Seven high school boys and three high school girls are gathered on a porch outside “The Dorms,” a dormitory-style bunk house here at Shrine Mont. They’ve joined a conversation I’ve been having with their counselors – Penelope Davenport, Olivia Bambara, and Philip “Danger” Queen.
The dorm where they’ve spent the night is rustic. There are rows of bunk beds with thin mattresses, shared bathrooms, and no air conditioning. But compared to where they’ve been and where they’re going, it’s the Ritz-Carlton.
As “Explorers the Great” campers, these high school-aged kids have just returned from a four-day wilderness hike. While other Shrine Mont campers stay “on the mountain” and in the same bed almost the entire time they are here, Explorer campers…well…explore.
And it starts right away: the very first day they were dropped off at Shrine Mont, immediately after registration, they packed their gear, got on a bus, and were driven to Ramsey’s Draft, a designated wilderness area of the George Washington National Forest.
Because Ramsey’s Draft is about a two hour drive from Orkney Springs, the campers got there around 7:00 p.m. – which meant there were about two hours of daylight left. So the campers found a camp put up tarps (no tents allowed) and built a fire.
What about dinner? The counselors split the campers into two co-ed groups: one to cook, the other to clean. The counselors then handed the cooking group a recipe – that night, spaghetti with Thai peanut sauce – and then, other than providing some supervision for safety reasons, turned it completely over to them. The kids were on their own. And did it all.
“Doing it all” while camping means sending someone to find a stream for water, building a fire, boiling the germs out of the water, cooking the noodles, heating the sauce, serving each other, eating, and cleaning up afterwards.
The next two days, Explorers campers would wake up, break camp, pack up, and start hiking. They hiked from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. each day, covering about 10 miles a day. The hike is a relatively difficult one, ascending 3,100 feet, with four summits.
Why would high schoolers choose to leave behind the convenience of microwaves, drive-up Starbucks, and comfortable beds in air-conditioned homes in order to spend a week hiking difficult terrain, finding and disinfecting their own water, cooking their own food, and sleeping on hard ground beneath tarps?
“It’s nice to be away from stuff…well, except from the World Cup,” camper Joey of Chesterfield said, “and it’s nice to be around people who feel the same way spiritually as you do – back home, you never know what kind of reaction you’ll get.”
“I don’t have the opportunity to canoe much at home,” camper Sarah of Alexandria said, “so I come to Shrine Mont to experience things I might not otherwise. We carry everything we need on our backs.”
Joey’s experiences at Shrine Mont have helped him explore the place where his love of mountains and his love of God meet. Sarah’s experiences each summer at Shrine Mont prompted her to help her explore year-round involvement with Venturing, a youth development program of the Boy Scouts of America for young men and women, and more recently, to explore volunteer work with the Civil Air Patrol.
The most wonderful thing, then, that Explorers Camp does is it helps countless Joey’s and Sarah’s to explore not only the beautiful wilderness of Virginia, but the beautiful wilderness of their hearts and futures.
By John Ohmer
John is the rector of The Falls Church Episcopal and a long-time supporter of Shrine Mont.
He authored a weekly spiritual advice column titled “Faithfully Yours,” and covered the past four General Conventions as an issues writer for the Diocese of Virginia’s “Center Aisle.” John blogs at Unapologetic Theology.
Photo Journal: Before Ramsey's Draft
The gang's all here: Explorers the Great 2014!
Connor Gwin sends Explorers the Great out on their four-day hike with a prayer.
Who's ready? Explorers the Great is, Philip Queen is.
Take us on an adventure, magic school bus.
Spreading the good news of Shrine Mont Camps into the Valley of the World.
The View from the Mountain is written by a rotating cast of staff writers and contributors.