JACKSON, N.H. — Nine teenage girls stepped off a Nordic trail into thick woods in the White Mountain National Forest. Clad in snowshoes with 30-pound packs on their backs, they came to look for a wilderness campsite for the first of seven nights they’d camp together in early March. The group pulled three sleds full of gear, some weighing 50 pounds. None of them had much camping experience.

This was not your typical Maine high school field trip.

But for Gould Academy – a private school in Bethel with a reputation for grooming Alpine skiers – the annual junior class winter camping trip is part of a graduation requirement, a 40-year tradition, and a powerful lesson in working with others, dealing with stress and meeting challenges head on.

Most students enter the eight-day backcountry wilderness trip with a mix of excitement, trepidation, curiosity and, for some, outright fear. By the end, many admit – while they may never go winter camping again – they wouldn’t have missed the trip, especially during a pandemic that has made life more stressful than ever.

“The night before the trip, I was so scared and so nervous thinking it was going to go badly. I was thinking it would be really cold, and I was scared because I wasn’t sure who was in my group,” said Jelena Perovic, who is from Montenegro in Eastern Europe. “But I had such a good group, they were so positive. That helped make it easier. It was hard going into the woods and learning all those things. But I feel now I can do anything.”

Each year, the junior class of about 50 goes out in groups of eight to 10 with trip leaders who have wilderness skills and wilderness medicine certifications. They travel on snowshoes roughly three to four miles a day, finding campsites along the way. The students are taught to dig fire pits, find wood, build primitive tents, layer to stay warm – and enjoy the whole experience.

“It was working with other people and relying on them for survival in the wilderness when I realized I had leadership potential,” said Tao Smith, Gould’s head of school and a 1990 graduate. “I realized I had the capacity to care for others and to allow the team to support me. Leadership is not just about being at the front of the line. Leadership is about how to get the best out of each other.”

The students are given most of the needed outdoor gear from the Gould gear rooms – including a backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, winter boots, a shell jacket and rain pants. They are required to purchase a dozen smaller items: a camping bowl and cup, a set of synthetic underwear, a warm hat, wind pants and heavy socks, among other things. The gear list is handed out months in advance.

Paige Mull laughs after falling over as classmate Maddie Lindquist offers to help on the first day of Gould Academy’s winter wilderness camping trip. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The students have no cell phones, no radios and no news from the outside world. It’s just their group and the winter elements, and learning to be comfortable with that. On the fifth night, they go out on a solo night to camp by themselves.

The trips protocols were modeled after those used at outdoor skills schools, such as Outdoor Bound, said Chris Hayward, Gould’s director of experiential learning.

“We don’t like to use the word survival,” Hayward said. “They’re well cared for. They’re well fed. But it’s a huge deal to them. What the trip leaders tell the kids is, ‘In the future, when you feel anxious about what you’re doing, when you go to college or start a new job, you will have this experience to call upon.’”

On March 7, a dozen trip leaders and 46 students gathered at the Gould Academy field house to pack the backpacks and sleds that carried the pots, tarps, food and shovels. At the start, the gym floor was strewn with clothing, camping pads, shovels and bags full of food like macaroni and cheese, chicken and tofu, and rice and pasta. Then five small groups climbed into waiting vans that carried them to different wilderness areas – most in the White Mountain National Forest.

The all-girls group drove past the undeveloped forest land that towers over the Androscoggin River just north of Mt. Washington, then headed south to an area outside Jackson, New Hampshire. There, the van left them as they huddled together to look at a map, discuss their route, heave their packs onto their backs and set off on foot.

After an hour of hiking, they stepped off the trail into the deep snow to find a wilderness camping site as they bushwhacked through thick trees. At a small clearing, they stopped for a quick snack, then got to work. Some began to dig a fire pit, while others looked for wood and several learned to tie the knots needed to hold up the tarps. A number had to be shown the bowline, trucker’s hitch and slipknot a few times. They would need to know all of them by the solo night of camping.

Nancy Eaton, one of the trip leaders, said that she’s had frustrated students express their disapproval on the first day of the trip. “And then at the end, (they) thanked me for helping them do this. You don’t know where the transformations will take place.”

Sofia Machado, right, tries to flatten the snow under their tent while Caroline Siekman ties down the tarp as they set up camp on the first day of Gould Academy’s wilderness camping trip on March 7. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Siyi “Christen” Wu of China said the trip took her out of her comfort zone and forced her to learn to take care of basic needs in the woods, like staying warm and cooking food. She was proud of the new skills.

But after the trip, Wu said the greatest benefit was being part of a team of people she didn’t know before the trip. After 15 months of being apart from her family in China because of the pandemic, that experience was reassuring.

“I feel like I’m more independent after this trip. I also realized I have a lot of empathy for others,” Wu said.

For Haley Hessinger of Pittsburgh, sleeping on the hard ground was the biggest challenge. And by the third day, she struggled with sleep deprivation. But by the fifth night, she found the solo camping excursion life-changing.

She went off alone and found a place for her tarp and found firewood. Then she sat in the warmth of the sun and sketched the trees around her. She even took a nap. And at sunset, Hessinger found a view of a mountain where the sun was setting, and sat and watched it go down.

She returned to Gould Academy determined to make hiking and camping part of her lifestyle.

“What did I end up getting out of it? That I knew I’d be OK by myself away from societal pressures – and even in a stressful environment in the woods in winter,” Hessinger said. “I was content and perfectly OK. I can handle myself.”


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