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WILD Semester

A Trek Through Montana's Beartooth Wilderness

Story by Gordon College October 13th, 2015

into the w.i.l.d

The Gordon College W.I.L.D. Semester (Wilderness Immersion and Leadership Development) is a unique and immersive learning opportunity for students interested in exploring the field of outdoor education. Each fall, students embark on a multi-week backpacking expedition as part of their W.I.L.D. experience. This year the group headed west to Montana for 17 days of hiking in the Absoraka-Beartooth Wilderness. Gordon’s Staff Photographer Mark Spooner documented the first week of their journey.
“What makes the W.I.L.D. experience, well, W.I.L.D., is the constant confrontation to learn in the most real sense—not from getting direct answers from teachers to our problems but in facing the problems in the wilderness, where you have to problem-solve to survive.” —Jess Allen


day 1

And they’re off! Undeterred by a three-hour flight delay, a missed connection and an unexpected overnight in Denver, the group makes their way west. Catching a glimpse of the Absoraka-Beartooth Wilderness from the plane window adds excitement to their nervous energy.

“Whenever I think about mountains that I saw, I always remember the rock and snow that encompassed them. Their gargantuan size left me speechless in my attempt to describe the amazing beauty they possessed. Mountains are incredible formations of God‘s power and love for his creation.” —Nate McReynolds ’18

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day 2

After touching down in Bozeman, Montana, the team heads to Yellowstone Adventure Alliance (YAA)—their “home base” of sorts—to prepare for the excursion. They plan meals, load up on groceries, assemble trail snacks, and learn the art of bear safety.
“The physical experience of our expedition in Montana was extraordinary in just about every way (in good ways and bad). We smelled just about as bad as you would expect after 17 days of hiking without showers. And dinner was not exactly gourmet—but wow! Did it taste good on a cold night after 13 miles with a 50-pound pack!” —Richelle Joseph ’18


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day 3

The team gobbles up one last indoor meal at the YAA lodge, loads their cargo, and travels through Yellowstone to the trailhead, about three hours north. They begin their journey on a trail called the Beaten Path—known for its stunning beauty and striking resemblance to the Lord of the Rings scenery. They wind through a narrow valley and climb up to Ouzel Lake. At 10,000 feet they set up camp for the evening, enjoying their first campfire meal, kicking off their nightly debriefs around the fire, and layering their technical gear to protect themselves against the whipping winds that send the 20-degree temperatures plummeting for the night.

“Being a person who contributes to the team and supports the leader without undermining their leadership is something that requires a lot of work. On the trip, we each had several opportunities to be the leader for a day. Through those experiences I not only was able to grow in my leadership, but I was also able to reflect on the type of follower I had been for previous leaders of the day.” —Evan Reppert ’18


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day 4

Still shivering, the group awakes to their first brilliant sunrise over miles of wild forest. First task of the day: defrosting the water that had frozen overnight. The group and their supplies further thaw along the day’s trek through a lake-strewn high plateau. They stop for lunch beside Dewey Lake and settle for the evening by Big Park Lake. Camping at a slightly lower altitude than the previous night means warmer temperatures, much to the group’s delight.

“Life on the trail is not easy. There are some days when your legs can barely support you when you get into camp for the night. I learned how easy it is to be selfish on those days. It‘s scary how selfish you can be when you‘re tired or uncomfortable.” —Peter Nawoichik ’17


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day 5

Greeted by clear blue skies in the morning, the group continues their hike through a valley dotted with more striking teal lakes. They pass Lake at the Falls, Rainbow Lake and Rimrock Lake before stopping for lunch and a daily lesson (the topic of the day: first aid) on the shores of Elk Lake. The lake’s icy water feels refreshing on swollen feet.

Late in the afternoon, the group comes up short on camping locations and decides to push through an extra three miles (and an elevation gain of over 1,000 feet) along the Phantom Creek Trail—bringing their total mileage for the day to 13. They arrive at Slough Lake as the sun settles behind the mountain peaks, and rejoice at the site of flat land suitable for camping. Celebration, dancing and prayers of thanksgiving commence. As does blister care.

“In a world where our physical needs are met and then some, it can be easy to convince ourselves that God is a bonus in life instead of the underlying necessity of being. In the wilderness I clearly witnessed God taking care of my basic physical and emotional needs. But he fulfilled them so much more sufficiently than I am able to do myself in the front country.” —Jess Pankratz ’16

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Day 6

Mornings on the trail begin with a hot cup of coffee and personal quiet time. After breakfast the group ascends a mammoth ridge, braving 50 mph gusts at the top and soaking in a full panoramic view of the mountain ranges surrounding them. They descend to Mystic Lake and gather for the daily lesson on backcountry baking methods (on the list of campfire desserts: chocolate peanut butter cakes and cheesecake). A friendly stone-skipping competition ensues, and the star-pocked night sky proves its magnificence once again.

“I’m growing in many ways this semester, most of all in learning how to truly serve others and put the needs of the group before my own. Living in community is a huge growing experience in that it forces you to accept and recognize your weaknesses, and work to address them for the betterment of the community.” —Blake Denman ’18

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The team

Not pictured: Scott Barnett (W.I.L.D. Semester Director) and Peter Nawoichik


Jess Pankratz
Abby Jones Coster
Blake Denman
Richelle Joseph
Evan Reppert
Jess Allen
Stefan Anthos
Nate McReynolds
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days 7-17

The group hikes out three miles to a trailhead to restock their supplies and bid farewell to Mark as he heads back to Boston. They venture on for another week and a half, tackling precarious vertical terrain, braving a 24-hour solo excursion, bushwhacking through dense forest, and battling stubborn rain that at times turns to sleet and heavy snow.

Later, W.I.L.D. Semester Director Scott Barnett explains, “One of the questions we continually asked on the trip was, ‘Are you choosing to live by faith or fear?’ These are fine sounding words spoken from within the confines of a climate-controlled classroom, but they have little weight or substance. In the wilderness, where we are quite literally out of control, choosing faith over fear is a daily necessity with extraordinary concreteness and connection to our present reality.”

The W.I.L.D. students are back from their wilderness excursion, completing the remainder of their semester in Rockport, Massachusetts. To learn more about the program, visit www.gordon.edu/wild

“When we are hiking, we are learning how to support each other and push each other. We are learning how each person learns and how we interact with each other. The W.I.L.D. semester teaches through experience—learning by doing.” —Stefan Anthos ’18

Footnote: Photos by Mark Spooner http://www.markspoonerphoto.com
Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Mc Leod, MT, United States
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