Why We’re Opening Adventure Treks This Summer

John Dockendorf28 May, 2020
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The decision to open Adventure Treks this season has been the hardest one I’ve made in my 30 years working in youth development. The decision was made after many sleepless nights trying to figure which option was the best… out of no perfect options. It’s a decision made not from hubris, but with clear eyes and the belief in our mission of Adventure Treks as an important educational institution. We feel a sense of duty to serve our families when kids need community and outdoors the most.

Of course, safety comes first at Adventure Treks, which puts pressure on us as directors to work tirelessly to mitigate the risks to the best of our ability. This summer, Adventure Treks won’t exactly resemble the program we all know and love, but we firmly believe it’ll still be the fun, growth-oriented, and community-minded experience we promise every year. We’ll still have all of our great activities available, and our instructors and directors are more excited than ever to see each of our students. Bonus: By being headquartered in NC, every one of our directors will get to meet every one of our students and their parents!

How can we run Adventure Treks safely?

We’ll be opening in partnership with the Henderson County Health Department, with permission from the state of NC, and with the support of our local government. We have (exhaustively) studied the guidance from the American Camp Association and NC Department of Health and Human Services. We have diligently pursued the best information we could find.

At first, we were slightly daunted; could we simultaneously adhere to the guidelines while keeping Adventure Treks a fun, exciting, and magical place to be with friends?

We meet the CDC requirements to operate based on their decision tree. We’ve had countless discussions and brainstorms with our medical director (Dr. Morris at Blue Ridge Community Health), other directors in our industry, and members of the health department, and we’ve run through endless “what if” scenarios to leave no stone unturned.

Adventure Treks has always been a small-group program, meaning our students already spend the majority of time in groups of 30 or fewer people. This year, we are reducing group size to 16 students and five instructors, with backcountry groupings of eight students and two instructors. This also means that under the new guidelines, the changes we’ll have to make are far less radical than the changes other, larger organizations would have to implement.  Our trip groups have always essentially been quarantined in the wilderness from the outside world, anyway!

After all this… we realized that we can meet those guidelines, and of any program we can think of , it won’t be that hard to make Adventure Treks still feel like Adventure Treks. Only the scenery (and the humidity) will change, as we will only be operating in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

Why not just close for the summer?

There are six of us in the Dockendorf family. We have sheltered in place, continue to wear face coverings in public, and have deep respect for the consequences of COVID-19. We know people who have gotten sick with mild symptoms, and others who fell extremely ill. We have friends whose relatives have died from the virus. We take COVID-19 very seriously.

But we have also seen the mental health effects that this pandemic has brought on our own kids and their friends, and we’ve reviewed disturbing data about double-digit increases in societal anxiety and depression. (See this Wall Street Journal article and these Kaiser Family Foundation stats.) We know how much the Adventure Treks community means to our students, and for this age group (at least, looking at what my family needs), the benefits of Adventure Treks outweigh the risks.

Adventure Treks is a magical place for teens to just be kids, have fun, and disconnect from the pressures they face every day. We feel obligated to use the outdoors for their betterment. We believe we can create a carefully isolated “Adventure Treks bubble” that’s separate from the outside world, where for 10 to 23 days kids don’t have to worry about COVID-19. They can explore the outdoors, learn from caring role models, and greet old friends and make new ones. While no one can guarantee a place free from COVID-19, we think we can create a place that’s safer than most, if not all, typical summer alternatives (like beaches, amusement parks, campgrounds, even sports tryouts).

We know life isn’t returning to normal anytime soon; we don’t even know what’s going to happen with schools this fall. It’s very possible we could be facing this same decision about opening AT in 2021… if we don’t take the initiative now to figure it out.

Taking reasonable risks

The easiest decision, in terms of eliminating all risk, would be to close AT for summer 2020. But we don’t think that’s the best or ultimately the safest decision for our students. Risk is an inevitable and unavoidable part of life. Acceptable and reasonable risk can only be defined in relation to perceived benefits while weighing the alternative risks of different courses of action.

We have been mitigating outdoor risk all our lives. Some activities we do on a regular basis (driving in Washington state, rafting the Middle Klamath River, and mountain biking in Oregon, for example) are statistically more dangerous than the current probability of consequences from COVID-19, if contracted by those in our students’ age group. While we realize there is far greater uncertainty with COVID-19 than, say, influenza, when we compare risks and benefits for kids who love camp, we would always choose letting our kids participate versus stay at home. (Here’s a WSJ article on the evidence of kids and COVID-19 and another on influenza vs. COVID-19.)

We didn’t make this decision rashly. And with the programming modifications we’ve made thus far, including operating later in the summer, significantly reducing overall capacity to 35 percent, and testing and quarantining our instructors and directors for two weeks, we can reduce much of the risk at Adventure Treks.

What’s next?

students hiking mt shasta mountain in snowWe are moving ahead carefully. We are well-connected within the camp and outdoor industry. Many traditional summer camps in the South will open an entire month earlier than us, so we’ll watch them carefully to learn from their successes and failures. If at any time we feel that the risks become too great, we will change our decision. We are also continuing to watch the outside world and data from the state of North Carolina. We hope to be in phase three with fewer restrictions when AT opens. Should numbers in NC take a turn for the worse in the month ahead, that may affect how we move forward.

The choice of whether to attend AT this summer (and the reasons behind that choice) will be unique to each family. We respect whatever decision families make, and we know coming to Adventure Treks may not be the right choice this year for some of you. (And if that’s the case, we’ll welcome you with open arms in 2021.) For those of you joining us in 2020, we will rely on an enhanced partnership with parents that begins with the shared belief that life and AT can never be 100 percent certain, and that this year there are more unknowns than ever. In short, we believe that every family has different circumstances and must weigh the benefits and risks to decide if AT is a “reasonable risk.”

We promise to do our very best, but again, even if we could test every student several times, no system will be foolproof. We are counting on parents to do all in their power to bring healthy students to us. The biggest risk may come after AT, and keeping AT students away from vulnerable populations for two weeks once they return home is a critically important responsibility

We will continue to study the science and run the best possible program while mitigating as much risk as we can. We are working incredibly hard and doing all in our power to continue to create a special place for our students. If you missed it, you can view our new 2020 Standards of Care here. We encourage you to read both thoroughly to understand what we’re doing differently this summer. We are here for you; call us anytime at 888-954-5555 with questions.

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