(This is a corrected version of an article published in the Oct. 26, 2011, issue. The correction appears at the end of the story.)
On Sept. 4, 790 freshmen and 233 undergraduate leaders embarked on what were planned as six-day backpacking and camping trips through Outdoor Action, Princeton’s popular outdoor-education program. PAW tagged along with one of the 97 groups — known as PA-64 — for two days.
It’s just after 9 p.m. on a Sunday, the first day hiking on the Appalachian Trail in central Pennsylvania, and Outdoor Action leaders Amy Ousterhout ’13 and Cody Kitchen ’14 are listening to a round of “rose, bud, thorn,” a classic debriefing exercise for outdoor-education programs. The trip’s eight freshmen, illuminated by the bluish glow of a headlamp strapped to a plastic water bottle hanging above, take turns sharing three things from the day’s hike: a memorable moment (the rose), something to look forward to (the bud), and a negative experience (the thorn).
With only a few hours on the trail, the roses and thorns are fairly pedestrian. The buds provide more colorful answers. Aron Wander ’15, for example, looks forward to Tuesday, when the group will have a chance to swim in a nearby lake, the closest thing they’ll have to a shower this week.
Before Ousterhout completes the session, soft flashes of lightning in the distance remind her that this would be a good time to review Outdoor Action’s lightning protocol, which involves splitting into two groups and crouching in a somewhat uncomfortable position — knees apart, arms folded close to the body. Within 15 minutes, the approaching storm forces the group to put this new knowledge into action.
Ousterhout and Kitchen each take half of the students to a divided wooden shelter about 200 yards up the trail from the group campsite, where they’ve pitched a tarp. As the rain moves from steady to torrential, the freshmen dutifully crouch and tuck, passing the time by pointing and tapping their way through another campsite game.
The group heads back down the trail when the rain slows, flashlights in hand, navigating slippery rocks and small log bridges. The tarp tent has done its job, but the tarp flooring has not, allowing puddles of muddy water to collect between the group’s sleeping bags.
“New OA protocol,” Kitchen calls out with a smile. “When you have a shelter, use it.”
Back up the trail they go, damp sleeping bags bunched in their arms. Two more rounds of rain and lightning follow — including one that sweeps through just as the group leaves the shelter to dig some dry clothing out of their packs — but finally, a half-hour after midnight, the rain slows to a drizzle. The campers go to sleep, shoulder to shoulder on the wooden planks.