I signed up with Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI) at the end of December, eager and excited. After waiting only a few weeks, I got an email from WRFI notifying me of my acceptance. In the back of my mind I was completely questioning my motives and “How in the world would I be able to complete a six week backpacking course all while learning four different subjects?” Originally I wanted to join WRFI because of the amazing opportunities it would offer and because it was a 12-credit course taking place in the backcountry – an entire semester in the woods! Not only was I a bit nervous but I was also skeptical of my ability to complete this course of study. I was worried I would not be physically prepared, even though I was told to start working out months in advance. Additionally, I believed myself to not be scholastically prepared. The semester before this course, I struggled academically due to my lack of focus and preparation. Because of this my confidence lessened drastically, causing me to question my abilities.
But my confidence and persistence has ensured my success here. As the months turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into days, the idea of this all happening finally started to sink in: I was actually going backpacking for six weeks. Of course not only was I nervous about the course, the backpacking itself, but also the people. I was worried I would be unable to make friends or that the group dynamic would be different than I pictured.
Things began falling into place from the get-go. My fellow students are very accepting, easy to talk to, and non-judgmental, making it the perfect group to bond with. This has been key, because as soon as the backpacking finally began, things started to become very real. My first backpacking trip was harder than I imagined: the entire time I had one thought in my head, “Why did I ever believe I could do this?” If I had a general idea of what backpacking was like before I went on this course, I would have thought it to be very difficult but maybe easy to pick up on; so far it has been both.
Not only did I not know anyone very well, but I was also carrying a 50-pound backpack. When backpacking with a group, our communal items – the pots, pans, food, etc. – are distributed among each hiker, comprising what’s called “group weight.” We all had some kind of group gear to carry; for instance, I carried two bottles of fuel and a night’s dinner, and some thick natural history field guides. This made my backpack quite heavier than I imagined. If I got the chance to go back and buy everything all over again, I would most likely buy strapped sandals for walking around camp and for crossing creeks – rather than my heavier street shoes.
As soon as we got to our first location, “Heart Lake,” my body finally started to feel at ease, and I could finally relax. But then the real work began: learning! Now this is not meant to be discouraging for anyone who wants to go on a backpacking trip to get a few credits. This is meant for anyone who dreams big, but never chases it. Because there is one big thing I forgot to mention: this has been by far one of the best experiences ever! You get over the feeling of “I can’t do this,” because you can. Your body becomes accustomed. The classes become more interesting as the days pass. I became really comfortable in our class setting, considering it was always outside. I started to engage more in the conversation, asking questions and getting involved in debates. I contemplate my curiosities. I could never do this sitting in a classroom full of 300 students, but out here in the wilderness with just nine students, it becomes easier. The course readings became genuinely interesting for every topic we’ve tackled. And these classes pertained to my major, which made them more fun to learn about. One topic in general pertained to biodiversity and ecological restoration, and my major is resource conservation. So being able to dig deeper into the background of these critical debates in my field prepared me for my studies back at school.
There is no substitute for place-based, active, experiential learning: it engages me physically, intellectually, and emotionally. There are some things that become a once in a lifetime opportunity, and this is one of them.