Hey Camp Fire Family! Evan here, aka Bowie, the Camp Manager at Camp K on Kenai Lake. For the month of April, we are focusing on environmentalism in youth development so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts and experience in this area.

Connecting young people to experiences in the great outdoors started early in my career and continued to grow in the programs I have been a part of. Watching young people discover the outdoor world shows them to be more focused and engaged with their environment, their peers and their own leadership skills. I truly believe that self-efficacy and self-esteem comes alive in an environment that is unplugged, and watching kids at Camp K participate in these new relationships with the outdoors has made me even more of a believer in the impact of an outdoor experience.

My first summer at Camp K, I would help drop the campers off on their field trips, one of which was a horseback riding trail ride. Most of the first time riders would approach the activity with apprehension, nerves, and hesitancy. But just 2 hours later, when I would pick them up, I would see the biggest beaming smiles of accomplishment and achievement! It was just one of the many ways I saw these experiences turning lightbulbs on in their heads.

As an adult, I constantly discover more of my own growth in new outdoor experiences. I’m an avid skier, climber, equestrian and angler and while I don’t don myself with any level of actual expertise, I do know how to navigate physical and emotional risk, problem solving, inclusion and joy in the outdoors. This is a skill that was actually recently honed in on when I embarked on a NOLS course this past September.

NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, was founded in 1965 in Lander, Wyoming. It’s grown exponentially since then, allowing people of all ages to go on expedition trips that range from backpacking to sea kayaking all over the world. Their curriculum focuses on engaging people with experiential learning to find and develop their leadership qualities.

I spent the entire month of September, during a global pandemic might I add, in the Wind River Range, backpacking 95 miles for three weeks and furthering my climbing skills for seven days. My course consisted of 11 other strangers from all over the country and three NOLS instructors. We had struggles like a 16-hour snowstorm with 75 mph winds, and crossing over a seemingly impossible pass into the Cirque of the Towers that had 12ft boulders covered in snow. We walked, every day, up and down mountains and through rivers. We carried 50-60 lbs. on our backs and slept under a measly little rain fly (most of which were destroyed in that storm I mentioned). It was hard work, and with a diverse group of varying abilities, talents, personalities and attitudes, we found this beautiful connection with failure, feedback, relationships, weird meals when the rations were low, and a common love for the landscape of the Winds.

Every moment of my NOLS course was spent reflecting on how I could bring all of these learnings back to Camp K. Our Camp Fire Alaska kids and families will see new developments and plans evolving our curriculum to have more opportunities for youth to experience leadership in the outdoors no matter their skill set, experience or age. Building our camp community on sharing responsibility has always been a part of our curriculum, but exploring that on expedition trips, like Halibut Cove this year, will take these skills to a new level.

Building young people up to do hard things, whether it be getting off the chairlift for the first time, missing their families while they are at camp, applying for their first jobs, or learning to navigate their emotions, is what I love. Being a part of a NOLS course reminded me that I, too, can do hard things.

Having these experiences can better prepare us for a world that doesn’t always provide a map and compass to follow the correct path, and I am beyond excited to continue exploring new ways to connect campers to the outdoors.