Exhausted from our first day of portaging and canoeing with near-strangers, we huddled around the warmth of the campfire. Under the shelter of a lean-to, we — mosquito-bitten Almost Freshmen — sat enthralled by tales of Hamilton College on the first night of Adirondack Adventure. One of us fell asleep. The rest of us stared into the fire and tried to foresee what Hamilton held in store for us.
Of the 466 students who entered Hamilton with the Class of 2013, 246 elected to begin college life with one of 21 Adirondack Adventure pre-orientation trips. Of those 246, eight signed up for the Raquette Lake Adventure Writing trip, which combined an eight-day canoeing and camping trip with a semester-long writing course taught by Maurice Isserman, the James L. Ferguson Professor of History. The group was made up of a few experienced skiers, climbers and hikers as well as several first-time canoers. This is a chronicle of how those eight frightened students traversed the wild, overcame their inhibitions and, perhaps most importantly, became us.
After moving into dorm rooms and sharing emotional goodbyes with teary parents, the students of Adirondack Adventure were herded onto Love Field. We were introduced to Andrew Jillings, the outdoor education coordinator, who led us through a series of quirky icebreaker games. There, in the sweltering August air, we survived the first few hours of college life by engaging in massive tournaments of rock, paper, scissors. With the ice if not broken at least slightly chipped, sweaty students were divided into individual AA groups. It was our first encounter with our soon-to-be Adventure Writing classmates. We sat in a circle, our excitement tempered for the sake of “cool,” and tried not to forget our own names when we were called upon. It was all our trip leaders, seniors Kevin Rowe and Corinne Bancroft, could do to get us safely through our first-day jitters.
Despite their best efforts, our shyness persisted through the night. We met in a classroom with our two leaders to reflect on our goals for the trip. We sat around a table — journals out and ready — sneaking glances at our new classmates. Without communicating, we had decided that the awkwardness of silence was preferable to the awkwardness of conversation. At least in silence you couldn’t say the wrong thing. Kevin and Corinne’s pleas for conversation hung stale in the air. Even after we wrote in our journals, all of us were still hesitant to open up.
The group’s first challenge came the next morning, at the Kirkland Glen low ropes course. When we saw our first element, “The Mohawk Walk,” we thought it was impossible. We had to cross a tightrope strung among dozens of trees without letting anyone fall. The group agreed that the ground would be “lava,” and any contact with it would result in immediate and violent death, after which the deceased would have to return to the earliest stage of the element. After a few failed attempts, we realized that a ropes course was no place for timidity. Balancing on tightropes and hugging trees and peers forced us to trust one another. Even though we had met only the day before, we were forced out of our comfort zones and challenged to work as a team rather than as assembled strangers.
The sun was high in the sky by the time we left the ropes course and headed to our first meeting with the professor. We arrived chatting and giggling, so engrossed in our own conversation that at first we didn’t even notice the man reclining near us, a beagle at his feet. Never had we seen someone lounge in an Adirondack chair with such intimidating authority. There was the distinct scent of academia about him. We sat circled around him and silence set in. Professor Isserman broke the quiet by introducing himself and talking about the course. By the time he was finished, we were all excited for the coming semester. “And hey,” he added as we wrapped up our first meeting, “I’ll be the only professor who knows your name on the first day of class.”
At 6:30 the next morning, we set off on our adventure. During the six-and-a-half miles across Forked Lake, we shouted across canoes and played games to pass the time. It was quite relaxing until the laborious portage. The group worked together as we hauled our heavy packs and canoes down the one-and-a-half mile trail. After a few more miles of paddling on Raquette Lake, we found a campsite to spend the night. Our stomachs growled with hunger as we hurriedly built a fire and cooked some spaghetti. As we slurped down noodles with sauce and a bit of “natural trail spice” (dirt), we concluded that no pasta had ever tasted this delicious. Later that night, the professor told us stories of Hamilton in its younger days, his “lecture” only occasionally interrupted by Chip’s ferocious snore.
Early the next morning, we woke to our leaders’ cheery voices, the crisp clean air of the wild and the sunlight drifting through the canopy. We packed up camp as quickly as possible and managed to get onto the water early in the day. Unfortunately, the weather was not in our favor while we crossed a narrow channel. The canoes drifted wildly as we fought the fierce wind, choppy waters and the wakes of speeding motorboats.
All of our group members worked hard as we battled the lake in pairs. And even though we rowed until our muscles ached, we found an antidote in Disney sing-alongs. Arriving at Big Island, we jumped out of the canoes and climbed onto the bank. After storing our cargo at the campsite, we enjoyed a leisurely swim down the coast of the island. Our explorations led us to a large rock that was the perfect photo opportunity.
“Say cheese?” mumbled Kevin as he fiddled with the camera. He took a quick picture, and we slid back into the water to return to camp and set up for a lunch of our group’s favorite food: Nutella.
After eating, we were lounging in the sun when Professor Isserman gave us a new and alien task: writing. Armed with our journals, we set off into the pristine forest of Big Island in search of solitary places to write. Though in name we were the Adventure Writers, we hadn’t actually recorded anything about our adventures yet. The experience produced our first attempt at college-level writing. While the entries were not graded, we all wrote with the expectations of our professor and peers in the back of our minds.
At dinner we shared our work. The assignment was to write one sentence about our day. Though it was only a few words, we all felt a bit anxious sharing something so personal. But presentation is an important aspect of the course; sharing, critiquing and peer reviewing are now something we’re all comfortable with. To ease the tension, the group shared some pot brownies (brownies made in a pot!) as we read our sentences aloud:
“The dominant wind, ruling the rocking waters, burns my stubborn arms.” — Anna Zahm
“The water laps gently at my toes, while the breeze bends the reeds and scatters the pages of my journal, as if to defy my effort to share this moment with anyone else.” — Chip Larsen
“The best motivators can be simple things such as an enthusiastic friend, a new opportunity or even an endless bag of gorp.” — Tucker Keren
On our last day in the wilderness, we canoed to Tioga Point for a day hike through the woods. We trekked the eight miles in a single file, our noisy inside jokes and sing-a-longs echoing through the serene woods surrounding Tioga Trail. When a brief but intense thunderstorm prevented us from paddling back to camp, we embraced the extra time to joke with one another as we sat and chatted under a small lean-to.
After an hour or so, we headed back to Big Island, enjoying the easy paddling through the calm after the storm. We set up our last camp before cooking a delicious meal of mac and cheese.
After dinner we huddled around the fire, taking in the last moments of our trip together. We sat, staring into the flames, wondering what the next week (and the next four years) held for us. Over the trip we had become linked through our shared experiences, but would that be enough to sustain our friendships at Hamilton? We briefly acknowledged our fears, quizzed Corinne and Kevin about college life, and wondered what our future at Hamilton would bring.
After orientation week, our group reunited in our first Adventure Writing class. There were only eight members on our trip, but nine students sat around the table. We looked at each other inquisitively, all of us wondering the same thing: “Who the Sam Hill is this kid?” The stranger was “Dirty” Joe Lobel, a rock-climbing New Jerseyan who had managed to weasel his way into the class. At first we all just assumed he was yet another confused freshman who mistakenly wandered into the wrong class. But he kept showing up, and when asked about him the professor insisted he was in our class. We continued to view him with a mixture of suspicion and dislike until, under pressure from the group, he confessed his love for the outdoors and for all things Disney. Before long we had accepted him as one of our own.
Over the next few weeks, we went from dirty campers to relatively hygienic Hamilton freshmen. However, every Tuesday and Thursday we’d regress to a more adventurous state of mind for Adventure Writing. In the first weeks of the class, Professor Isserman taught us the value of writing economy and that the biggest word was not always the best. Our writing improved tremendously in the first month of class thanks to his
erudite tutelage guidance.
In September, we returned to the Adirondacks where we canoed through the beaver-dammed Sacanadaga River. Andrew Jillings led us while songs and splash wars pierced the crisp autumn air. A month later, we hiked Blue Mountain, fighting up its slippery rock faces and steep trails to experience the spectacular view from the top. Our trips back to the wilderness gave us a break from the classroom and a chance to reconnect with our friends in the wild.
In hindsight, the Raquette Lake Adventure Writing course was a great decision. The trip eased our transition into college by providing us with a solid core of friends and the confidence to take on our first year. More importantly, it gave us the opportunity to hone our writing and speaking skills every Tuesday and Thursday. Plus, we got to enjoy the natural beauty of the Adirondacks through our group’s weekend excursions. It is easy to say that the Adventure Writing course has enhanced our Hamilton experience, but it is nearly impossible to imagine our time here without it.