UrbanTrekkers: Senior Rite of Passage


The trip had been in the planning for over a year; it was the Senior Rite of Passage. We left Camden early in the morning for the seven hour drive to the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The five guys had just finished their final exams that week and would be graduating from the UrbanPromise Academy one week from today. Braheem, Kyrus, Mark, Mike and Terron have been part of the UrbanTrekkers program since they were freshman. During their high school years we have traveled to some incredible places…but this trip was going to be something very special, perhaps the last time we would all travel together.

My friend Dr. Bob Harris was joining us. Bob knew the guys well and had been a big part of planning for the trip. The Adirondacks region is known for its natural lakes and spectacular mountain scenery. Our itinerary would begin with the hike into Marcy Dam to set up a base camp the night before the twelve mile round trip to the summit of New York’s highest peak, Mount Marcy. The climb up Marcy was grueling; it was hot and we were in the height of black fly season. Since the black flies were feasting on any exposed skin we put on head nets for partial relief. Arriving at the summit gave us all a sense of accomplishment. From our panoramic 360 degree view we scanned the vastness of mountains and lakes below. Standing there I was filled with excitement for what we had just done and there was a sense of mystery for what would unfold.

After the first two days the challenging hike of Mount Marcy was behind us and we were ready to reveal the next challenge. Bob, an expert climber, had hired a professional guide to give us a course in rock climbing 101. After hiking an extremely steep route we arrived at the base of the rock wall. The guys were in awe as they stared up at seventy vertical feet of shear rock before them. Again the black flies were having a feeding frenzy on any exposed skin; the head nets and Deet helped but we were still fresh meat. With the proper equipment and the expert guide the guys soon felt confident as they scaled the rock before them. Climbing is physical but probably even more cerebral…we were pushing them and they were amazing!

The twenty-four hour camp solo is what they’d been planning and anxiously waiting for since last fall…the final piece of the passage. Bob had invited an old friend to join us in our camp. Kirby was a seasoned back country camper and I was looking forward to hearing his stories. It was day four. We had rented a small outboard boat to transport each guy to their own small wilderness island in Lower Saranac Lake. The guys were ready…they each had a tent, sleeping bag, camp stove, small bag of food with water, a journal/pen…oh, and a whistle just in case.  

In preparing for the Rite of Passage and the Solo our conversations were reaching deep within each of the guys. They all grew up in Camden without fathers or even grandfathers in their lives and we wanted to talk about becoming men, husbands and fathers. We wanted to contrast our culture to our Christian faith and to define how that might look for each of them. They had to write a mission statement, something personal for themselves and also write a letter. The letter would be written by their future fifty year old self and give advice to guide them on their life’s journey.

 

I knew a rite of passage ceremony would need its own symbolic sacrifice ritual. The night before the solo we asked each one the guys to share with the group something personal they wanted to leave behind as they passed from adolescence to young adult. It was a poignant experience, they shared parts of themselves they usually kept hidden. Fear of failure, blaming self for a parent’s abandonment, an inability to trust anyone, a lack of faith; holding grudges…the guys were brutally honest. The conversation was very personal, the stories compelling. Each one then drew a name of a fellow classmate and was asked to find an object on their island that could represent what their classmate had chose to leave behind and present it to him on our final night after coming off the island.
The Solo began with perfect conditions. It was noon on Tuesday, 85 dry degrees, blue sky with full pillow like cumulus clouds - couldn’t get much nicer. The first three guys loaded their gear onto the boat and Bob brought them out to the islands. I stayed back with the remaining two waiting for the boat to return for the second run. The guys were quiet and apprehensive. They had talked excitedly in the days preceding the solo but now the full impact was upon them. Lower Saranac Lake can be wonderfully serene and natural; protected from land development there are only wild
erness camp sites on its many small islands and shore line. The islands are beautiful, rocky outcrops rising quickly from the waterline with pines, cedars, birches and maples. On the water you’ll spot fish jumping while Loons and Mergansers pedal about.
It was still early afternoon by the time we had all the guys placed on their islands. Bob, Kirby and I began to set up our own camp on the distant shore. We were camped a quarter to a half mile from the islands. I’d checked the forecast earlier that morning and knew there was a chance of afternoon thunderstorms. I thought a small passing storm could add to their experience and welcomed the possibility. It was getting late in the afternoon, approaching evening and Kirby was beginning to cook diner for Bob and I over an open fire pit. We all noticed the thunderheads starting to roll in from the west and the sound of distant thunder with the occasional flash of lightning. Witnessing a storm close-up and personal has always given me a rush of excitement; this time was no exception, although I did have the guys on my mind.  

Quickly the sky blackened, the wind intensified, the thunder was Earth shaking and the rain became sheets of water washing over us. I moved quickly to secure loose items into my tent when suddenly “Crack” and “Crack” two forty foot pines came crashing down between tents and tarp. The lake took on an eerie presence as the whitecaps disappeared and a giant swell of water seemed to be moving up and down in the lake bed. Oh Baby! I thought this is more storm then I had hoped for. How would my guys be holding up, would they be safe? Would they be frightened? It was getting late and I knew we had to get out on the water. The worst of the storm moved through quickly. The rains continued but without the wind the lake no longer looked angry as before. Bob and I got on our raingear and gathered a supply of essentials for first aid and tent repair. The top of one of the fallen pines had landed in our boat and needed to be moved aside before we could go out. I felt like we were running out of time as we motored across the lake.

 

 

Braheem was first; we could see his tent from the shore and it appeared to be intact. I called up to him asking if he was OK. A voice came back from inside the tent all was well, he had weathered the storm. But he said he had heard Mike on the other island blowing his whistle. We were off to check on Mike. Mike heard the motor approach his island and was running frantically along the shore line. We could see from the boat that his tent had partially collapsed. Again, making sure he was physically ok we assessed his situation as one that required duct tape and small branches to shore up the snapped tent pole. We asked Mike to come close to the shore so we could toss him the tape and proceed to check on the other guys. As we pulled away from the rocky coast we heard Mike say, “That’s it - you are leaving me here with duct tape”?

We soon approached the islands with Mark and Kyrus. Mark was in great condition, his island and camp site were well protected from the brunt of the storm. Kyrus had not fared so well. He, like Mike came frantically running towards the shore telling us as his tent had collapsed with the poles snapping in multiple pieces. He was inside the tent when the wind exploded his poles and blew Kyrus and the tent a few feet from where it had been set. Kyrus crawled out and rescued himself and his gear seeking refuge in the outhouse. We made sure he was physically fine and assured him we would be back but had to go and check on Terron who had also been blowing his whistle.

Terron heard us coming as we approached the shore line. The wind blew the rain fly off the tent allowing rain to enter and soak the floor. He too was ready to end his island adventure. “Mr. C I was scared, I’ve been singing camp songs waiting for you guys to come”. Terron is one resilient guy who knows how to survive. Staying on the island wasn’t his first choice but we helped Terron relocate the tent and secure the rain fly. We found his driest clothes and told him to snug up in the sleeping bag and we’d see him in the morning. As we left to get back on the boat Terron told us not to worry about him, he said he would be fine; he had been taking care of himself for a long time.

We got back to Kyrus with duct tape, branches and rope; we resurrected his tent and like Terron wished him a good night and a promise to see him in the morning. That night as Bob and I crossed the lake returning to our camp I felt an overwhelming sense of God’s presence and protection for I knew this night would be long remembered by all of us. It was getting late and darkness was beginning to surround us. A steady rain was falling. I looked at Bob who had one hand on the outboard rudder and water running off his slicker, grinning from ear to ear he said “God how I love this!
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We spent our final night at the Keene Valley Hostel…sharing the letters, mission statements and the symbolic letting go ceremony. The significance of the storm was lost on no one. We got home on Thursday and the guys graduated on Saturday. In the tradition of UrbanPromise Academy each one gave a speech sharing sometimes funny and sometimes serious memories of their last four years. In the fall four of the five will be starting college and one will enter the Marine Corps. As I sat in the sanctuary that day and listened to each of them declare their plans for college and careers I kept thinking of the storm while I scratched away feverously at all my black fly bites...I looked over at my friend Bob thinking “God how I love this!”  

Peace, there is joy in the journey!

Jim