I’m a part-time college instructor who takes students at-risk on backpacking trips—but the last excursion had me wanting to throw in the towel.
Who got to me? It wasn’t the student who faked an injury just prior to the hike so she could go home. Or the student who took seven hours to hike eight kilometres.
Those are normal incidents that happen on most trips with this type of group. For over 30 years now I’ve taken troubled youth into the woods to help them better themselves—and enjoyed every minute of it.
Who I don’t like taking are the spoiled thugs. And the one who tried to escape the second night of our trip had me seriously thinking of taking a break from the job for a while.
The student phoned his girlfriend to come pick him up. The good thing is, she couldn’t find us. When I caught him walking out to the road in the pitch dark, prior to a major lightning storm, he said I had no right to stop him. I do. He was under the age of 18 and under my supervision.
His next move was to call his father. I informed him that if his father comes to pick him up and he leaves the trip, then he wouldn’t gain the credit (the course is Outdoor Leadership and Trip Planning). The student said that wasn’t fair. I said it was—he needed to complete the hike to pass the course.
While on the phone with his father he claimed I was placing him at risk, stating a bear might kill him, lightning might hit him or he’d be poisoned by carbon monoxide from the campfire. All the students had a mixture of challenges they were overcoming—but this guy was just a spoiled brat who's been used to getting his way for far too long.
What made it worse is that his phone worked. I try to take them on trips where they can’t get a signal. Their phones can be used as cameras and even flashlights. But I don’t want them communicating with the outside world (I’m equipped with a satellite phone and SPOTX for safety).
Why would I even allow them phones? Well, some students (and parents) claim it’s their right to have them. So, rather than debate, I allow them to bring the phones but try to teach the students appropriate times to use them. It’s not easy—but the majority of the students are awesome and respond quite well after the first couple of days. Besides, their batteries usually die by day two.
Of course, that’s when the symptoms of addiction start to show. Not from street drugs—but from phone withdrawal. One student had a battery charger and the spoiled-thug got into a fistfight trying to take it from him. It was like watching a zombie apocalypse.
Is it worth it?
At times I question it. Especially when they try to escape and tell their parents that you tried to kill them with campfire smoke. I do, however, see the majority of these students change for the better out there. It enhances and strengthens their character.
My group went from asking how long they should cook five-minute rice to baking tasty cinnamon bannock on the campfire. They groaned and complained about hiking on the first day and then danced and sang along the trail on the third. They grew more confident, got in better shape, become less anxious.
Time in the woods is pure magic—even for spoiled thugs.