My school year began with wandering off to the middle of the woods, leaving behind all electronic connection, and taking a group of nine first-years with me. We were heading into the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, a place known for its dense and sandy woods. Princeton’s Outdoor Action program takes around 650 first-years to explore the outdoors, and every trip experiences something a little different. But my trip wasn’t just a little different, it was a whole ’nother ride. And I guess that’s what college is all about: doing the unexpected and meeting new people during the process.
On the first day of Outdoor Action, my group had started its hike down the Batona Trail. It was a 90 degree day. We were chugging water, dodging cobwebs, and singing “Aliceeeee” as we made our way down to Buttonwood Hill Camp. It was when we got to our lunch stop that things started to change. About five minutes into our meal, one of the frosh noticed that he had about 20 ticks crawling down his ankles underneath his sock. What started off as a calm lunch quickly turned into everyone scurrying to untie their hiking books to take a look down their socks. And there they were! My hiking group had managed to walk into a tick larvae swarm during the first hour of our four-day hike.
About four hours later, we found ourselves outside of a motel in the Pine Barrens. Outdoor Action had sent us back to civilization and we were tasked with removing all the ticks from our bodies. If there is one thing that I walked away with from that night, it was a newfound skill of being able to remove over 200 ticks pretty efficiently. But what surprised me the most was that spending the night at the motel became one of the best bonding experiences of my life. As the 12 of us sat cuddled in a small motel room with a colored nalgene lamp in the middle, speaking about our roses, buds, and thorns, I began to see friendships start to form. I ended up giving my hometown on the first night, a story that speaks of my background and where I come from. Jake Rodgers, one of the first-years on the trip, followed my hometown with his own. After the trip had ended, he told me: “My favorite day would have to be the first day. While we might have hiked three miles more than planned and [had] to be evacuated, I think we really bonded the most that first night over sketchy pizza.”
The next morning, we were back out there, feeling the real adventure of the outdoors and no longer eating pizza in motel rooms. This time, we went canoeing at Goshen Pond. The pond is home to a family of beavers who built a dam that keeps the whole pond contained. That day went very successfully, so the next day we decided to try our luck with the Batsto River.
Being on the Batsto River is like canoeing through a deep forest. When you gaze up, there are trees hovering above you and the sky is barely visible. The water beneath reflects the mirror image of the things above, and everything looks otherworldly. It’s like rowing into a fantasy, except every other second you’re woken up from your fantasy by stinging fruit flies and random branches that you have to keep dodging. Regardless, the unexpected canoeing adventure turned out to be pretty fantastic. Oliver Nusbaum, another first-year on the trip, said, “My favorite day was probably day three, when we went canoeing on a river. I kind of wanted a combo canoeing and hiking trip, so I was perfectly happy with our change of plans.”
The experiences of my Outdoor Action trip may have been different, but I would not change anything about the way that things naturally happened. Our adverse conditions allowed us to get to know each other better, and opened up the group dynamic. Nusbaum sums up everyone’s experience when he says: “each day the group had deep conversations about a different topic, which could be links between languages, Middle Eastern politics, or Brandon Sanderson books. I was completely surprised by how open, yet respectful everyone was, both during the day and when we did our hometowns at night. After five days, it felt as if I had a group of friends that I had known for months. Definitely the best orientation program I have ever been part of.”