Thursday was a wrap-up day like no other. Backcountry hikers emerged after a great night camping and experiencing a magnificent early morning sunrise to reboot and hit the Via Ferrata rock climbing or take to the caves for some super cool kayaking. After an active day (week!), the grand finale was a final afternoon swim and then a night off from camp cooking, a pizza event at the world-famous Miguels pizza restaurant. Pizza never tasted so good!
The groups returned to camp for the closing campfire, a memorable moment of reflection. Head of School Una MacCarthy describes the scene well: “Last night was the closing campfire of the 8th-grade trip. It was a very special moment, filled with tears, gratitude, and an impressive self-awareness for young teenagers. Students shared memories and heartfelt stories about friendships, important childhood lessons learned, and love for their teachers. For 25 years we have been taking these culminating school trips, but last night’s campfire was unique. It has not been an easy year, but the gratitude for being together during this time was the overarching theme by both the children and the adults.”
The 8th-grade trip is a combination of all the mission skills TLS values–curiosity, teamwork, ethics, creativity, time management, and resilences are present in every activity and action on the trip. Teaching and learning are ever-present in outdoor education. Beyond the teaching and learning, what lies deeper in the trip’s experience are the relationships that grow stronger between the students and each other and their teachers. The TLS community is bonded and lasting, and the 8th-grade trip is the final stamp that seals those friendships forever.
The transfer to the experience is remarkably different this year. Cohorts loaded their own small packs into assigned passenger vans for an hour and a half drive to the gorge. The short trip is different than the journey to Utah–picture 70 people lugging giant gear duffels into the bottom of a bus at 5 A.M. for the drive to Cincinnati airport, then Las Vegas, next mini-vans, next to the grocery store, and a whole day later they set up camp in Zion. The travel challenge of the Southwest trip will happen again next year, but for this year, there are great things in store for these 8th graders right here in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge.
The camping space is perfect for a large group of active people and those who just want to hang out. A field for soccer or frisbee, shade trees for time to talk, and the lake, a popular spot for cooling off after a rigorous day of physical activity. These trips are 100% unplugged, and after a pandemic year where the electronic interface increased by a lot, no phones, pads, or computers are a much welcome experience for everyone.
On Sunday, they arrived in time to set up camp and go for a fun swim in the adjacent lake, just before pulling out the cook sets and getting to work on dinner. Each cohort is divided into cooking groups that divvy up the culinary and cleaning tasks of camp cooking. Most have only practiced this artform; all will be aficionados by the end of the week!
Even with the short trip to the gorge rather than the long one to Zion, a good sleep last night was needed to prepare for the new experiences they will encounter today and throughout the rest of the week. Each of the class trips is designed with the age and stage of the students in mind. The 8th-grade trip is packed full of exciting and different activities that teach courage and provide a powerful bonding time for this class of graduates.
On Monday, they accomplished land, water, and air as groups hiked, kayaked, swam, jumped, and zip-lined through the lush and diverse gorge terrain. It was hot but not unbearable, so students and faculty learned new techniques while taking in the shaded forested landscape and fresh clean air. Back to camp after a vigorous day outdoors, they swam in the lake with some camp supper to follow, then games, cards, frisbee, or just hanging out with the nightly campfire as just the thing to end the first full day of a week-long adventure.
On Tuesday, groups flip-flopped activities. Half hit the woods and creek for a hiking and kayaking excursion while the other half hit the air, ziplining through the red river gorge canopies. The activities keep the pace of the trip exciting and action-packed. The after-adventure is where even more memories are made. Just hanging out at camp, cooking dinner together, talking to each other without the distraction of a device to take you away from the present company, playing soccer or cards, spending time with teachers outside of the classroom where the relationship changes to friendship and lifelong reliability–this is the sweet spot of the 8th-grade trip. Tuesday was wonderful. Tomorrow will be another day of wonder.
On Wednesday, a little rain shower felt good. It washed away some of the hiking and climbing sweat and made for a nice break from the hot sun. Yesterday was another big day. Some strapped on their packed and hiked into the gorge on Tuesday night for an overnight backcountry experience complete with a campfire, the best tasting hot dogs ever, and an unparalleled early-morning sunrise vista. Others took to the massive rock face Via Ferrata and challenged their bodies and their minds in ways they never imagined they could. This group is fun, fearless, and festive. The pictures tell the story in a way words can’t, so stroll through the gallery and live a little vicariously!
Outdoor education is a signature program of The Lexington School. Whether right here on our 40-acre campus or all the way out west in Utah for the annual Southwest trip, students experience the challenges and exhilaration of the natural world. In a typical year, fifth-graders take a spelunking trip to Carter Caves, sixth graders travel to Green River Preserve in North Carolina, seventh-graders hit the coast of South Carolina for a full week of ecosystems, history, and surfing, and eighth-graders travel to Utah and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for 8 days of pretty intense adventure. This year (due to COVID), thanks to the creative mindset of trip coordinator Chris Johnson and the team of teachers and administrators on board to execute his very well-organized plan, all three middle school trips reroute to Kentucky’s amazing Red River Gorge. Known for its world-class climbing and hiking, the natural beauty of the Gorge is breathtaking and allows for many outdoor adventures including zip-lines, underground kayak tours, mountain biking, backcountry camping, and more!
While TLS trips are customized for the age and stage of the students participating, all are sleeping in tents and cooking their own meals. All are partaking in something new that requires an element of courage. This collective courage builds bonds between students and faculty and friends. It also builds confidence.
This blog is a dynamic record of all three trips. As each trip is completed, we will chronicle the experiences here with descriptive copy and a gallery of photos. Hope you enjoy this year’s pivot on TLS’s outdoor education program.
6th Grade Trip to Red River Gorge
Monday morning around ten, the whole group gathered under the big tent at TLS to discuss final logistics for their first big TLS overnight adventure. Remember, this sixth-grade group got shut out of their traditional trip to Carter Caves, the result of the Pandemic shut down last spring. That makes this trip a really big deal.
They are ready. Ready with solid gear to camp, ready to camp cook because a couple of weeks ago, they walked to Kroger, shopped with their crew cooking groups, and set up their cooktops on the middle school playground. The trial run was generally successful. Those who had glitches learned what they needed to for a smooth transition to the woods.
Broken into cohort camp “crews,” sixth-graders will stay safe by maintaining masking and social distancing even while at camp. They will get plenty of fresh air! Activities day one include unpacking and setting up camp, fun and games at the campsite home base where they are lucky enough to flank a large, grass field, and some lake swimming to cool off after a warm day in the sun.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, crews break into groups. Some groups choose from a variety of beautiful Gorge hikes, some take in some paddle boarding and kayaking through Kentucky caves, a surreal adventure for those taking it in for the first time, and others strap in for Via Ferrata, a climbing and ropes course.
We Teach Courage is our mantra, and this sixth-grade trip is another step in developing that signature TLS confidence.
7th Grade Trip to Red River Gorge
7th Grade Trip to Red River Gorge
From Mr. Alford: “We are wrapping up a great second day here at the gorge. The backcountry group was successful in cooking meals last evening over tiny solo stoves, they had a good campfire, learned that the Whip-poor-will is loud and calls all night long, and enjoyed a beautiful sunrise at the bluff. Today, students went on hikes, they climbed, kayaked underground, and it was a wonderful day all around. So many students did things that they’ve never done before and felt a sense of achievement because of it.”
The home base is in the back corner of a private campground about 400 acres big with a field bathhouse that includes hot water and showers. Hot showers are a big perk. There is a small lake that everyone enjoys after a full day of hiking and activities. The grade is divided into four cohorts, and the seventh-grade teachers, Mr. Alford, Middle School Head, and Mr. Alford’s dad (Dr. Alford, family doctor) are there taking in the great outdoors alongside them. The faculty-student connection on TLS trips is a large part of what makes the experience special.
On day one, half the grade strapped on their packs and hiked for about an hour and a half into the woods for backcountry overnight. They set up camp in the gorge, cooked their dinner, swam in the lake, played soccer, and enjoyed a warm campfire with lively conversation, and woke to a beautiful scenic vista and sunrise.
Meanwhile, the two campground cohorts split for climbing at Via Ferrata and cave paddle boarding and kayaking and returned to camp for some downtime with swimming, showers, camp cooking, and a campfire. Both groups flip-flopped after their backcountry hike on day two, so everyone will get a chance to experience these awesome activities.
On day two, the backcountry group returned to camp and split for the afternoon climbing and kayaking. And on day three, the whole class comes together for a memorable campfire round-up. Stay tuned for more exciting adventures as we add to this TLS trip blog.