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Northern Tier outreach program takes VCS students into BWCA

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TOWER- Can a single trip into the Boundary Waters transform a teen’s life? For some Vermilion Country School students, the answer may be yes.

Thanks to a program funded by Northern Tier High Adventure Base in Ely, groups of VCS students have been taking guided wilderness trips, both in the summer and winter, into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Northern Tier is run by the Boy Scouts of America, but does outreach to teens in underserved populations who are not in Scouting. The base outfits over 4,000 scouts each year on wilderness trips.

“Trust me until we get out there,” said Northern Tier Staff Mike Joint, who was doing a pre-trip meeting with the group of six students and one teacher who had signed up for this summer’s adventure. “You are going to love it.”

Jules Schmidt is doing a repeat trip, having participated in last year’s adventure. She said while she had been camping with her family before, this experience was completely different.

“I separated from everyday life,” she said. “I embraced nature and was a part of a team. When we are in the woods we depend on each other.” She said the trip helped her understand how her actions affect others. “That makes me want to work my hardest,” she said.

The trip also challenged her entire world view.

“I paddled a canoe, carried it on my shoulders, and traveled miles just to see a world that I knew was there but had never truly embraced,” she said. “The one trip I went on last year has changed my ambitions in life. I want more. More adventure, more teamwork, and more nature.”

Jules will have a leadership role on the trip this year. As crew leader, she will help assign camp chores, and help make decisions on where to set up camp, when to have rest stops, and more.

Joint, a long-time Northern Tier instructor, who previously worked as a paraprofessional at VCS, has helped arrange these trips for the school. Most of the students taking advantage of the trips have never been on overnight wilderness trips before. Most do not own the gear required. But as part of the trip, all the equipment needed, including sleeping bags, tents, canoes, packs, rain gear, canoe-friendly footwear, and even wool socks, are provided. Northern Tier is also covering the costs for food, and the overnight at the base camp. The program is made possible by private donations, Joint said.

“Our Northern Tier canoe trip was possible through Mike,” said VCS teacher Karin Schmidt, who has also participated in these BWCAW trips. “He still connects to our students, and he respects that we integrate environmental learning into our curriculum.”

Schmidt said the trip was more than a few days outside of regular school.

“I saw strength, grit, and persistence grow in each and every student,” she said. “They rose to higher expectations than any classroom teacher could imagine as we mastered teamwork skills. A classroom teaches to a limit, but the outdoors goes far beyond.”

Karin is certain that this year’s trip will be just as transformational, and once again she is participating as a second adult leader.

Joint reviewed the gear and attitudes that will be needed on the trip, which will leave on May 25. Students brought in the clothing and footwear they were planning to bring. If their gear wasn’t up to snuff, Joint said Northern Tier will be able to lend the clothing and footwear needed to make the trip safe and comfortable.

Northern Tier will also be hosting a presentation including songs and skits for VCS students on Thursday, May 24. This presentation will be a pre-trip orientation for the students venturing out first thing on Friday morning.

“We want to be over-prepared, not under-prepared,” he said. “The name of the game is to stay warm and dry.”

Safety is also a major concern. Joint explained that the students would need to wear their life jackets at all times when out in the water, even if they decide to brave the cold water for a swim.

The group, with three canoes, five students, Joint, and one VCS teacher, will have a send-off by the Tower Harbor, but the trip will enter the BWCAW on the Little Indian Sioux River, and travel up to Lac LaCroix.

Daniel Kuriatnyk has never been on a canoe trip before, let-alone a five-day wilderness trip. He was excited and a bit apprehensive, but certainly up to the challenge. And if his trip is anything like the group that went last year, he won’t be disappointed. Jacob Dorman participated in the trip last year.

“The trip was very memorable,” he said, “because I had never been camping before. When we got to base camp I was a little nervous due to all the equipment that had to be carried and the size of the backpack!” he said. Jacob said his attitude to being out in the wilderness changed after the trip. Though he noted that taking a hot shower when he got home really felt good.

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