Backpacking in a place of otherworldly beauty
The Gaspé Peninsula is an arm of the Province of Quebec stretching northeast along the mighty St. Lawrence River, pushing a fist into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. On this unspoiled territory, Chewonki staff members Olivia Lukacic and Johnson Whippie adventured last summer with seven students, three women and four men, ages 15-17. This was last summer’s Gaspé Expedition, a Chewonki backpacking trip along a breathtaking stretch of the International Appalachian Trail.
Lukacic is passionate about plants and animals. Whippie’s focus is outdoor leadership development. Their complementary skills infused the group as it made its way through the breathtaking landscape of the Reserve faunique de Matane and the Parc national de la Gaspésie, including sweeping views of the St. Lawrence River, cascading waterfalls, giant ferns, and rolling mountains.
“There were outrageously beautiful waterfalls, amazing alpine campsites, gorgeous mountains,” says Whippie. Lukacic adds, “I felt we were constantly in another world. There were incredible areas where the ferns were taller than us.”
“As we were pressing through them,” Whippie says, “all the different butterflies and moths flew out. It was like a fairyland. There’s a special feeling of remoteness” in this part of the Gaspé Peninsula
If Lukacic and Whippie brought their enthusiasm to the students, these two leaders are quick to say that the students’ brought their own energy and good spirits to help make the trip unforgettable for everyone. “They were phenomenal people to work with,” says Lukacic, and Whippie agrees. “Their ability to communicate with one another, get excited for one another, was outstanding,” Whippie explains. “There was such a spark right from the beginning. Leaders often have to drive the group energy, but in this case, the collective group lifted us up.”
Lukacic adds, “They were able to read each other’s energy well. It was a collective team trying to support each individual.”
One of last summer’s Gaspé Expedition participants was Miles Ackermann, now at Chewonki as a member of Maine Coast Semester 60. Ackermann embraced the sense of being far away from ordinary life. He remembers how tricky it often was to distinguish their trail from moose trails. “It’s incredibly, truly, beautiful,” hs says. “What I was so amazed by was how uninhabited it felt–only slightly touched.” Several times it crossed his mind that he might be the first human to set foot on the particular spot on this earth where he was standing.
“It’s a magical feeling to be away from the whole civilization that we create,” he says. “It’s so good to be away from unnecessary stress. Stress out there is necessary. Everything is immediate. ‘I need to find shelter before the storm hits.’ ‘I need get out of the way of that bear.’ It’s much more real.“
Ackermann, Whippie, and Lukacic all remember one particular day of “necessary” stress–a day when the group backpacked 15 miles, the last few hours in the dark. ”That was really mentally challenging,” Ackermann recalls. “We got up so early, 4:30 a.m., because we had a resupply halfway through that day’s hike and we wanted to get to the resupply spot early so we could be ready to do it smoothly. We hiked really, really fast,” he says, and got to the resupply site with time to spare. And then they waited. And waited. Due to a clerical error on the Canadian side, the resupply was delayed. By the time supplies arrived and were sorted and packed, it was evening. Campsites in the vicinity were reserved. There was nothing to do but pick up and set forth on the remaining 11 miles to their campsite. Difficult? Yes, but they pulled it off and their stories resound with laughter and pride.
Whippie says, “Our goal was excellence, in everything we did.” Ackermann says the remote setting and the leaders’ guidance made it easier for each person to put aside personal interests and support the group as a whole.
“You really don’t have much of a choice out there,” he says of getting along with near-strangers in the wild. “You have to look past conflicts and interests and background”
Lukacic and Whippie have been busy with their year-round jobs at Chewonki: she is the senior outdoor educator and science specialist; he, the Outdoor Classroom coordinator. Yet they think often of the Gaspé Expedition.
“You learn enough about these students to imagine where they want to be,” says Whippie. You get to know who wants to be a team captain or start a particular club or project at their school. You know who hopes to study what; who’s had what kind of challenges and successes. “They’re going to do amazing things,” says Lukacic. “We really want to know about them.”
“There was lots of joy in this group,” she says. Whippie agrees. “Joy and jubilance. All along the way.”