Blog: October 2015

Lessons from the Land & the Old Sage
October 14, 2015

The UPA seniors are beginning their journey towards their Senior Rites of Passage, a tradition each spring that will take them on a journey of self-discovery to the Adirondack Mountains of NY State.  But before that experience, there is much preparation that goes into the Rites and it begins with a local wilderness experience not far from home.  They’ve discovered an amazing wilderness area only 30 miles and less than 1 hour away,  an area of about six hundred and fifty thousand acres, equal to the size of the Grand Canyon National Park, known as the Pine Barrens.

To help our students become familiar with this Garden State gem, they’ve been reading the John McPhee classic, The Pine Barrens.  We begin our adventure with a twelve mile two day paddle on the Mullica River.   We are a group of nineteen:  students and chaperones, 9 canoes and a kayak.  We carry all our gear in dry bags: clothes, tents, sleeping bags, food and camp stoves.  The upper Mullica, especially after heavy rains, is a fast, winding and narrow river that requires a level of expertise in order to navigate the canoe down river.  With recent storms, downed trees, and a few beaver dams you can be certain you’ll need both luck and skill to stay afloat.

I had to be thoughtful in the pairing of paddlers for each boat and particularly who sat in the stern and would be responsible for the steering.  One of the young men, Angel, transferred to the Academy in his junior year, had little experience trekking, and was canoeing for his first time.  I paired Angel with my friend Bernie.  Bernie has volunteered with Trekkers and BoatWorks since we began these programs over a decade ago.  Bernie, a retired college counselor, world traveler, and avid outdoor adventurer has been a mentor to me and my Trekkers over the years.

With our paddle trip finished, onour final night in the Pines I asked the students to share lessons learned and highlights from our Pinelands Adventure.   As we sat around the camp fire Angel began with a story about Bernie.   “Bernie is a very patient man and I’m not.”  He went on to say how at first he became frustrated every time another canoe got close and came up on his and Bernie’s boat:

Bernie would say, “Let them pass, we don’t want to get to close to the other boats.” He asked me what’s the rush?  Did I see the old growth cedars?  And the turtles and the beaver dams?  Or had I noticed the wild cranberries floating?  He told me the river flows to where we’re going, let’s just follow it.  After a while I felt relieved.  No longer did I have the need to feel like I was in a race.

My friend Bernie is the “Old Sage”.  Angel and all of us were given a valuable lesson that night around the fire under the star-studded sky.  I couldn’t help but think of a quote from another old sage:

“Travel by canoe is not a necessity, and will nevermore be the most efficient way to get from one region to another or even from one lake to another anywhere. A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a diversion off the field, an art performed not because it is a necessity but because there is value in the art itself.”
John McPhee

Keep on Trekkin,


Director of Experiential Learning 




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