Move over, Cabo. So long, Fort Lauderdale.
Friday Harbor students have historically picked a less conventional spring break location.
For more than 20 years the top spring break destination for Friday Harbor High School students has been hiking the Grand Canyon with parents and teachers.
“Living on a small island makes you feel isolated,” said FHHS senior Zach Fincher,” you feel like there isn’t enough room, but the canyon has this ability to make you [see] the big picture.”
This year’s alternative spring break in early April included 22 students, from freshmen to seniors, and nine adults, who hiked roughly 40 miles over six days. Collectively, three separate groups covered more than 120 miles of backcountry trails in the river valley.
For FHHS teacher and hiking club leader Brook Landers, the goal of the club is to introduce kids to the outdoors so they can learn resilience as well as to trade computers for the country.
“I truly think there’s nothing better for youth than to play and to push themselves outdoors,” she said.
According to the nonprofit National Recreation and Park Association, the average child today spends only up to seven minutes of unstructured outdoor play a day but almost seven hours a day using electronic media.
Landers is looking to end that trend.
“We’re so distracted in a normal day,” she said. “When you’re just being with people in the woods, you listen to them a lot more and just take the time to be together.”
After school on Friday, April 6, students started their journey by flying to Las Vegas, taking rented minivans to the Arizona canyon and camping on the rim the night before their descent. The club’s backcountry permit forced the group of 31 to divide into three sections of 11 and not interact with each other throughout the hike.
Students were unplugged from the digital world once the hike began as cell reception dies during the trek down. They started at the canyon’s South Rim, where previous years’ students have experienced 20-degree temperatures and snow. Then they dropped almost 5,000 feet in elevation to the Colorado River, where temperatures reached more than 90 degrees one day. The 9-mile descent, said Landers, “is a doozy on your toes,” especially when each member carried his or her own roughly 30-pound pack, which included a tent, clothes, food and water.
“Everyone carries everything they need to live in the backcountry for six days,” she said.
Clear skies and a new moon prompted students to take “star breaks” when hiking in the dark, removing headlamps to view vivid constellations. Some even noticed that over time the constellations moved behind landmarks, illustrating that the earth is moving, just like they learned in science class.
The first Grand Canyon trip was initiated by now-retired FHHS social studies teacher Jim McNairy, who started the district’s hiking club. The organization even produces future leaders: FHHS teacher and trip chaperone Austin Tompkins was a member of the hiking club under McNairy when he was a student Wolverine in 2011.
“I knew I couldn’t turn away the opportunity to go on this trip again,” said Tompkins. “It had meant a lot to me as a student, and I knew it would be a good personal journey this second go-round.”
Any high schooler can join the extracurricular activity, but a spot to the Grand Canyon requires completing at least two club-sponsored hikes off the island and five on-island practices before departure.
Landers said preparing for the steep, uneven Arizona landscape requires some creativity. Practices include hiking Mount Young up to three different ways in one four-hour session.
“There is no local terrain like the canyon, so we just use all the hills to get stronger the best we can,” said Landers.
Despite the difficulty, interest hasn’t dipped. She noted that students Fincher, Molly Tangney, Rachel Snow and Erich Atwell have gone on the trip more than once.
“I think the reason why it’s such a good trip is because it’s so challenging,” she said. “It pushes everyone to be a really strong team, but also a really strong individual.”