Reflections on an Incredible Adventure Treks Summer

John Dockendorf21 Aug, 2020
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It has been an absolute privilege to operate Adventure Treks this summer. To be able to see the joy on teenagers’ faces as they reveled in face-to-face connections with friends and had a ton of fun in the outdoors—in the middle of a pandemic—made everyone’s hard work completely worth it. By facilitating the communities and outdoor experiences we’re known for, and being able to give teens a few weeks of relative normalcy, has made summer 2020 one of the most rewarding we’ve ever had.

A highlight of the summer for me was watching our Blue Ridge Expedition 2 group on closing morning; they held each other tight and shed many tears, not wanting to say goodbye and return to the real world. They had created such a special place for themselves that they couldn’t bear for it to end.

The summer began with stress, soul-searching, and uncertainty. We cancelled all of our trips in the western U.S., replacing them with fewer trips (and smaller groups) near our basecamp in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. While operating Adventure Treks in a pandemic did not come without risk, we felt based on all available data and science that it was a reasonable risk. It just didn’t feel right to close when we have thousands of acres of wilderness, rocks, and rivers right in our backyard, and we knew that kids needed AT more than ever. While nothing in life is 100 percent safe, we believed we could keep each trip locked down and safer than virtually any other place in the world.

Being able to serve our families this summer was truly a massive joint effort, with a lot of folks helping us and rooting for our success.

First, I want to thank our students. I don’t think I heard a single complaint all summer. They arrived eager to have fun, make friends, and follow the rules. Anything we asked, they did without question. “Put your mask on in the van, wash your hands again, keep your distance from that other group”… students were compliant and careful, helpful and kind. They made this summer memorable with their enthusiasm, energy, and excitement. They made the most of every second of Adventure Treks.

Of equal importance, I want to thank our instructors. They took a risk by agreeing to work for Adventure and were willing to look beyond their own health and be locked down all summer in order to be role models for AT kids. Prior to the summer, several instructors opted out. This year’s team accepted the challenge, followed our COVID policies to a T, and invested themselves in creating meaningful experiences for our students.

I want to thank Camp Pinnacle, especially the kitchen team who delivered some delicious meals once or twice each trip, giving students and instructors a break from cooking and a fantastic meal. In addition, Camp Pinnacle loaned us canoes, bike trailer and bikes, and all kinds of outdoor gear—which we needed, as much of our gear was in our warehouse in Washington. We’d also like to thank Andrew Bell of Camp Mondamin, who rented us one of our four private campsites, as well as canoes and mountain bikes.

Another thanks to the unsung hero of the summer, our logistics director, Jack Hoiland. Turning on a dime after eight months of planning all the intricate details of our western trips and then planning the details of 10 North Carolina trips in less than a month, he took on the behemoth of food. To keep our instructors and students safely quarantined, he did all the food shopping for every trip… he spent more times in Sam’s Club and Ingles than any human should ever have to. And we ate well!

We want to thank our nurse, Andrea Little-Gray, who was on call for us 24/7, and our medical director, Dr. Andy Morris. Their ability and willingness to come to our basecamp when needed helped us stay in quarantine from the outside world. (We are, of course, grateful their help was rarely needed.)

We could not have opened Adventure Treks alone. Though virtually every similar outdoor program closed this summer, some western North Carolina summer camps did open. We shared resources and information, supported each other, and came up with best practices together. Besides Camp Pinnacle, shout-outs go to Camps Keystone, Timberlake, Merri-Mac, and Ton-A-Wandah. We also want to acknowledge our friend Steve Baskin of Camp Champions in Texas who opened three weeks before us, helping pave the way for NC camps. He kept our inboxes filled with the latest science that supported our opening.

Thank you to the North Carolina Youth Camp Association, who shared research, gave moral support, and contributed to the efforts that sped up and clarified new regulations. We appreciate Sandi Boyer’s efforts in convincing the state that Adventure Treks could open safely, and we thank Chuck McGrady for his endless lobbying on behalf of camps. On the local level, our county government never wavered in their support of camps, and three of our local elected officials even sent their children or grandchildren to Pinnacle this summer. John Mitchell of the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development was instrumental in lobbying the governor’s office on our behalf.

We would like to thank our local health department, especially Garrett Rapp and Seth Goad, who supported us through the summer, made special trips to camp prior to opening to go over best practices, and helped us think through possible scenarios. Without their confidence and support, our opening would not have been possible. We also appreciate the work of Keystone Lab who set aside PCR tests for our staff in June when there were few to be had and helped us develop a testing strategy to ensure our instructors’ safety.

Lastly but most importantly, thanks to our parents for their support, trust, and faith in us. We know it wasn’t easy sending kids to AT this year, and we appreciate your belief in the value of Adventure Treks. We especially appreciate how seriously you took your quarantines and testing, and we truly believe every Adventure Treks student and every staff member arrived COVID-free and stayed that way. We are grateful for the long drives many of you made to make this experience possible for your kids!

We feel honored to have delivered a very special summer to our students and instructors. We feel proud that even though programming was different (in NC with smaller groups), we delivered a summer that resembled about 90 percent of the normal AT experience.

We operated Adventure Treks at 35 percent of normal capacity for appropriate cohorting and group size limitations, and we intentionally over-hired so we could continue to operate safely in case anyone developed symptoms. The wonderful benefit to this was that our students got to do an incredible array of activities and got to know their instructors and directors better than ever.

Together, we all created a very special and a very safe summer. We are truly grateful. Thank you all.

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