Opera Comes to the North Woods of Maine

An illustrated synopsis of 9th Grade Outdoor Experience 2013
By Lowell Libby, Upper School Director
It was an unlikely place and a less likely circumstance for Leah Israel, Waynflete ninth grader, when she took to the stage last Thursday evening.  By then, Leah and her classmates had already had a busy week.  Waynflete’s ninth graders left Portland early Tuesday morning and headed north to the Nahmakanta Public Reserve.  The Reserve, which is part of a giant swath of preserved wilderness in north central Maine that also includes the Appalachian Trail Corridor, The Nature Conservancy’s Katahdin Forest Project, and Baxter State Park, is home to the Chewonki Foundation’s Debsconeag Lake Wilderness Camp on Fourth Debsoneag Lake, which serves as base camp for the ninth grade Outdoor Experience program.  Divided into six groups that will meet weekly throughout the upcoming year for the ninth grade seminar, the students began their Upper School experience with four days of building outdoor and mindfulness skills and awareness, getting to know each other and faculty outside regular school activities, and having lots of challenge and fun in the process.


The Thursday of her performance, Leah and her seminar group woke up in their tents on the banks of Nahmakanta Lake, where they had paddled the day before.  After breakfast they broke camp, paddled back down the lake, and were joined by a second group of campers.  They then settled into an orienteering lesson lead by a Chewonki staff member and your faithful reporter.  The lesson began by asking students to look for clues in their environment to determine which way is north.  When asked to point north, the students’ vividly demonstrated why an orienteering lesson was in order as their theories varied widely.  Motivated by the news that they would be navigating the two miles back to base camp where lunch would be waiting, students paid close attention to the lesson and poured attentively over the maps as they learned the basics of how to navigate without a GPS.


Having arrived at base camp, the two seminar groups moved their gear into the yurts where they would staying and reported to the main lodge where English teacher turned master chef Lorry Stillman had prepared yet another nutritious and delicious feast.   After lunch, the orienteering lesson continued with a climb to the bald top of the steep cliffs that rise 800’ above the lake level to study the spectacular surrounding topography.  Back at the lake after their strenuous ascent, they were joined by two other groups that had been out on a day long hike, relaxed by swimming, and then reported to the lodge to help Lorry prepare dinner for the students and staff at base camp.


After dinner, two of the groups met with Dean of Students Lydia Maier for the evening program.  Each evening during the week, groups took turns circling up in a yurt and taking the time to consider the poignant moment of transition into the Upper School.  After role-playing various parts of the brain, students reflected on how fear can motivate or hold back active engagement with their lives and relationships.  Sitting in silence allowed the students to tune into their body signals for stress or relaxation.  They explored how awareness of emotions expands their options for positive and empathetic responses.  On that final night, the students sat in mindful silence for fifteen minutes as the first rain of the week fell and lightning lit up their circle in memorable intervals.  As they embark on their journeys into the Upper School, it was inspiring to hear how many students already practice self care, enhancing the likelihood that they will contribute to making a resilient Upper School community built on shared experience.


Meanwhile, the other two groups, including Leah’s, met in the lodge after dinner clean-up was complete for a hotly contested game of Minute to Win It hosted by science teacher turned game show host Neil Rice.  The competition included such events as juggling balloons, flipping and catching pencils, and moving Oreo cookies from the eye socket to the mouth without the use of hands.  The evening was filled with the thrill of triumph and the anguish of defeat.
The final event featured each team’s choice to show off a special talent.  The first contestant tried stand-up comedy, the second danced the Cancan (which we suspect hadn’t happened in the north woods for quite some time).  And then Leah stepped onto the stage, a modest cleared space amidst the dining hall tables. Accompanied only by rain pounding on the metal roof, she belted out an aria that filled the lodge, blew away the competition, and then, when she had finished and was high-fiving with her triumphant teammates, rolled through the surrounding hills and forest to the heavy clapping thunder.


And so ended another highly successful week for a ninth grade class in the north woods.  We returned to civilization the next day, carrying with us new skills and confidence, fresh and freshened friendships, strengthened connections to the natural world, and happy, vivid memories as we head into the school year.
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