By Megan Hill
Photo: Emily Pease
Teenager Maddy Buchman feels at peace in the woods.
Bears, lightning, and even the risk of getting lost or hurt fail to scare this high school junior from Seattle. She’s so at home in the wilderness she’ll soon start leading the backpacking trips she once cut her teeth on.
“That peace you can find is so powerful, especially in our society right now when there’s so much terrible violence,” Maddy says. “Even though there are bears, you feel safe in a different kind of way.”
Maddy is an apprentice with Rite of Passage Journeys, a Bothell-based organization that offers wilderness trips for youth and adults. Journeys draws on rites of passage from cultures around the world to help guide each participant through a transformative experience while hiking through some of Washington’s most inspiring scenery. Their itinerary includes the Olympic Mountains’ Enchanted Valley and the Dosewallips River. These backpacking adventures can last from one to three weeks. Trip guides like Maddy act as mentors who shepherd participants through lessons in introspection and self-reliance.
Journeys has led trips in the Pacific Northwest since the mid-1980s. The program first launched in Chicago in 1968, with a rites-of-passage bus and camping program for 12-year-olds. In 1985, the organization moved its operations to Washington state.
Founder Stan Crow had traveled the world with a service organization called the Institute for Cultural Affairs. On his trips, he noticed other cultures had rich traditions involving adolescents and young adults. He wanted to bring that home to the United States. Rite of Passage Journeys was born out of that idea, says Amanda Ayling, program director.
“He drew on the rites of passage in a lot of different cultures and created what he would call the modern rite of passage, which is designed specifically for kids in our society who work in a modern context,” Ayling says.
Journeys, now a nonprofit organization, estimates around 1,300 young people have participated in the group’s summer rites-of-passage programs.
Journeys offers one-week- and three-week-long backpacking trips for youth ages 8 to 18, dividing participants into four age groups. Journeys also provides some shorter programs and adult trips, but the bulk of its efforts are extended youth wilderness experiences.
The trips focus on team building, self-reliance, and on the all-important — though often tumultuous —transition from childhood to adulthood. The trips incorporate solo journeys that test participants’ mettle and signify the shift to adulthood.
“It’s formulated to be a sort of challenge that helps them build their inner strength and self-confidence — to get through what’s ahead as adults,” Ayling says.
The three-week Coming of Age trips for 12- to 15-year-olds are particularly emblematic of this idea. These trips take place in the Dosewallips area of the Olympic Mountains, over Anderson Pass and through Enchanted Valley.
“It’s meant to celebrate and honor the step out of childhood and into adolescence,” Ayling says. “And it’s meant to be a grand adventure in the wilderness, with a lot of self-reflection and marking of that transition.”
Maddy’s experiences reflect that idea. “It’s all about growing into yourself, because that’s a really transitional time in your life,” she says. Maddy, who participated in the Coming of Age for Girls as a 14-year-old, fell in love with Enchanted Valley.
“It is the most beautiful hike I’ve ever been on,” she says. “You go through all this really lush, lush greenery. It’s dripping almost, it’s so mossy. And then it opens out into this huge valley with mountains all around you.”
Before embarking on the trips, the participants learn the ropes at Journey’s Bothell base camp. There are team-building exercises, skill building, and lessons in “Leave No Trace” principles. “We try to do some basic skills so that they’re not too far out of their comfort zones,” Ayling says. “For a lot of them, it’s their first backpacking trip or even camping experience. We make sure they know how to poop in the woods, some of those basics, so they can take care of themselves when they get out there.”
Appreciation for the environment
Teaching Leave No Trace principles is particularly important to Journeys’ mission. Not only does the organization want to leave the wilderness as pristine as possible, but these efforts help instill a lifelong appreciation for nature in the participants.
“It takes a lot of work with kids that age who haven’t been out there before to really think about their impact,” Ayling says. “But it’s so important for kids to be out and have that really intense wilderness experience so they can grow into people who care about the environment. I think without a hard connection to wilderness, it’s all sort of abstract.”
Maddy says that although she went into her Coming of Age trip with an appreciation for the environment, the trip brought home the enormous impact we have on the planet and the small ways our actions add up in our daily lives.
“Having to pack out everything we brought in made me realize the impact of everything you use goes somewhere,” she says. “You notice it more when you’re carrying your trash around. That was interesting. I didn’t think about that part at the time because the personal aspects of the trip were so meaningful.”
The solo journey
The personal aspect Maddy refers to is a major point of emphasis on Journeys trips. During the second week of the three-week trips, there is a solo vigil component. The younger kids participate in a 24-hour solo vigil, while the vigils for high school students last 48 hours. During that time, they’re challenged to reflect on their experiences, to draw or write in a journal, and to stay awake as late as they can, keeping their fire going.
“Those are pretty intense experiences, and they’re pretty challenging for young people,” Ayling says. “Young people in our culture are so overstimulated, with video games and music — there’s always something going on. So just to not have that stimulation for 24 hours, with no one else to talk to, is a big deal.”
“They’re out overnight and there’s a lot of fear with that to overcome,” Ayling says. “It’s meant to be a big challenge.” But she points out it’s very low risk, as their guides can see them and check on them every few hours. “They come out of it with this huge sense of accomplishment. We have kids come back when they’re in college and say, ‘There’s nothing I’ve encountered – there’s no test, no relationship issue – that I didn’t know I could get through because I got through those 24 hours.’”
The vigil is built around a ritual that forms a rite of passage. The first day of the trip, each participant makes a cast of his or her face, which is then covered with plaster of Paris. These young people take both the cast and the shell on the trip, decorating the shell to represent their childhood. On their solo vigil, they place the shell in their fire, representing the letting go of the childhood self. They then paint their solid cast with images of who they intend to be as an adolescent.
“It represents the rebirth of a new self right at that puberty time,” Ayling says.
This experience proved to be challenging for Maddy, who says she was overconfident leading up to the vigil.
“We were backpacking along the Dosewallips and I was getting kind of cocky, taking on other people’s weight,” Maddy says. “I was the strongest — it was awesome.” During the solo, she placed her tent farthest away from the guide, thinking she would have no trouble with the challenge. The day went by nicely, she says, and then she started to build her fire.
“We have a whole box of matches, so I figured it shouldn’t be a problem. But I could not get my fire to light. Somehow I got it going a tiny, tiny bit, and I started blowing on it. I just stopped thinking, and I passed out from lack of oxygen. And that was the freakiest thing ever, because by that time it was very dark and I was by myself and that was terrifying,” she says. “It was a good reality check.”
Reality checks like this make indelible marks on the participants. Facing these challenges builds self-reliance and confidence, important qualities as these young people prepare for the treacherous waters of adulthood.
Maddy says the trip she took between middle and high school helped her immensely. “It really built my confidence in myself,” she says. “I saw a tangible difference in myself after the trip. It was a really great way for me to transition into high school. I think it should be mandatory — I think everyone should have to do something like that.”
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