Students end their school experience with an epic hike

RIPTON — School. You get out of it what you put in, as they say. And at Ripton’s North Branch School, student effort isn’t just measured by the amount of time spent in the classroom or in front of a computer screen.
For graduating 9th-graders, it’s also measured in miles — 23 of them, all associated with an annual three-day backpacking trek along the Long Trail.
Established in 2007, “The Hike,” as it is simply called, has become much more than a gut busting slog through knee-deep snow, water-logged ground and meandering mountain streams.
It’s become a metaphor for the scholastic journey the students have taken through North Branch School’s 7th-, 8th- and 9th-grade years. Like the spring season in which it is held, the hike is about renaissance, taking that next step from middle school to high school.
“The hike affords them time to see, literally and metaphorically, how far they have come, to look back on the highs and lows, to see what they made together, who they are and who they became,” North Branch School head teacher Tal Birdsey said in summarizing the mini-odyssey.
“We have found that the harder it is, the greater joy they have in conquering it.”
NORTH BRANCH SCHOOL ninth-grade students start their annual Long Trail hike on May 9.
Courtesy photo
Flanked by three adults, the school’s six 9th-graders began the hike on Wednesday, May 9, at the Long Trail access in Ripton and appropriately ended it at roughly at the same spot on Friday, May 11.
Ben Huston of Waltham and Oscar Downing of Ferrisburgh were among the small student contingent. They had both looked forward to the hike since each entered the school more than two years ago.
“It’s always a highlight of the year,” Huston said. “I understood it in 8th grade.”
And both said the experience was worth the wait. In addition to wading through lingering snow drifts and wringing out saturated socks, the students got to see the first blooms of spring and the reawakening of wildlife after the long winter hiatus.
But it wasn’t all about physical exertion.
Each student was asked to bring three poems and read one on each of the days. This follows a school tradition that someone reads a poem to the school every morning in meeting.
One of Huston’s selections was “Birches,” by literary giant and former Ripton resident Robert Frost. A portion of that poem seemed like a great tie-in to the epic hike he and his classmates were taking.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
Participants said the weather was great on day one — “almost too hot,” Huston recalled.
That heat stood in sharp contrast to the frosty remnants of a long, stubborn winter.
“On the north side of the mountain, there were places with four feet of snow,” Downing said.
Birdsey called this year’s edition the snowiest of the eight annual North Branch School hikes that have taken place thus far.
Organizers maintained a fairly slow pace on the first day of the journey, according to Huston.
“We’d go for a little bit and then take a break, then go a little more and take a water break and get some food,” he said.
But leaders picked up the pace on day two and especially on day three.
“Everybody pushed themselves more,” Huston said. “Even though we got more tired, we all got stronger.”
The faster hikers obligingly paused from time to time to let the slower participants catch up.
In addition to Downing and Huston, the other 9th-graders on the trip were Will Crawford, Lena Sandler, Sydney Weber and Henry Wagner. 2014 NBS graduate Monroe Cromis of Bristol also took part in the trek. She just finished her first year at UVM and spent the last few summers working at camps and leading 50-day backcountry canoe trips.
Friendships became closer; respect for one another grew with each step.
And that’s just the way Birdsey wanted it.
“The idea is that they have learned enough about themselves and each other that they are ready to ‘step up and out,’” he said. “The physical demands are important: We believe that stretching oneself physically is as important as stretching emotionally, developmentally, intellectually, socially, artistically.”
On the first night, the crew slept in an open-air shelter. The second night they bedded down in the loft of the Skylight Lodge on the Long Trail.
Every individual was committed to not letting down the collective group.
“We were pretty motivated,” Downing said — especially when the group had to make up time.
“After the first day we had gone so slow that we were three hours behind schedule,” he explained. “We walked the last two or so miles in the dark with headlamps.”
Like Huston, Downing had considered the trek to be akin to a rite of passage.
“Last year when the 9th-graders left for the hike, I was pretty upset I had to stay here instead of going up there,” he recalled.
The daily scenery was a major highlight of the trip, according to Downing.
“We went right as the trees were blooming,” he said. “Every day, we’d wake up and there were a few more leaves on the trees and a few more flowers.”
The hike was strewn with peaks and valleys, mimicking the highs and lows of human existence. Birdsey noted the sense of accomplishment they all felt upon reaching the summit of Mount Abraham.
“It all comes clear — we learned enough about ourselves and each other to bring each other to the top, and to celebrate what we found saw there,” he said. “It is a sense of completion, of time and intensity doing what they do to sharpen senses and soften the hearts.”
Downing called the experience “excellent.”
“At the end of it, I felt I could go for another day,” Downing said. “Overall, the experience definitely outweighed the wet boots or wet clothes.”
Huston agreed.
“Overall, I’d say it exceeded my expectations,” Huston said. “Of course there were some (challenging) moments, but overall, it was more happiness and good feelings and about being together, than it was being grumpy and mad at nature.”
Ben’s dad, Chris Huston, was one of the adult leaders of the trip. An enthusiastic hiker himself, he got the added enjoyment of seeing his son and his classmates take on — and conquer — a major challenge.
“It broadened their perspective of what they were capable of physically,” Chris Huston said, adding it was great “being around these incredible young people who are starting the next chapter of their lives.
“They were very inspiring,” he added.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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