Finding Yourself In The Wilderness: A Story About Leadership & Self-Acceptance

Lake of the Woods - July 2019
Photographer: Genevieve Olson
Written: July 2019
Revised and edited: May  2020

I remember sitting in my freshman civics class hearing my teacher introduce us to this over-the-summer trip to Lake of the Woods titled “AV Convocation Wilderness Experience”. I remember thinking that anyone stupid enough to purposely live in the wilderness for nine days without running water was insane. At the time I couldn’t fathom why someone would choose to live that way and call it a vacation. How can squatting down to go to the bathroom in the woods while being bitten by 150 mosquitos be relaxing? How can a person enjoy sitting in a canoe for 4+ hours with a group of strangers and call it “life-changing?”

I understood the unplugging from technology. I’ve been to numerous summer camps over the years and have learned the value of unplugging. I also have even been to overnight camps that did some camping. Although at Camp St. Croix, when you go on trail, you’re hiking three miles to a designated location that has nearby port-a potties. I also happened to be ten years old when I last went to Camp St. Croix, so I was a little rusty at the whole camping experience.

My high school, AVHS, has an E3 STEM program that allows students to explore stem related careers (which includes meeting and shadowing professionals in their occupations). Apart of this program, we have the AV Convocation Trip. (A convocation is a group of eagles, our high school mascot is an eagle.)

For decades, a school in my district has taken kids up to Lake of the Woods to spend 9 days at Laketrails Base Camp. At Laketrails, students get to go on a five-day canoe trip and explore the beautiful Lake of the Woods. (two of the nine days is spent traveling to and from LOTW. We also spend a full day before trail preparing for the wilderness and a full day after reflecting on our adventures and growing closer with our groups.)

Within the last four years, we have started this annual trip at AVHS. Students can earn a SSI (summer science institute) credit or a recovery science or english credit. Students are given daily journal entries that they must complete by the end of the trip. On this trip, students learn camping skills as well as a variety of topics in biology, meteorology, and astronomy.

I clearly wasn’t cool enough to go on this trip my freshman year, but my 10th-grade AVID teacher, Mr. Fritz was quite convincing.

Thanks, Fritz.

Oh, but here’s the thing:

I’m kind of a loser.

Wait, let me explain…

By loser, I mean loner. It’s weird for me to say that out loud. For the past three years, I’ve tried to label it other things. I’ve tried to make it seem less than what it was. I’ve tried to label it “independence” so that it would seem mature and coming-of-age. It’s been hard for me to admit it to myself, because how do you tell yourself that no one wants you? How do you comprehend these emotions without feeling like it’s all your fault? That there’s something wrong with you? That you’re not interesting enough? That you are in fact, not invisible?

I’ve mentioned before that I used to be a social butterfly. Hence the word “used”.

I’ve also mentioned before how people have used me and took advantage of me over the years.

I know I’m only 17, but the biggest life lesson I’ve learned is knowing the difference between an option and a priority. Unfortunately, I was an option to several individuals for way too long.

I finally broke the cycle fall of my freshman year. I’ve been living independently since. It was hard at first, but the more I got used to it, the easier it became. If you’re still not convinced I’m the definition of a loser, I spend my lunch periods in the library doing homework. (Because I have ADD, I take meds that lower my appetite, so I’m not hungry for lunch.) The only time I suffer from social anxiety is at Pepfests and theatre gatherings.

Before this gets too depressing, let me tell you this: before I lived independently, I leaned on other people. I didn’t know how to stand on my own two feet. I needed independence to grow and find value in myself. Because of my independence, I grew, matured, and gained a new perspective.

But yes, it’s hard sometimes. Sometimes I fly through my day like a robot who enjoys helping and encouraging others. Or sometimes I’m spending my lunch period outside the FACS room trying to finish decorating the door for my preschool elective class because none of the other three students in my group seem to care that decorations were due the day before when I was absent. It gets sadder when I tell you that it was also my 17th birthday. It’s on days likes those that make me realize what an odd life I live. Correction: what an odd life I have chosen to live.

So when I signed up for this wilderness trip, I was terrified. My 10th-grade year I challenged myself in several different ways, this being one of them. I had a weird (but awesome) determination going for me that year.

The trip itself was a step outside my comfort zone, but my social anxiety was through the roof. Because of my independent lifestyle, school became my life. I started to become really hard on myself about my grades.

I remember sitting at the opening campfire listening to the owner of the camp, Sue, compliment the courage it takes for people like me to do stuff like this. I remember all the in-between time between events where I would sit on the stairs outside the dining hall reading a book or trying to find some other way to not look like a loser.

But then I went on trail.

I went on trail and met these amazing guides. (A guide is basically another term for a counselor.) Their names were Kelby and Nate. They’re pretty rad. (For some reason, I gravitate more to adults than kids my own age.)

I liked the kids in my group, but although they were nice, I could tell they were just trying to be inclusive. Not that any of them cared about me the second we got back to Base Camp. (Where I continued to sit on the steps and read books.)

Now, here’s the funny thing.

This sounds like a depressing story.

This sounds like I jumped out of my comfort zone only to be met with more loneliness, (and it totally was) but for some reason, I was able to block out the negative emotions and focus more on the positive emotions I had on the trip. (A skill I didn’t realize I had.)

I remembered sitting in the bow of the canoe learning how to paddle while observing the raw wilderness. I remember the beautiful views of Picture Rock while we quietly listened to Nate give us a history lesson.

I remember helping Nate and Kelby establish a new campsite on Survival Lake instead of going to Brocket. I remember sitting on Kevin Island in my rain gear journaling and realizing that the bugs weren’t so bad.

Reflecting, Lake of the Woods, July 2019
Reflecting, Lake of the Woods, July 2019

I remember sitting at the picnic table at Farris Island drinking trail coffee for the first time. I remember conquering some headwinds on the last day and feeling accomplished when we returned to Base Camp. I remember the changed emotion I felt when I returned to civilization two days later. (Although at the time I was also a little pissy about an AP score I received that morning.)

Two days after that, I posted some photos on social media with this caption:

Just spent the last 10 days enjoying nature with some amazing people in an amazing place. We arrived at Base Camp and spent a day preparing for trail, then we spent 5 days canoeing to different islands and camping out. While we canoed our hearts out for hours, my group and I got to know one another like family. (We even conquered some pretty nasty waves.) After trail, we came back, got clean, and enjoyed each others company while we celebrated the 4th of July. This trip was absolutely amazing! It opened my eyes to how beautiful nature can be. (And always will be.) There were so many things I took away from this experience; Not only did I build new relationships while having the time of my life, but I also gained a new respect for myself and for the world around me. I absolutely cannot wait for next year!

I meant every word, but as I mentioned, this trip wasn’t as happy-go-lucky as I made it sound. Because I chose to look at it in a different light and embrace only those emotions.

I remember feeling such a magical emotion of appreciation when I left Oak Island. I knew at that moment I wanted to help other students experience this trip and the magic it had to offer.

Apparently, I still had this mojo of determination from my sophomore year when I entered my junior year. I immediately signed up to help write grants for this year’s trip in December. I didn’t want money to stop kids from experiencing the Laketrails experience.

By April, I was the only student on a committee of adults who were just as dedicated to this trip as I was. I have over 100 email exchanges with our E3 STEM coordinator, one of the school’s administrators, and the owner of Laketrails discussing grant details. Together we completed two grants and visited an organization to help get more funding. We ended up receiving enough money to pay over half of each camper’s fee.

At the end of April, my former biology teacher (the lead teacher of this trip.) started handing out applications for the teacher assistant positions for the trip. (I being the first official TA.) As the school year came to an end, we had 6 TA’s. (But they were all either flaky or uncommunicative.) Have you ever worked with teenagers before? They kind of suck.

I ended up taking the leadership position here. I’m a person who values teamwork, so when my teammates who also applied for their position as a TA ignored my messages, you could say I was a little frustrated. I discussed this with some of the adults involved and they understood my frustrations. They invited me into their meetings and email exchanges and treated me like an adult. (Not that they were purposely excluding anyone, but that they wanted to include me into the conversation and I was the only one interested/motivated enough to accept.)

I remember the feeling I had when I left a meeting that was held the Monday before the trip. There was a level of comfort in the room. (A feeling that was mutual.) I felt so humbled; Even though a student was in the room, they acted like it was just any other meeting with their colleagues. I can’t express how rewarding that felt.

This year I came to a weird realization:

This introverted loser was meant to be a leader.

I still can’t seem to fathom this thought. How can someone like me be a leader? How is it that even though I am the ultimate definition of a loser, I am also the ultimate definition of a leader? How does that work? How can that be?

I became the unofficial lead TA on this trip. I reached out and interacted with all the campers through a GroupMe chat. I helped answer questions and gather paperwork. I went into 4 different classrooms to convince a whole bunch of AVID students to go on this trip. I was consulted on the design of camper awards and buffs. I teamed up with my biology teacher to design a presentation to present to the younger grades during advisory.

Now, this isn’t me trying to create a brag fest. This is all to say that I went from being convinced in Mr. Fritz’s class to go on this trip to being the kid that went into Mr. Fritz’s class to convince other students to go on this trip. There’s a crazy amount of growth in-between there. I learned so much about the real world in my professional experiences with the staff members at AVHS. I’m so thankful that they trusted me and gave me that opportunity.

As I write this, I’m currently sitting on a bus on my way home from LOTW. Once again, I had the privilege of experiencing the never-ending magic of Laketrails. This last week, I felt a sense of pride. I got to observe 40 students jump out of their comfort zones and have the time of their lives in the wilderness. Knowing that I contributed to that happiness, made me happy. After all, it’s why I helped in the first place.

This week, something happened that was unexplainable. It was beautiful and raw. My former biology teacher said something that has stuck with me: “How lucky are we that we can choose to live in adversity?” At closing campfire yesterday, one of the guides, Riley, read a poem titled, I hoped you suffered. The poem taught us the importance of suffering and how it recognizes how fortunate we really are.

This week I was touched in several ways. I was mostly touched by this one camper. This girl was not only in my cabin, but she was also in my trail group. She was a shy former 9th grader who was as sweet as can be. I, being the weird, “I want to hear your story!” person I am, had the privilege of getting to know this camper. She told me that she found out about this trip from one of the lead teachers. Like me last year, this kid had the bravery to go on this trip, not knowing a single kid and being unaware of how it would turn out. I immediately tasked myself with being her buddy. I didn’t even think twice, I just knew that feeling too well and it pained me to think that one of the campers might have that similar pain.

At the end of the trip, we were sitting in the “sauna of truth” where she opened up about how this trip changed her. 20 minutes later another camper in our group and I were embracing her in our cabin as she cried and revealed to us her struggle with depression.

My heart broke.

The idea that there was someone out there who experiences more pain than the pain I wake up with made me feel sick. I understood her too well.

The idea that I helped her cope with her depression and contributed to her magical Laketrails experience, sends me through the roof.

As I sit on this loud, noisy bus I can’t help but feel a little emotional. I’m so proud of these kids for being open, curious, and brave. I can’t wait to see this tradition pass on to the younger generations.

Across from me sits them three adults who I have worked endlessly with for the past eight months to make this trip what it was. I’m grateful for the personal relationships I have with each one of them. I’m grateful for the lessons they taught me. and maybe the lessons I taught them.

I’m still growing, I’m still learning. I still have fears to overcome and feelings to work through. But I feel a slight hope that something greater is ahead of me.

Oh my, my, Lake of The Woods, I’m so in love with you…