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Pemi West 2023

The 2023 Pemi West crew!

Pemi West provides former and new campers alike with the opportunity to hone their wilderness adventure skills, develop leadership abilities, and spend time bonding in one of the most picturesque parts of the United States: the Four Corners area of the southwest. The group consists of our Pemi campers, a Pemi trip leader, and two or three Deer Hill trip leaders. In 2023 they paddled through the Labyrinth Canyon on the Green River, engaged in a homestay and service project with a member of the Hopi Nation, and backpacked in the Weminuche Wilderness inside the San Juan National Forest.

The group consisted of Merrick Chapin, David Kriegsman, Jack Merriam, Will Silloway, Boone Snyder, Matias Trinca, and Giacomo Turco. They embarked on a three-week journey in the southwestern United States for the 2023 Pemi West trip. The boys operated out of Mancos, CO, at the basecamp of our partner for this program: Deer Hill Expeditions.

During this incredible journey, the boys spent a week each:

  1. canoeing,
  2. engaging in a service learning and cultural education experience, and
  3. backpacking in the San Juan National Forest.

After a successful launch to the Pemi-Deer Hill partnership in 2019, our boys have benefited from this dynamic and multi-faceted itinerary ever since. In this post we’ll share some details from the 2023 trip along with the announcement that the 2024 program registration has now opened! Read on to learn more about this next phase of the Pemi journey.

Pemi’s trip leader for the program was Tom James, a longtime educator and experienced outdoorsman. He’s shared a writeup of the trip, which you can read in full here, that will help provide glimpses into each aspect of the experience.

Ready to hit the Green River

Pemi West actually begins on the east coast, with three days at Pemi for wilderness first aid training. This allows the group to spend a few days back at camp seeing old friends and counselors while engaging in the same training that every Pemi staff member goes through. After wrapping that up, the group heads down to Logan Airport in Boston for their journey to Mancos, CO. Here’s what Tom had to say about the arrival at Deer Hill’s headquarters:

At basecamp in the shadows of Mesa Verde National Park, the boys gave their cell phones to our instructors to be stored until departure day. It felt like a rare gift to be disconnected and able to stay in the present during our expedition. Scott and Jackson [the Deer Hill trip leaders] then introduced the practice of circle, a routine we followed each night where all of us could speak and listen from the heart. For our first round, we shared what we were excited about for the days ahead. Before going to sleep, we spent some time looking at the Milky Way and all the stars in the stunning Colorado night sky.

Excitement at a riverside campsite

The practice of circle that Tom mentioned forms one of the key components of the leadership training that occurs throughout the trip. The boys practice the skills of self-reflection, sharing your thoughts with others, and giving and receiving feedback. These leadership abilities are further honed through campers taking on roles such as navigation, meal preparation, and being the leader of the day out in the wilderness. All of these routines help develop and practice the ability to be a collaborative, decisive, and reflective leader. The boys worked on these skills on the river in a number of ways:

Enjoying the views from Labyrinth Canyon

Our first of four nights on the river was spent under a huge canyon wall with an overhanging arch. We learned knots for rigging boats to trees to make sure our canoes stayed secure. Jack took point on setting up our tarps as the rest of us set up the rest of camp. After cooking our first backcountry meals, we were treated to more incredible views of the night sky, as the moon was down to 7%…. The next day we paddled with enthusiasm and ended up moving 26 miles down the river. Even so, we had time to explore an abandoned uranium mine in Hey Joe Canyon…. Matias stayed on top of the river map and could always point out exactly where we were.

Master chefs showing their work

The service work and cultural learning forms another key piece of the personal growth that comes with the Pemi West experience. Last year the group stayed and worked with a member of the Hopi Nation named Marshall on his property on the Hopi Reservation. They engaged in a number of projects including helping in the construction of a new house in the traditional Hopi fashion and the routine maintenance of the fields on the property. In talking about the group’s work with Marshall, Tom noted:

Field work on the Hopi Reservation

He’s been in the process of building a house on his property for his mother for the past few years, which the boys were enthusiastic about helping out with. We learned how to strip bark off freshly cut pine trees so they dry out faster, remove knots, sand down wood, and apply linseed oil. Marshall also taught us about traditional house construction techniques using natural materials like clay, river silt, and straw. We had a chance to mix the material in with the proper ratios under Marshall’s guidance and to plaster the walls, which the boys took to with gusto…

When I picked the boys up at the end of the trip, their week spent with Marshall came to mind most often in their initial recapping of the experience. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity that the boys truly cherished and grew from.

Heading off into the mountains!

The final stretch of the trip provided the most challenging and breathtaking aspects of the journey: seven days out in the remote wilderness of the San Juan National Forest. The group transitioned from the dry desert heat to the cold mountain air and even experienced some July snowfall. Building on their earlier practices, they took turns as leaders of the day, which included setting the day’s route, monitoring and altering the pace and breaks throughout, and selecting the campsite that evening. During circle at each campsite, the group would provide feedback to the day’s leaders. This practice helped them learn how to be precise and constructive when delivering critiques and how to be humble and open-minded in hearing from others in a productive and non-threatening manner.

Along the way they were treated to stunning views, gorgeous campsites alongside alpine lakes, challenging scrambles at 13,000+ feet, and the true sense of camaraderie that comes from an extended trek away from the comforts of modern life. While a snippet doesn’t do it justice (you should really read the full recap here!), Tom’s reflection provides a taste of the backpacking portion:

Hiking along the Colorado Trail

The wildflowers were in bloom as our route took us towards and around Engineer, and as we headed north, we enjoyed sweeping views of the San Juan mountains… Jack and Will were our leaders of the day, and they ensured we made steady progress through the day as we followed the Colorado Trail towards Little Molas Lake. At camp, Giacomo cooked his second masterpiece backcountry pizza of the trip. After dinner, our resident tactician Matias took charge of charting a course towards Vestal Lake… Electric Peak came into view as we ascended through a steep gnarly trail into the meadow below Vestal Lake. This was an especially beautiful campsite, with the Grenadier Range laid out in front of us…

The scramble up Arrow

Forming a trail of headlamp lights, we set out in the dark and made for the base of Arrow Peak, a 13,809-foot mountain looming over the lake. The time we’d previously spent learning how to communicate and operate as a group was essential, as this was our most challenging endeavor we’d faced so far. We climbed carefully, navigating scree, talus, and rock slabs as the sun finally rose over the mountains in the distance… We took a moment to appreciate the incredible views we were afforded so high up before slowly descending, moving in pairs through some of the steeper sections. We hiked down past our previous campsite, after stopping for a Polar Bear in Vestal Lake, and stopped again in a swimming hole before making for the Animas River to set up a camp we’d use for our last two nights in the mountains.

Enjoying the views in the Weminuche Wilderness

As you’re hopefully starting to get a feel for, Pemi West provides an incredible extension of the traditional Pemi experience for our 16-year-olds. Upon returning to Pemi, they even have the option of staying on for the final 10 days of camp through the Counselor Apprentice Program. This lets the boys spend extended time at Pemi while learning the ropes of staff life and putting their leadership skills directly into action. It’s a fun and rewarding bookend to the few days spent at Pemi at the start.

Interested in Pemi West 2024 or know someone who might be? The program runs from July 6th – 31st, and registration is now open! Want to learn more? Email me: [email protected] and stay tuned for details about a Zoom info session with former participants and a member of the Deer Hill team.

Many thanks to the participants and to Tom James for his beautifully written reflection on Pemi West 2023.

– Pat Clare

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