Expedition Six was a sojourn truly worthy of remembrance. Through the good weather and the bad, the struggles and the triumphs, the very short hikes and the very long ones, Expedition Six provided seemingly everything.
Day One began like usual with a hearty breakfast of eggs, potatoes, and bacon, although this time we had to endure a one-hour bus ride to reach our hike-out spot. Getting off the bus, we fell into formation, and, before we knew it, the expedition had begun. We hiked through the mist and into the clouds, a day of shelter building awaiting us. After an uncharacteristically brief trek (I’m not complaining!) each of the four groups was directed to a campsite, and shelter building was underway. Using only the materials afforded us by the surrounding forest, branches, leaves, and other natural matter, each group constructed a survival shelter fitting its creative appetites. Some were cavernous, some were smaller, and some even had multiple rooms. After a few rallies, the day ended with the news that we would stay put for day two, rather than hiking to a new location, in order to further improve our newly-built residences.
On Day Two we were out of our tents by 7:00 a.m. sharp, and morning rally confirmed the day’s purpose: shelter makeovers! Each group was challenged not only to improve its shelters, but also to go above and beyond what our pre-conceived notion of a shelter was. By the time the prize for “best shelter” was revealed, no one was holding back, because this was now officially a contest. By the end of the day, what had previously been shelters were now estates, some even drawing comparisons to the living quarters of “Robinson Crusoe,” and “The Swiss Family Robinson.” Day Two ended with the interesting news that, regardless of where we had decided to sleep the night before, (tent vs. shelter) tonight all of us would be spending the entire night in our own creations.
Day Three began with a pang of grief, and, for some, dismay as directions were given to totally dismantle and dismember our homes in the woods. Shoveling down breakfast next to the disfigured remains of our last two days’ efforts was more than difficult. A four-mile hike preceded our arrival at “Meadow Camp,” where a gloriously powerful sun welcomed us. With the air temperature hovering around 65 or 70 degrees (at least that’s what it felt like) I wrote in my journal, “Sun baking our camp slope…hanging around in a t-shirt, and still breaking a sweat.” At 3:00 p.m. Mr. Mike led a compass class, which was a review for some, but brand new for me and necessary for the forthcoming compass hike. Despite the amazing weather throughout the day, when the sun receded behind the mountains at about 5:30 p.m., the temperature dropped about 25 degrees, prompting Jacob to recall a similar situation at Saunders Camp during his first stint at FMA. The weather had been just as serene there, but overnight it mysteriously evolved into an unforgiving snowstorm. We all fell asleep that night hoping and praying that Jacob’s seemingly insignificant recollection would not jinx our current weather.
I think I can confidently speak for everyone when I say we responded with disbelieving shock when we woke up the next morning, and snow was falling. Following morning rally at 8:30 a.m., we engaged in a stretcher building exercise. We were split into two groups, and each group was given the task of constructing a viable stretcher. Building an impromptu stretcher is an important skill to have when hiking through remote mountains as we were. Again, as with the shelters we built on the first two days, we could only us the materials at hand, such as poles and cross pieces made of small trees and padding made of pine boughs. Using our belts, scarves, safety vests, and even shoelaces to fasten everything together, in under an hour both teams constructed functioning stretchers that endured a rigorous stress test. By 12:30, the worst of the snowfall had passed, leaving a few inches on the ground as we readied for the next exercise of the day: a compass hike administered by Mr. Mike and Mr. Dan. Each individual, with his compass as his only tool, set out on his own at fifteen-minute intervals to complete “the maze.” Starting at the same point, each student began by setting his compass azimuth to 310 degrees, which, if followed correctly would lead him to the next “clue” or compass heading. Following all of the clues, we found that our final destination, of course, was our own camp. With an acute chill nipping at our toes, sub-zero rated sleeping bags welcomed us after a full day of action.
Day Five began with the prospect of the longest hike yet, an almost eight-mile journey through the bitter cold and snow. For the first couple of miles, before the freeze of the previous night lifted, the scene was simply breathtaking; on every towering tree, on every shooting branch and twig was a complete and perfect casing of ice. Because of our altitude, the trees had been smothered in a cloud of humidity, which, when combined with the freezing temperatures, caused the entire forest to glisten in what can only be described as a “winter wonderland.” Arrival at camp seemed to take forever, but the emergence of the sun from its terrible home behind the clouds sparked our spirits, and within the next twenty minutes we had arrived. Pulling into camp at around 1:35 p.m., we were already behind our scheduled “class time,” so Mr. Mike let us all take a breather and set up our new campsites. Dry wood was plentiful and, with the close proximity of the water source, this camp became my favorite. At evening rally we concluded the day by sharing our observations, and in the process, we also mysteriously cured Ralph of a sudden breakout of hiccups.
The final day of expedition began, like always, with extremely cold temperatures, but unlike the other days, it also carried the promise of relaxation. With the news that move-out would not be until 1:00 p.m., we took the time to get nice fires going, and sat and calmly soak up the beautiful day, while spending quality time with our tent partners. By 12:30 p.m. we had all packed up our camps and were lined up at the rally point ready to go. As the final leg of our journey back home to the FMA lodge began, there were exactly two things on our minds: Showers and Parmesan Chicken. There is truly no such thing as too much praise for FMA’s famous Parmesan Chicken. Much of the time hiking was spent along paved roads, finally leading up to the pasture on the outskirts of the FMA property. One by one, we tiptoed across our bridge-in-progress in the woods behind the lodge, and Expedition Six came to end, carrying the promise of more to come.