Madison Blake is a sophomore at Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts in New York City. This year, SA’s Summer Experience program covered the cost of 75 students to access pre-college summer classes in STEM, business, the arts, and outdoor adventures.
By Madison Blake
Growing up in Harlem, I had never experienced being in the wilderness, the backcountry. I had never even been camping or hiking. But this summer that all changed. I spent three weeks in Alaska trekking in Haines State Forest and Chilkat State Park and sea kayaking off of Chichagof Island.
After more than a year confined in my apartment, learning remotely, not seeing my friends at school and sports practice, I was ready to break free and experience something new. My school has a Summer Experience program, which places kids in different pre-college summer classes in business, STEM, and the arts, as well as outdoor trips. The process is supposed to be like a college application — I submitted online, wrote an essay, went through an internal interview process, and applied for financial aid. I got in! It would be the farthest and longest time I would be away from home. My family was happy too — the airfare was the only expense they had to pay for.
After more than a year confined in my apartment, learning remotely, not seeing my friends at school and sports practice, I was ready to break free and experience something new.
As our small plane descended upon Juneau, I pressed my face to the window and my eyes widened at the sight of the snow-covered jagged mountain ridges below. I would be hiking in them! This was very different from the high rises, storefronts, and brownstones back home in Harlem. The group I was with consisted of ten high school students and two adult guides who were from all over the country: Ohio, Tennessee, Louisiana, Chicago, and Utah to name a few places. Each of us had different outdoor experiences, some more than others. Some kids were experienced skiers, hikers, or had spent time camping. I was a complete newbie.
Trekking in the wild was demanding. Our packs could weigh from 30 to 70 pounds a piece and made uphill hiking strenuous. At our basecamp we loaded up our 70 liter backpacks with tents, portable stoves called “whisper lights,” sleeping bags, cantines of water, food, and crampons which would go over our boots and give us traction when mountaineering rock faces covered in ice. We had to be strategic about the items we would be bringing with us to conserve space and be efficient with the weight of our packs.
I had the least experience and it showed. Within the first five minutes of going up the trail I was struggling and had to stop and catch my breath. This continued throughout our trek, so one of the guides would stay back with me while the other campers hiked far ahead on the trail. They would have to stop and wait for me to catch up. I felt like I was being a burden to the group — like I was slowing everyone down. It was embarrassing. But my guide reassured me that I was doing well for a first-time hiker. The other campers were patient and encouraging as well and it lifted my spirits. They’d cheer me on as I came up the trail, yelling out “You got this, Madison!” It took some time, but eventually I got my trail legs.
Each of us were split up into cooking groups who we would take turns cooking meals with throughout the trip. We packed food such as cans of beans and corn and bags of oatmeal which were stored in “bear cans” that help mask the scent of our food from bears. When we would set up camp on the trail we would often bury our bear cans for safety. Our guides told us that bear attacks were rare and typically happened if you got near a bear’s cubs or their food. The idea of encountering bears was worrisome but kind of exciting at the same time!
Sea kayaking was also a brand new experience to me. We paddled from campsite to campsite off of Chichagof Island and saw so much incredible wildlife: pods of whales popped up and shot water out of their blowholes, otters and seals swam past, and bald eagles soared above us. One rainy day, the winds picked up and the rain came down in sheets. We were several miles from our campsite and were looking for a line of seaweed in the distance that would indicate we were close. I could feel my arms burning. No matter how hard I paddled it didn’t feel like we were making any headway with the wind and rain bearing down on us. It was discouraging and scary. I wanted to give up, but couldn’t. After several hours we finally reached the shoreline. It was the hardest moment of the trip.
I am still sore walking down the stairs of my apartment building, but it was all worth it. The trip not only exposed me to the beauty of nature, but also introduced me to a special group of people from different backgrounds, with different interests and experiences. It challenged me physically, mentally and emotionally, and with that came growth, like a stronger sense of independence. I am so glad I took a risk, and did Wilderness Adventures.
Pictured Above: Madison Blake (far right) at the summit with other Wilderness Adventurers