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Linn County Conservation accepting applications for free beginner backpacking trip
Eight high school students will learn more about the wilderness — and themselves — in Colorado’s South San Juan Wilderness Area.
The South San Juan Wilderness Area claims more than 150,000 acres of southwestern Colorado, harboring rocky peaks and lush valleys carved long ago by glaciers and volcanoes. Trails weave through mazes of pine, aspen, spruce and fir trees. Vista points dot the paths, glorious views stretching to the horizon.
The mountainous landscape feels worlds away from Iowa’s hills that fan like gentle waves across most of the state. But eight high school students will be able to experience the wild — and embrace it — through a fully funded two-week backpacking trek offered by Linn County Conservation.
“There's absolutely zero wilderness in Iowa,” said Kent Rector, manager of Linn County’s Wickiup Hill Learning Center. “For our students to experience an actual federally designated wilderness, we have to take them to one and immerse them in it.”
Not an expert hiker? Don’t worry: The ideal applicant is someone who is passionate about exploring wild spaces but who may not have the opportunity or means to do so. Accepted students will be trained and provided gear; all they need to bring to the table is a willingness to learn, grow and collaborate.
Rector and Linn County Sustainability Director Tamara Marcus will accompany accepted applicants on the trek and support them. An outfitter for Step Outdoors, a Colorado-based company providing outdoor experiences and educational opportunities, also will contribute their expertise as a skilled backpacker and navigator.
The otherworldly adventure is completely free for the eight accepted applicants. Thanks to financial support from NATOPAKAMA Bittersweet Foundation, SOKO Outfitters and the Kate Svitek Memorial Foundation, the program will cover all transportation, equipment and meals for the students.
“One of the goals of the program as a whole is really to reach students who otherwise wouldn't have had an opportunity like this,” Marcus said. “It really is a unique program that is taking into account different barriers that might be presented to different students and trying to address them as best as we're able to.”
Applications from students currently enrolled in a Linn County high school will be prioritized. Applicants from other counties will be considered if there are still unfilled spots.
It’s the second time the opportunity has been offered to Linn County students. Last year’s trek took place in the same wilderness area.
“Now that we've got a lot of the logistics under our belt … it's a little bit more familiar,” Rector said. “We can continue a little bit of the trail work in the area that we were working on last year.”
The trail work, designated by the U.S. Forest Service, represents one pillar of the trek: stewardship.
Other aspects of the program include a robust study of wilderness itself through supplied readings and workshops on related philosophies and ideas. The crew also will stop along the trail for lessons about local biology, botany, ecology and more.
Most importantly, the students will gain outdoor leadership and recreation skills that they can carry with them throughout their life, no matter the setting.
“It's not just about traveling and experiencing — it's about growing,” Kent said. “It takes a lot of creative thinking, critical thinking, problem solving, communication … Those are life skills.”
The South San Juan Wilderness Trek will take place from July 17-27. An informational meeting will take place on March 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the Wickiup Hill Learning Center. Applications are due April 22. There will be a mandatory orientation and training days for accepted applicants.
Want to help support the next cohort of students?
Although the program is free for participants, donations from individuals, businesses, and organizations make the program possible, according to Linn County Conservation. A year’s program can be fully funded with $8,000 in contributions.
Interested donors can donate online or mail a check to: “Linn County Conservation, % Wilderness Trek, 10260 Morris Hills Road Toddville, IA 5234.”
Brittney J. Miller is the Energy & Environment Reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.
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