It was the height of summer, 2013, and nine boys showed up to the yurt at Songaia to answer the call of the spirit of the wilderness: a call to testing and challenge, a call to listen more deeply to nature within and without, a call to live a greater and wider life. They were met by three men to guide them through this process, and off to the woods they went.
Our first two days were spent learning basic skills of wilderness awareness and survival: how to step lightly and not be heard, how to listen and really hear, how to make simple shelter and pack a backpack, and how to stay safe amid backcountry dangers. We played games and all performed skits to much laughter and applause. We even were able to stop, as we journeyed towards our trail on the Sol Duc River of the Olympic Peninsula, to take a swim in the cool clear waters of Lake Crescent.
Starting up the trail, it didn't take long for the group to encounter many of the challenges and joys of wilderness travel. We had heavy packs and sore legs, but also encountered amazing waterfalls and uncountable blueberries and huckleberries. There were bee stings and exhaustion, but also trailside frogs, salamanders, deer, and wild peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Looking at Sol Duc Falls
On our second day on the trail we met a fierce rainstorm just as we were ascending a high pass near Bogachiel Peak. The wind blew rain on our faces and plastic-covered bodies, and fog rolled in, flowing over ridges and down into the valleys below. In the midst of this, we spotted a black bear, standing in a meadow not far below us, eating berries. We stood watching for ten minutes, hushed but for the dripping of the rain.
Turned ankles, wet gear, steep hills, long hikes, homesickness, yes- but ahh: hot soup, fresh cat tracks in the mud, mind-boggling views of misty Mt. Olympus, the foggy Hoh River valley, and the deep clear lakes strewn across the rocky, flowery, sub-alpine land.
Blue Glacier at Mt. Olympus
Checking out a viewpoint into Seven Lakes Basin
And then, after over 24 hours of near-steady rain, the sun broke free as we walked through a wildflower meadow along High Divide, and we basked in warmth, drying ourselves, awed by the mountains surrounding us. Conversation bubbled as we hiked down to our camp at Sol Duc Park for a merry evening, hot food, and deep sleep.
Lupines and Indian Paintbrush on High Divide
As our short but intense trip through the mountains wound down, back along the Sol Duc River to our trailhead, we transitioned into our coastal leg. It began with a short hike through the woods on a damp, foggy morning, but it wasn't long once we arrived to the beach before the fog cleared and the sun came out. Everyone enjoyed some well-deserved beach play, involving frisbees and a major, whole-group engineering project on a tiny stream flowing down the sand from the hill above.
The industrious young men
It was a relief and a pleasure to be on the sand in the sun, and in the presence of the steady, re-assuring sound of the ocean, but like in the mountains our days were full of activity. The boys took on more and more responsibility for cooking, setting up and taking down camp, navigating, and generally directing themselves. They were challenged by their mentors to take responsibility for their choices and how they affected others. They spent solo time on the land and practiced making fires and shelter to prepare for their 24 hour solo fasts.
The solo is the culminating event of the journey; the boys let go of their childhood and step into the unknown. On the night before they went out alone, we had a ceremony marking this brave step in which they each shared the masks they'd made and painted and what they represented about what they were letting go of. They each impressed us with their depth of self-reflection, and we witnessed them putting their masks into the fire. The next morning, at dawn, they walked out to their solo sites along the beach, to fast and sit with themselves and the wild world.
View from camp at Strawberry Point
Rain and sun, eagle and otter, ocean and sky, fire and boredom, grief and insight. These were some of those present on solo day. We kept the fire burning, and the next morning welcomed them back with song, an orange wedge that tasted like "a slice of heaven," and miso soup. They each shared the story of their experience, each unique, each meaningful both in its simple reality and in ways we aren't yet aware of.
Then: a day of relaxation: of games, naps, coal-burned utensil-making and carving, pizza, singing, and theatrics around the fire. What a day, what a life.
The next morning we packed up and began our journey home, a journey that took us back along the beach with its rocky headlands and starfish, through a day of independence and self-determination for the young men, into the old humbling place of the sweat lodge, to a meeting with the elders, to stand before a gathering back home to share stories and be greeted as a new person, as a youth...
It's a journey that in many ways still continues...