ONE HOT MORNING LAST JULY, I found myself sitting in a yellow school bus with a small army of bleary-eyed high-school students, rumbling toward Cleary Lake Regional Park for an overnight “urban wilderness adventure.” We hadn’t gotten to the adventure part yet, so the students were wearing the sort of jaded expressions that D. H. Lawrence once called the “know-it-all state of mind,” that half-awake teenage leer that suggests a mood somewhere between contempt and disdain.
The kids were from South, Southwest, Roosevelt, Washburn, and North high schools, and were part of a summer “Credit Recovery Program” (what we used to call summer school) sponsored by Wilderness Inquiry, the Mississippi River Fund, and the Minneapolis Public Schools. Credits aside, the purpose of these trips is to give urban youth a chance to experience nature and, with any luck, whet their appetite for activities that don’t require an Xbox and a speedy Internet connection.
When the bus huffed to a stop in the park, the students stood, yawned, and stretched, then spilled out across the verdant green campsite, swinging their backpacks or dragging enormous duffels and roller bags. They dumped their luggage in a heap, simultaneously shedding their droopy attitudes. A football arced through the thick air, and the students began to shout, giggle, tumble, and goof around as they pawed through piles of sleeping bags and mats. Four Wilderness Inquiry guides sorted the students into groups of three, allowing friends to cluster, then sent them off to assemble their tents. “Boys on this side of the campfire ring, girls over there.”
The guides let the students fumble with tent poles and zippers, and stepped in only when asked. Soon, nylon shelters were popping up across the green, forming a small village of colorful domes.
MORE THAN A FIELD TRIP
Under the direction of Sarah Oppelt, the trip leader, we all gathered to hold hands in an introductory game that involved catching our neighbor’s middle finger. We each went around shouting our names and our favorite band. Rihanna, Adam Lambert, Big Sean, and Kid Cudi reigned; the Rolling Stones did not. Then came the rules. Respect preceded every instruction: Respect oneself, respect the environment, respect each other.
Within minutes the students were swimming in Cleary Lake. Their hard stares had vanished, and the clumps of friends that had first huddled together, reluctant to mingle, now gleefully dispersed across the beach. The subsequent learning activities, meals, reflections, and s’mores were carefully calibrated to provide a blend of action and downtime. Prior to the trip, the staff discussed preparatory concerns—everything from meals, drug-abuse issues, and medical emergencies—and had created a plan to address them all.
These overnight camping excursions are much more than a field trip or “fresh air” experience. The students also earn credits for classes in math, science, English, social studies, and health. It is technically “school,” after all, so there are expectations that the students will do more than simply have fun.