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Program Connects Woodstock Students, Nature

  • Mountains and Rivers Forever co-director Lisa Kaija explains the final biking stretch of the eight-day camp before departing from lunch at Kaija's home in Reading, Vt., on July 21, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Sarah Priestap

  • Mountains and Rivers Forever campers bike from Reading, Vt., to the Marsh Billings Rockerfeller National Historic Park along Route 106 on July 21, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Sarah Priestap

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/22/2016 11:40:19 PM
Modified: 7/22/2016 11:41:53 PM

Woodstock — Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park’s Mountains and Rivers Forever program is meant in part to instill in participants an appreciation for a sense of place.

As part of the park’s Boots to Boats initiative to celebrate the National Parks Service’s centennial, this year’s version allowed them to do so throughout the Upper Valley.

Led by Mountains and Rivers Forever co-directors Rob Hanson and Lisa Kaija and area school district youth programs coordinator Kat Robbins, a group of 10 Woodstock Union Middle/High School students returned to Marsh-Billings on Thursday after eight days serving as “centennial ambassadors” along the area’s National Parks Service features — Marsh-Billings, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and Saint Gaudens National Historic Site.

The group even incorporated the Connecticut River, named the nation’s first “Blueway” by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service four years ago.

“Usually, Mountains and Rivers Forever has an arts element, and we do things like woodcarving, swimming and stuff with a map and compass,” said Kaija, the art teacher at the Pomfret School. “We change it up every year and just thought this would be a great way to be less academic, get out into the natural world and celebrate the National Park Service.”

After some trust- and community-building exercises at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller, the group of seven boys and three girls departed the park on July 11, bushwhacking its way a mile north to find the Appalachian Trail. They spent two day trips venturing along the AT, seeing parts of the vast wooded areas of Woodstock and Pomfret they’d never known.

Henry Greene, a Pomfret resident, cherished becoming more familiar with the wild side of his hometown.

“One lesson I’ll take with me from this experience is that you can really keep exploring a place for life,” said Greene, a rising freshman. “There are a lot of parts of my town I’d never seen. Now I want to keep looking.”

Having reached Hartford by July 13, the group spent that night in the Happy Hill Shelter before walking all the way into Hanover the next day. Crossing Ledyard Bridge into downtown, members of the group marveled at how long it had taken to walk there.

“I didn’t realize how big the world is,” said Noah Anderson, an eighth-grader-to-be. “We can get to Hanover in 20 minutes (by car), but it took us several days to hike there. The world just seems bigger now.”

Group leaders wanted the kids to experience what AT through-hikers might while passing through Hanover, enjoying gelato and burritos on Main Street. They also visited the Dartmouth Outing Club and met with Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin about efforts over the last several years to improve amenities for AT travelers. The Hanover Area Friends of the AT was formed in 2009 to help re-blaze trail markings in town, create a shower and laundry facility in the recreation center and other improvements.

“They’ve really done a lot, which is important because Hanover is really the last town center the trail passes through (for northbound hikers),” Kaija said.

After a three-day hiatus, the group began the boats element of the trip. On Monday, it visited Lake Fairlee, where Bonna Wieler — Bradford, Vt.’s recreation director and proprietor of South Strafford-based Bold Path Adventures camps — demonstrated kayak paddling techniques and safety exercises.

The next day, the group launched in eight kayaks and two canoes from Hanover’s Ledyard Canoe Club for an 18-mile trip to Cornish, camping out at the Connecticut River Paddlers Trail’s Burnap’s Island campsite, about three miles south of the mouth of the Mascoma River and just north of the mouth of the Ottauquechee.

Participants said they barely noticed when paddling between Lebanon and White River Junction, even directly alongside West Lebanon’s busy Route 12A commercial strip.

“It was definitely a different perspective, being in the river,” said rising eighth-grader Charles Greene, Henry’s younger brother. “I consider Lebanon the noisiest place around, but from the water we couldn’t hear very much. It was really just the river and trees.”

While camped at Burnap’s Island, located on the eastern side of the river, some of the kids decided to swim to the Vermont shore. One was carried downstream by the current, causing chaperones to jump in and bring him back.

“I think I have a newfound respect for the shear power of the water,” Kaija said to the group during its wrap-up circle discussion Thursday. “It’s an incredible force, and you have to learn to take caution.”

The group continued paddling Wednesday, portaging around Hartland’s Sumners Falls before arriving in Cornish that afternoon — not certain exactly where they would be disembarking.

“We thought we might be able to get out right at Saint-Gaudens, but we ended up having to keep going about another mile south of there,” Kaija said.

Added Hanson: “That was kind of part of the adventure and part of the challenge, being flexible and adjusting to things that you might not anticipate.”

After a night camping at Saint-Gaudens’ Blow-Me-Down Farm, the group spent the final day creating a bikes addendum to Marsh Billings’ Boots to Boats initiative, pedaling 26½ miles to Woodstock from Cornish via Vermont routes 44 and 106.

The latter brought them through Reading, home to several of the participants.

“It was really different perspective of Reading, going up and over the hills slowly instead of driving through fast,” eighth-grader-to-be Mason Harkins said. “You don’t get the full experience from the car, I guess.”

Emma Windish, also of Reading, considered the 26-mile hiking portion to be the most challenging portion of the journey — but also the most rewarding.

“My dad has been taking me hiking since I was a baby, but that was still the hardest part, I think, because it was really hot,” Windish said. “But I think it was my favorite part, too, because it let me connect with the natural world. It’s an awesome thing to do in summer, when you’re not in school.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at or 603-727-3225.

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