Last month, I spent a week in the Colorado wilderness with three high school students from Chicago and a small group of Sierra Club members from California, Oregon and France (yes, France!). The students participate in the Sierra Club’s Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO) program, which strives to empower youth from communities with limited access to connect and reconnect to the outdoors – for the benefit of both.
The outdoors and the creatures who live there certainly benefitted from the hard work and dedication of these young people as we took down old barbed wire fence that harms wildlife, built new wildlife-friendly fencing and removed invasive weeds. And when we finally reached the peak of a 12-mile hike with a view of Elk Falls (on our “rest day”), the students felt the benefit of connecting with the natural world at 10,000 feet. Their willingness to challenge themselves and live outside their comfort zone was inspiring, which is where the benefit comes in for me. I’m filled with hope and motivation when I see the future in these young people, who could lead the next generation of environmental advocates and justice warriors.
We spent the week camping near and working on the historic AG Ranch in Shawnee, Colorado, where the Rocky Mountain Specialty Pack String – 11 mules, 2 saddle horses, and lead packer, Glenn Ryan – have their home. One of only two full regional specialty pack strings, they provide low-impact heavy hauling into wilderness and limited-access areas, train others in packing, and educate the public. Their important presence serves to preserve wilderness values in our public lands by providing heavy hauling without the need for mechanization. We had the opportunity to support the protection and maintenance of public lands by helping to improve the facilities that are home to this exceptional operation of the U.S. Forest Service.
The service work we did was difficult and tiring, but the interactions we had with Glenn and his interns, who showed us how to do the work and explained why it’s important, made us feel satisfied and accomplished at the end of each long day. The time we got to spend with the horses and mules on the ranch was an added bonus.
While we typically take Chicago ICO participants on day trips and overnight car camping trips in the Chicago region, the opportunity to take a few young people on a National Service Trip once a year provides a unique experience and a chance to deepen connections. I see huge value in all of us feeling connected to the environment in our communities, but there’s really nothing like spending some time in the mountains, sleeping in a tent and gazing at the stars. To get away from the city and be surrounded by wilderness was a gentle push from Mother Nature for us to calm our minds, open our eyes and breathe.
I hope the students felt the calm and serenity that I found so refreshing, and enjoyed the break in normal life and routine. The other participants and leaders on the trip expressed that having the young people there brought a new energy (quite literally—the students were often the first ones up at the crack of dawn!) that added something special to the experience.
As we returned to Chicago, I felt refreshed and inspired to continue our work growing the ICO program, connecting people with the outdoors and empowering young people to be leaders in their communities and in the environmental and social justice movements. We need them, and the hopelessness that sometimes washes over us as we face the world’s current challenges seems to fade away as we see their energy and passion to do good and fight for the future.
To learn more about the Chicago ICO program, visit our webpage here.
To find out more about Sierra Club service outings, visit our outings site.