Sunday, February 29, 2004

School trip gives lesson in survival, spirituality



By Maggie Downs
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo]
Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy students Keith Bergh and Lindsay Rudolph, shown at school, attended an eight-day wilderness workshop in Wyoming. Teacher Todd Bacon went along as a chaperone.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/GARY LANDERS
SYMMES TOWNSHIP - The teen-agers twisted the faucet handles and watched gallons of water spiral down a drain at base camp. It was what they hadn't had for the past week.

During their time at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming's Wind River Range, 18 students from Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy didn't have running water. They had snow, however, and lots of it.

Snow was their drinking, cooking and cleaning water during the six-day experience. It even provided housing.

The experience was part of the school's Winter Term, a two-week period in which all 437 students focus on educational experiences outside of a typical classroom. This year, students went to missions to Third World countries, performed jazz at Walt Disney World and visited colleges near and far.

For the 18 who headed to Wyoming, the wilderness training sounded like a fun break from school, complete with backcountry snowboarding and telemark skiing through the Grand Teton Range. But there were hardships the students didn't bargain for - including dehydration, freezing temperatures and hours of work to make a simple snack.

"I didn't really realize how difficult this would be," said Andrew Bradford, 17, of Indian Hill.

The first night, they stayed in tents, which protect from water more than cold.

"It was miserable," said Alex Kontras, 17, of West Chester

The rest of the trip was spent in housing they fashioned themselves. And it was cold.

"Usually, when it's cold, you can find a place to warm up again," said Greg Brunk, 14, of Loveland. "But here, for six straight days, you're constantly looking for someplace to get warm - but there's no place to go."

It took one entire day for students to create igloos, their sleeping quarters for the remainder of the trip. For about two hours, students heaved snow into big heaps. Two "moles" plowed through each mound, one from the side and one from the top to clear the snow from inside the pile.

The elaborate, dome-shaped structures kept the wind at bay and maintained a steady temperature of 34 degrees.

The makeshift housing also meant there were no bathrooms. But there was still a method for what to do when nature called - each time, they had to hike away from camp. That trail would branch off into individual paths for each student.

Each day, students were divided into cooking and sleeping groups, with the cooking people rising early to make breakfast. The ordeal took some time - 45 minutes to put on layers of clothing, two hours for the food preparation.

Typical meals were pasta, bagels or Ramen noodles, with some sort of fat added to keep the students' bodies warm. And then they had to prepare drinking water.

"We spent, like, and hour a day melting water to drink," Kontras said.

They had to keep moving to avoid freezing. The students skied up mountains, then snowboarded back down, all the while carrying backpacks.

"If you would just stand still for two seconds talking, you'd suddenly realize you couldn't feel your feet," Bradford said. "Then you'd think, 'Uh-oh. Did I get frostbite?'"

Four guides who accompanied the group regularly checked everyone's feet for frostbite. If someone's feet got too cold, the easiest way to get warm was by placing them on a classmate's bare stomach.

"There was so much trust there," Bradford said. "It's not like you were depending on other people. But you knew they were there for you to put your feet on."

Before exploring the wilderness, the students received basic training - from lighting lanterns to cold injury prevention and avalanche education - as well as snowboarding and skiing instruction at Grand Targhee Resort. Still, one student left by snowmobile due to altitude sickness. Two others were hospitalized with dehydration.

"You thought you'd been through everything, and then you get sick," said Lindsay Rudolph, 16, of Lebanon. "I didn't even feel thirsty."

The price of the trip was $2,100 per student.

The students - who traveled with Christian studies teacher Todd Bacon and pastor Kevin Salkil - said the trip was a spiritual boost.

"Knowing God was with us the whole time," Kontras said, "and there to see us through the experience was really powerful for me."

About Winter Term

Since its inception in 2001, Winter Term has been a popular portion of Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy's curriculum. Every year, all 437 students have to participate in the two-week academic saturation.

The goal is to give students an opportunity to immerse themselves in a topic for an extended time.

"It's not just a school day that ends at 3 p.m.," said Karen Smeltzer, executive assistant for academics at the Symmes Township school, who helped establish the program. "This allows students to have a nontraditional learning experience."

Options range from mission or service work to trips abroad.

This year, some students participated in the following:

The Electric Jazz Orchestra Tour - Musical students performed around the country, including venues in Washington, D.C., churches and at Disney World.

Video editing - Students used editing software to work with service agencies in Cincinnati.

Crime Scene Investigation - Students explored forensic science, worked with the Hamilton County Justice Center and wrote mysteries.

Service abroad - Students spent their two weeks on a mission trip to Haiti.E-mail mdowns@enquirer.com




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