Prior to the solos, twice-weekly Field Instruction classes and recent Exploration Week trips had honed the skills students needed: selecting a level, safe spot for a tent; setting up the tent correctly, so it would be waterproof even in a downpour; making a small, well-contained fire; staying warm despite below-freezing temperatures; handling sanitation safely; treating camping sites gently and respectfully, according to Leave No Trace principles; and storing food in bear-tight containers, away from sleeping areas.
Staff members checked on students regularly, from a distance, throughout the weekend via a message system. Every few hours, each student tied a bandanna high in a tree near their site, and their supervising staff member, in turn, re-tied the bandanna low; this tying and retying of bandannas throughout the solo experience was the signal back and forth that all was well. In addition, we all carried cell phones for emergencies.
I’m happy to say that the solo night passed uneventfully and safely, even though the temperature dropped to 29 the first night, and some students and staff reported that the cold made sleeping a little difficult. The temperature wasn’t the only factor that kept some of us awake: the coyotes had a rip-roaring time Saturday night, startling us periodically with ear-splitting yowling and yipping throughout the night. Coyotes always sound to me like a pack of deranged dogs having a wild party. The weird crescendo of excited barks and drawn-out wails just goes on and on, higher and higher up the octaves. (Listen to this clip and read Why Coyotes Howl on the Penn State research site for a spot-on description that likens coyote howls to “maniacal laughter.”) Lying in my sleeping bag, listening to the coyotes let loose Saturday night, I wondered how unnerved the students would be, and waited for a panicked phone call, but none came … apparently everyone coped just fine, despite the night-time chorus.
Once solos ended Sunday afternoon, students moved their tents to small-group base camps to talk about their experiences and to spend another night camping as a group. One question I posed to students during the solo and then again at my lunch table today was, “Why do we like camping out like this, when it’s hard work, it’s often uncomfortable, and sometimes it’s even kind of scary?”
Here are some of the reasons students gave:
1) Completing a solo gives you a feeling of accomplishment.
2) The experience makes us reflect on the luxury we live in and how much work it is when you’re on your own to meet your basic needs.
3) It’s a fun challenge to make a good fire — especially to try to make a fire with just one match.
4) The experience makes us notice and appreciate everyday pleasures like hot showers.
5) You can focus completely on enjoying the feeling of being outdoors.
6) A successful solo experience is a confidence-booster.
7) You see and hear things you normally would never notice or wouldn’t have a chance to see. Some interesting sights and sounds students reported: trumpeter swans honking overhead, an eagle swooping in to snatch up a vole, a wolf chasing a deer, a bright moon and stars at the break of dawn, and the early-morning silence being broken by a single bird call, followed by more and more birdsong.
Many thanks to Cathy Palmer, Conserve School Director of Outdoor Programs, for orchestrating the entire weekend (think of the gear necessary for 60+ camping sites!) and ensuring that our solo weekend was such a success.
– Mary Anna
P.S. The photos you see are from the small group of students I oversaw during their solo experiences. As more staff members and students post photos, we’ll publish more for you to enjoy.