A Q&A with Boundary Waters Volunteer, Erik Fahnestock
“Experiences in wilderness provide kids with the knowledge to go through life with an open eye for curiosity, to learn as much as possible, and to explore the world around them from their own experience and other’s experiences.”
Erik Fahnestock, BWCA Volunteer
(pictured above in blue)
Every year, Project SUCCESS takes several groups of students out on seven day adventures into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The BWCA experience takes everything students learn and practice in Project SUCCESS’ in-class workshops at their school, and condenses it into a seven day summer experience. Students are given the opportunity to not only explore and experience nature in a way like no other, but also to explore themselves, their confidence, and their growing senses of independence as individuals.
With the support of volunteers from Project SUCCESS as well as guides from the BWCA, each group of students completed routes that they themselves worked together to design. Erik Fahnestock has a strong connection to the Project SUCCESS family, and we were fortunate enough to have him volunteer with us this past summer as one of the chaperones who assisted students on their trip through the BWCA. Here are a few of his biggest takeaways from the trip, recorded in an interview with Project SUCCESS’ Communications Manager, Amy Stubblefield Barthel.
Tell us about your trip! Have you ever done a trip like this one?
I had a coed group of campers, ranging from ages 12 to 15, and two guides - Sam and Camille.
It was an experience I’ve never had! I’ve never co-led a trip before so that was more fun than I expected. I was worrying about students forming cliques and potentially excluding people, but we had a great group of kids who all did a great job of including each other and having a lot of fun together.
I grew up as a camper, going to YMCA Camp Widjiwagan. I worked with them for a couple of years doing an outdoor weekend getaway experience, taking kids up from different parts of the state to the western half of the Boundary Waters.
For me, I've always worked with kids. That's kind of what drew me to this, I've always valued working with kids. I like working with middle schoolers and high schoolers because they've got ideas in their head and they need to figure out how to process them and it’s a lot of fun to help them do that.
How was your experience with Project SUCCESS different than any other kind of youth or outdoor experience you’ve done before?
The "get out in the woods and go" aspect. We didn't have a lot of time before the trip to bond, but because of that, we were "on it" really quickly because we just had each other and we knew what we were getting into, and that made it a lot more engaging to get the kids up and ready to go.
Did you get the sense that kids in your group had ever had an experience like this before?
Most of them had done some type of very simple camping with mom or dad, but never been on trail before. So getting the kids to really engage with the prospect of "let's plan a route, let's look at what we're going to do for the next few days" -- looking at what are things and places we can go do, how challenging do we want this to be -- was a lot of fun.
Are there any individual students or stories that impacted you?
We had one camper who was a very, very smart individual who wanted to challenge himself, but was hesitant to and seeing him open up and challenge himself definitely was impressive to watch.
Each camper blossomed in their own way to find themselves on this trip and I think an experience like that is so beneficial to kids, to make them see who they really are and how they relate to the world around them. They can explore identity and understanding of who they are and what they can do and what they can accomplish on a trip like this without having any restrictions. It’s a lot of fun to watch kids grow and challenge themselves.
Did anything surprise you about your experience?
The kids got along so well. Having worked in camps like this, I've seen kids “clique-off” and get really group-centric. I think because our guides, Sam and Camille, and I were all so silly and open with ourselves that the kids were able to be really silly and goofy as well.
Were your students sad to leave?
I had two campers who were mourning leaving. The second to last night, we had two campers who were staring to bum out pretty hard and they wanted to go be by themselves and wanted to go do their own thing. And yes, some of our kids have tougher backgrounds where this trip was an escape route, just to totally check out. But I think because of the personality and the environment that we created they felt safe enough that a counselor could go over and talk to them. I was there for the emotional support to ask them how they’re feeling in those moments. I’d talk a little bit about something fun that happened that day, and eventually they’d relax and open up. They’re scared of leaving. They really cared about the Boundary Waters, and they didn’t want to go home yet.
Why is it important from your perspective that kids have an experience like this?
Experiences in the wilderness provide kids with the knowledge to go through life with an open eye for curiosity, to learn as much as possible, and to explore the world around them from their own experience and other’s experiences. And to tune into each other and to really learn from one another while in the wilderness really provides deep intellectual stimulation. Kids who get to have wilderness experiences are more often kids who are excited to see and change the world. Because they have that leadership, they have those skills, and they have that knowledge to really challenge themselves.
And I think challenging themselves is the biggest thing, because with that chaos of the wilderness you also get humility, and you get serenity, and you get calm and you get peaceful. Bubbles, one of the students, woke up with me the last morning and we watched the sunrise together. He'd been a very talkative kid the whole trip and he was quiet for a good 45 minutes, just watching the world around him. And I was like, "You get this. You see the importance of this experience."