Pack Rats

There's No Time Like Early Adolescence To Learn How To Tread Lightly.

By Kevin Franklin

ACCORDING TO DAVID Heintz, people who backpack are freaks. Heintz, along with seven other members of the St. Gregory Middle School's Outdoor Action Club, are trudging their way up Douglas Spring Trail on the northwest flank of the Rincon Mountains. The group plans to hike across Saguaro National Park over the next four days during their spring break. I'm tagging along as a chaperone.

Some have backpacked before and carry their loads with relative ease. But for many of the 13- and 14-year-old students, this is the first time they've had to endure a heavy backpack. After the first mile, the novelty of the experience is wearing off and the challenge of carrying four days of food and gear is becoming apparent.

Review "I mean, I'm in shape, but you have to be crazy to enjoy doing this," Heintz says. A similar sentiment is coursing through much of the group.

As we follow the trail into the mountains, these grumblings make me both amused and nostalgic. I remember my first backpacking trips, where I was convinced no human had ever before borne such tremendous weight. Today when I load 35 pounds of water into an already full pack for a two-day trip into the summer desert, I have fond memories of those packs of yesteryear. Hiking around the northern reaches of Michigan and parts of Canada, I slowly learned the same lessons being learned here by these students: the value of traveling lightly.

Hopefully, down the line, other significant concepts will become clear. Along with simple and enjoyable recreation, backpacking provides an arena to examine a host of principles.

For starters, it alters our view of time and distance. Ten miles is nothing on the freeway; but it can be more than a day on the trail. Walking for two hours in the mall is exhausting, but it's hardly a start during a backwoods trip.

Backpacking also teaches a lot of pragmatic things that cross over into everyday life. For instance, it pays to spend an extra five minutes to do something right, like securing your gear, rather than have to endure the consequences down the road.

It also teaches perseverance and instills confidence. Every time these kids look at the mountain, they'll have tangible proof of what they can do when they set their minds to it. Any obstacle that seems overwhelming can itself be overwhelmed with determination.

These are things that can be grasped intellectually, but never truly understood without first-hand experience.

Combine this naturalist philosophy with a hands-on introduction to the natural sciences, ecology and teamwork, and the potential for outdoor education expands to fill all available learning space.

However, none of these philosophies are on these kids' minds, or even my own, as we approach mid-day. Lunch is the immediate issue.

We round the bend and Bridal Wreath Falls comes into view. The complaints and carping vaporize like the mist rising from the falls. With all the recent rains, the water cascades powerfully over the rounded boulders and slopes. In any place, these falls would be a remarkable phenomenon, but here in the desert they're almost magical.

After an ample meal it's time once again to heft our packs onto rested shoulders and continue up the mountain. Our goal is Douglas Spring Campground. As the day wears on, I get more and more questions about how much farther we have to go. I'm reminded of my middle-school outdoor teacher, Mr. Belote. Whenever anyone asked, he would point to a distant hill and say camp was just over it. When we reached the hill in question, and camp was nowhere in sight, he'd point to another distant hill and say it was just over that one. And so on. Eventually, we figured he had no idea where camp was and stopped asking. Which, I realize now, was his intent.

"Mr. Franklin, how much farther to camp?" one of the students asks.

"I'm pretty sure it's just over that hill," I reply.

Hey, it's not just the kids who are learning things on this trip. TW

Getting There

Back-country permits are required to camp in Saguaro National Park, Rincon District. Permits can be issued up to two months in advance, but must be obtained before noon the day camping begins. Contact the visitor center, 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail, at (520) 733-5153 for more information.

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