Imagine a place where there are no roads, buildings, mechanized tools, running water or electricity.
The Selway-Bitterroot in Idaho is one such place and where a group of 11 Dallas County students will be visiting on July 24.
Dallas County Naturalist Chris Adkins and retired U.S. Forest Service ranger Connie Saylor-Johnson started the 11-day wilderness trek 20 years ago.
“We were sitting around a campfire when she (Connie) said we need to bring kids from Iowa to this place so they can see what a large, unaltered ecosystem looks like,” Adkins said. “We wanted students to understand that we think we live in a place that’s very natural, but we are connected to an agricultural system; we do not have awareness except for a tiny vestige of 400,000 acres here in Iowa. So in 1994, I was the connection in Iowa and she was the connection in Idaho.”
In the 4.5 million acre wilderness, students are taught how to leave no trace, where to hike, how to build fires, how to put up a tent and how to read a compass and a map. Students are loaned backpacking gear including tents, sleeping bags, packs, cooking kits, stoves and water filters.
“We tell them it’s our goal to make them a defender of wilderness and to allow them to get back to this place again,” Adkins said. “We want to give them the freedom to look at a map and give them the skillset that they can use again.”
Students not only learn those skillsets, but they are also engaged in helping clear trails, campsites and re-visitation of the forest area.
“Probably 60 percent of the time students are engaged in doing volunteer work on this trip,” Adkins said. “The first year we did this we evaluated the kids, and they said they didn’t expect to work on the trip, but were glad they did. They said they were proud of being able to grow and to find out they can go back to these places and use those skills.”
The wilderness trek is unique to Dallas County because students are inoculated to the hike when they are in first and second grade.
“When we first speak to students, we talk to them about conservation and how many acres in Iowa we have preserved,” he said. “To them, Kuehn (Conservation Area) might as well be a valley with 4.5 million acres, but we plant the conservation seed in them. By high school, students realize that over the hill is Highway 6, but by then there are those who want to continue conservation practices and land preservation.”
Students like Adel-De Soto-Minburn’s Spencer Gibson and Dakota Popp were among those who who went on the wilderness trek last year which changed their overall outlook.
“Before I came, I threw wrappers on the ground, but after taking the trip you learn how beautiful the earth is and you want to keep it that way,” Gibson said. “We need to keep this world clean (because) it’s really beautiful when it’s not touched by man.”
Both Gibson and Popp were able to self-reflect on their own experiences as well as to connect with nature on the trip.
“You don’t really connect with nature as much as when you are on this trip,” Popp said. “Nothing is around you for miles and you can see the stars…everything you can’t see in the city or even in the country.”
Practicing best-conservation practices was a skill that Gibson and Popp learned and became more environmentally aware of at the end of their journey.
“In order to keep the naturalness of the area, we spent an hour or two putting it back to its natural state,” Popp said. “Plastics take a really long time to get rid of. Everything we left behind (including) footprints or anything that fell out of backpacks, impacted animals.”
Adkins said his students become completely autonomous during the trek.
“Students are taught how to make decisions, carry their own pack and basically be a backpacker,” he said. “They make choices on their diet and energy needs and learn to rely on themselves.”
In 20 years of traveling to Idaho, past students have continued best-conservation practices well after their trip, Adkins added.
“We know that this works because many of our past students are now working in conservation fields, agriculture, teachers or wilderness defenders,” Adkins said. “We had a group of 40 alumni come to Kuehn who spoke on what they did with the knowledge they have gained and what they have done to protect it. All of them had found it in their lives to work to continue to give back and to be an advocate for people to explore the relationship of humans to the natural world.”
Although high school students benefit from the experience, Adkins decided to include an adult trip in 2011.
“It was really fun for me to take adults there to see the difference in conversations and what it meant to them,” he said. “It was such a huge success that we will now have one adult program and then follow that with three years of the program for high school students.”
According to Adkins, what makes the program so enticing for students and adults is because of the trip’s stellar reputation.
“The reason why we get so many applicants is because students and their parents have grown up with us,” Adkins said. “The parents know that their kids are going to be safe and can really embrace this experience. Taking those kids who have little to no experience in backpacking to learning and excelling in the biggest, wildest piece of land is paradigm changing.
“As an educator, it’s nice to have that classroom to say ‘I’m going to blow your mind’. It’s the greatest classroom they have ever experienced and has definitely changed the students.”