4:45 am Saturday March 9, 12 SMU Spring Breakers piled into the white Outdoor Adventure van, closely situated after only just learning each other’s names and majors. 14 hours later, 7:00 pm Mountain Time, the van pulled into the Rio Rancho Comfort Inn, completing day one of the road trip to Canyonlands National Park, UT.
For spring break 2013, SMU’s Outdoor Adventure Program took eight students backpacking March 9 – 17 through the Needles District of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. The trip was planned and led by student Leaders Jeremy Rechtien, Grant Ryden and Karly Hanson. Program director Albert Mitugo also tagged along.
Students of different ages and languages came together for a unique experience. Graduate students Sanket Ghormade and Leo Yu, transfer student Chanesia Johnson, Jing Jing Yang, sophomores Arvin Tsai, Lizzie Wilson, and freshmen Alex Stephens and Becca Rothstein all signed up for a spring break away in the back country. Only two had backpacking experience, and only four had been camping before.
The trip itinerary consisted of two driving days, the first night spent in the Comfort Inn and the second camping out at the privately owned Needles Outpost – the last running water and traditional restrooms the group would see for five days. From there, they left the van behind at the trail head and hiked to their first two camp sites in Big Spring. Day two they spent at Squaw Flat, Day three and four they were at Lost Canyon, and on day five they camped along the Horse Canyon trail. In order to reduce the group’s impact as much as possible, the leaders split into pairs and each lead a half of the group to a different camp site. The two groups would meet up in the morning and complete the majority of the day hikes together, and then go their separate ways late in the afternoon to camp sites about one mile apart.
The first night sleeping outside at Needles Outpost was by far the coldest, with temperatures plummeting as low as 20 degrees F. Hot drinks were cradled under layers in attempt to create warmth, participants huddled like penguins jumping up and down as the feeling in their toes surrendered to the cold. However, this did not stop the participants from staying up and admiring the luminous starry night. They huddled up by Grant’s telescope as he described and pointed out the different winter time constellations such as Orion and The Pleiades, and the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius.
Leaders Albert, Jeremy, Grant, and Karly decided not to put up a tent and enjoy the serenity of sleeping under the stars, only to wake up with frozen sleeping bags. Even Albert said it was the coldest night he has experienced in the canyon lands despite his years of experience.
A typical day for the group began with a morning stretch once the two groups had joined together again, hiking to next camp site, stopping for water and lunch, setting up camp at the new site then cooking dinner, discussions, and the nightly de-brief before going to sleep.
Though this was a spring break trip, education was not completely left behind. The participants learned basic back country skills such as cooking, water purification, and tent set-up.
Because Canyonlands National Park is a desert, a few of the campsites were dry, meaning that the backpackers often had to haul water in dromedaries whenever a water source was found.
Cooking for the participants quickly became a game of concocting original, filling dishes. What started as rice and beans wrapped in a tortilla with cheese, quickly became Craisin pancake breakfasts and pepperoni calzone dinners. While several of them had never really cooked in the front country, they were able to pick up basic cooking skills and get creative with the menu. The participant cook group at Albert’s camp often made two dinners in order to keep Arvin happily fed. He ate all of the left-over’s and then some, balancing out the smaller appetite of Alex, who became known as Steelex, a combination of his last and first name.
With these freezing night-time temperatures, needless to say that hot drinks were the highlight to everyone’s morning and night. Any left over water was boiled and used to make tea, cocoa, and cider.
On the lay-over day in Lost Canyon, the group went on a small hike to an elevated slab of smooth rock area to have lunch, participate in some facilitation activities, and to take two hours to themselves, in their own space, to do whatever they wanted. This time period was called “solos” because it was essentially the only time that the participants and leaders had genuine alone time since the early morning departure March 9. Participants used this time to decompress, nap in the sun, and reflect on their experience and on their life as a whole.
Eventually, by the last long day-hike, the intensity of maneuvering in and out of the canyons became less strenuous and participants began to pass the time in song. Lizzie, Jing Jing and Chanesia especially found this amusing, and serenaded the rest of the group with songs from One Direction, Britney Spears, and even the Back Street Boys.
Also on the last long day-hike, the leaders found themselves geographically challenged and the maps were brought out to reconfigure the exact location of the group. As it turned out, they had hiked south for 3 miles in the opposite direction from where they wanted to go, and therefore needed to correct this. Though the participants were a little discouraged, as the beginning signs of blisters began to form on their feet, they were able to push a little further and make it to a decent camping site where the groups shared a final dinner together.
In the morning, it was time to hike out of the park and Grant, Jeremy, Karly, and Alex hiked ahead in order to scout out the trail and go grab the van from the starting trail head. When the rest of the group reached the barrier, marking the end of the trail and the park, participants screamed in relief and took pictures sitting on the fence, proud of themselves for trying something new and surviving it.
The group then repacked the van and headed off to Needles Outpost for their first showers in five days, and then the drive back to Rio Rancho commenced. March 17 8:00 pm the van pulled up next to Doak Walker, signifying the end of another SMU spring break.
Karly Hanson- SMU Outdoor Adventures Trip Leader in training.