawing on the Waldorf style of education, the program emphasizes learning by experience.
• They’ve stitched heavy anoraks to wear over their shells, made sturdy work-knives and created pack baskets made of brown ash.
• They can readily identify over 20 varieties of trees and vegetation and recognize the signs of all manner of animals.
• They can follow a bearing, navigate with topographical maps and immediately find the direction north without a compass.
• Students work on natural history essays based on their observations while on their skis. On breaks between legs of the skiing up north, the group was visited by a math teacher and did exercises in algebra and pre calculus in the snow.
• Students create presentations and skits to share what they’ve learned. They’re also reading about and discussing the Antarctic adventure of Sir Earnest Shackleton.
However, they say the education goes well beyond the intensive tutoring sessions and the variety of outdoor skills they now use on a daily basis. Ultimately, they say, they’ve learned more about themselves and their role within a team.
“It’s an amazing kind of learning and a lot of it comes from within yourself,” says Mahoney. “You’re learning these amazing skills and you’re also learning your limits. In tandem, you’re also getting to know the Vermont landscape and yourself with the same level of intimacy.”