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Head of School's Blog

Occasional musings from Head of School Brad Bates

Sophomore Winter Camping Trip

Sophomore Winter Camping Trip Blog 2024

After twenty-four hours of winter camping, I decided not to ask members of the sophomore class if they had “fun.” We focus so much on young people having fun these days, but this trip was not designed for the class of 2026 to have fun. Instead, I asked people if they were proud of themselves, if they learned anything about themselves or about surviving in the winter, and if they connected with other members of their class. My favorite answer? Aaliyah told me that, “I learned that summer camping is great!” 

The idea to camp on the lowest area of our 500 acre campus came from our faculty. One of our donors to the Journey Campaign, Helmar Nielsen, challenged me to come up with an idea for a gift that centered around students learning about themselves on a deeper level. He gave me a copy of theologian Paul Tillich’s 1952 book The Courage to Be. I found the message of the book fascinating and appreciated how Tillich universalized the feelings of anxiety that permeate modern society. I shared the book with English teacher Liz Peyton-Levine, and she proposed building an elective English class around the concepts in the book. She used part of Mr. Nielsen’s gift to attend a weeklong seminar at the Harvard Divinity School last summer. Her class has been an outstanding success this year.

After talking with Mr. Nielsen, I approached our faculty and asked them to help me put together a proposal for a future gift. Two ideas emerged. First, the faculty wanted to give the students an opportunity to talk about big ideas and how people have been grappling with similar issues and concepts about the meaning and nature of life for millennia. Second, the faculty wanted to create more mandatory experiences in the out of doors away from the distraction of our modern lives. We decided to combine the two and propose that we create spaces and opportunities for deep discussions during short or extended camping trips. Mr. Nielsen loved the idea and gave us an initial gift to work on programming and infrastructure.

I reached out to a terrific local entity, Kroka Expeditions, that specializes in programs like these. Kroka Expeditions believes that “consciousness and altruism can be brought forward through a living relationship with the natural world, and by taking our places within the circle of community.” Kroka trip leader Lindsay Moon provided essential help in designing our experience and making sure it was safe and educational. We started at noon on Saturday in the Outing Club. We outfitted the students with our latest NorthFace gear that was so generously discounted by NorthFace, thanks to a supportive alumni parent. We had cold-weather tents, clothing, and sleeping bags for all of our campers. Lindsay delivered a lesson on how to stay warm and dry during a cold night (it would get down to 10 degrees this night). Georgette Paquette provided us with some delicious chili for the campfire, and a parent sent us with loads of yummy baked goods–we would not go hungry!

Upon arriving at “Camp Nielsen,” we broke up into three groups that would rotate throughout the afternoon. Rebecca from Kroka led her group through a lesson on winter ecology with a focus on how animals keep warm during the winter. Lindsay taught the students how to build fires before showing them how to make “bread on a stick” over their newly constructed fires. My group set up camp and cut wood for the three fires we would need for the evening. Finally, students were given the opportunity to set up their own sites and could choose to sleep under the stars, under a tarp, in our lean-to, in our canvas glamping tent with a wood stove, or in a NorthFace tent. Finn built an impressive shelter right out of the streaming survival show “Alone!”

We spent the evening making and eating dinner, singing songs, and working to stay warm. The beauty of winter camping is that students really listen when you teach them about survival skills! And the cold brings people together around the fire rather than having them dispersed into smaller groups. The biggest bonus was not having phones and screens available. The students were present and focused on one another. They connected as a class and made new bonds and friendships. I asked them to think about their growth this year, and how they hope to grow in their last 100 days as sophomores. I challenged them to let go of something negative they have been holding onto that is causing them stress. We had hoped to do some writing, but it was too cold!

We made it through the night with various degrees of discomfort. The evening was beautiful, with fresh fallen snow and owl sounds filling the air. Occasional laughter could be heard from under tarps and from behind canvas. In the morning, we packed up our gear and had a powerful meeting where we shared gratitude for different things we appreciate in our lives. I am so proud of these students for the great attitude they brought to something that, on the surface, was not all fun. Thank you to Mr. Nielsen and our faculty, Sam Peyton-Levine, Bethann Clauss, Zach Redler, Sasha DuVerlie, and Kate Jagodzinski, who helped at various points throughout the trip.