Wilderness PE class builds community on the trail


Photo by Brittany Beezhold.

The trees glistened in the early afternoon sunshine. Backpacks lined up like colorful packhorses as boots tromped down the muddy path. Hands slipped into gloves and inside coat sleeves as the brisk air swirled around the picturesque scenery.

Wilderness Pursuits, a physical education class offered at Calvin, allows students to walk away from the semester with a new sense of adventure as well as a set of skills to survive on the trail.

On Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, Professor Dave Koning and a group of 21 Calvin students piled into vans with canoes and gear in tow headed for the Manistee River Trail. Located two and a half hours from Calvin, the Manistee River Trail is nestled in the northern region of the Manistee National Forest.

While Koning dropped off the canoes ten miles up the trail, students waited at the trail head in cold temperatures and light rain showers.

“We were already shivering and the trip had not yet begun,” said junior Leah Sienkowski.

Cold blustery wind and occasional rain showers aside, students anticipated the opportunity to explore the backcountry. The colorful caravan gathered at the trailhead ready to settle into a rhythm.

“At the beginning we hiked at a pretty casual pace, a long line of 21 students with humpbacked packs, joking around about bear attacks and hypothermia,” said Sienkowski.

Students on the trip brought a variety of backpacking experience to the trail.

“I thought that it was going to be much harder than it was,” said senior Stephen Gunnink. “Hiking 6 miles with 30 lbs of stuff on my back sounded like an obstacle, but it really went by really fast and was not very difficult at all.”

As the day progressed, the weather shifted, immersing students in rain and mud. However, lively conversation and jokes kept students moving forward.

As the sun began to sink along the horizon, Koning scouted ahead for a suitable campsite.

However, every campsite passed by the Calvin caravan throughout the day was occupied. As darkness began to envelop the trail, Koning chose an unofficial campsite overlooking the Manistee River.

At dusk with headlamps and flashlights in hand, students collected in their tent groups, began to set up camp, keep packs dry and prepare dinner.

Working together to set up finicky stoves, students eagerly awaiting the prospect of getting warm food in their bellies.

“Setting up camp at dusk on a 40 degree night does not feel like home,” said Sienkowski. “Luckily, we were excited about the West African peanut bean soup that would warm us from the inside. Which would have been great had we not added enough salt to gag an elephant.”

After a chilly night of steady rain and sleet, tent groups woke early and huddled around mugs of oatmeal, coffee, tea and hot chocolate.

Students quickly collected their gear, slipped on muddy boots, held mugs of oatmeal and hot chocolate and respected the “leave no trace” rule along the trail.

Despite the weather conditions, students were in good spirits as new friendships formed and a sense of community grew. Students hiked the remaining miles in groups while admiring the vista views and vivid fall color.

“The views of the trip were amazing, and the color of leaves was gorgeous,” said Brittany Droogh. “Some of the sights were breathtaking…literally.”

By hiking in groups, students had the opportunity to talk, tell stories and share varying philosophies on life and society.

“I really liked that we got to hike in smaller groups because it made it easier to talk to people and made it seem like we were more secluded and farther from civilization,” said Gunnink.

Reaching the canoes waiting at the base of the Hodenpyl Dam, students readied their gear for the five hour canoe trip down the Manistee River.

After launching the boats, canoe partners settled into a rhythm of paddling. However, after a few hours of navigating around bends, logs and rocks, a sudden twist interrupted the uneventful afternoon.

Joe Kessel and his canoe partner Nate Bell capsized and fell into the frigid Manistee River.

“Fortunately, we each knew what to do in the crisis situation,” said Kessel. “Our classmates helped us out and gave us a lift while Professor Koning proved his manliness by striping to his boxers and rescuing our canoe from the flow of the river.”

The class insisted on donating gloves, socks and other warm clothing to Kessel and Bell.

“I finished the rest of our canoe trip in my soaking-wet pants and a borrowed pair of women’s yoga pants,” said Kessel.

After reaching the boat launch downriver, students loaded the canoes, wet paddles and packs and quickly scrambled into the vans, anticipating relief from the cold.

Conversations were lively on the van ride home. Students left textbooks under van seats. Instead doing homework, they reused the same trail jokes and reflected on favorite memories of the trip.

“Overall, the trip was a great time to get away, forget about everyday responsibilities and just enjoy God’s creation,” said Gunnink.