By Laura McAlister
Two elementary school teachers will be spending their summer in the wilderness with a bunch of teenagers – and not much else.
Bill and Suzanne Andrews, both fifth grade teachers at Mountain Brook Elementary, have formed Treeline Expeditions, LLC, a summer backpacking experience in New Mexico for high school-age students. During the two-week expeditions, the couple will lead the teens through the Pecos Wilderness of New Mexico with their backpacks, stocked with only necessities.
The campers are responsible for cooking their meals and keeping their campsites just as they found them while navigating their way through wilderness.
Bill said the camping experience will teach leadership skills and self-reliance in a Christian environment while exploring the great outdoors.
“We like to think about it as getting unplugged,” Suzanne said. “There are no cell phones. It’s really almost like a detox. It just makes you really aware of all the beauty around you.”
In its first summer, Treeline Expeditions will offer two sessions – one June 14-27 and another July 1-14. The expeditions are open to boys and girls entering grades 9-12.
The couple will meet the campers at the Albuquerque, N.M., airport the first day of the expedition. The second day will be dedicated to preparing their backpacks for the journey ahead as well as getting campers acclimated to the New Mexico altitude.
The actual backpacking will take place on days 3-10. Bill said depending on the weather and the group, he suspects about six miles will be covered each day.
The journey will end with whitewater rafting on the Rio Grande and a day in Taos, N.M., before departing.
“We’re looking to take about six kids on each expedition,” Bill said. “We want to keep it small.
“Each kid will have the chance to take some leadership roles. We’ll assign a leader for each day. They’ll learn quickly that not everything is going to go right or as planned, but if something does go wrong, you have to find a way around it.
“They have to think for themselves.”
Bill knows from experience the need for flexibility, but he said that’s part of the fun and part of developing leadership skills.
Bill first started backpacking when he was in high school. He said he was a “really shy kid” at the time.
“I did a couple of these trips, and I was hooked,” he said. “It taught me leadership skills and built my self-esteem in ways that I could never learn in a classroom.”
He’s been backpacking ever since. When he married Suzanne about eight years ago, she and her two children, Alexandra and Ryder, joined Bill in his backpacking adventures.
As a family, they’ve backpacked through the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, Pisgah National Forest and the Weminuche Wilderness, to name a few.
“Our family experiences have been so important to us,” Suzanne said. “My son really loves it, and my daughter does, too, for different reasons. Ryder really likes the adventure, and Alexandra loves to meet other campers. She’ll see another group and want to go meet them.”
With a love of backpacking and their summers free, Bill and Suzanne said it made sense to start Treeline Expeditions. But it wasn’t something that happened overnight.
They had to receive permits to camp, and Bill also underwent extensive training.
In addition to spending 14 years in the classroom, he’s a graduate of the National Outdoor Leadership School-Yukon and Pacific, a leader in wilderness education. He also is a trained Wilderness First Responder.
“NOLS is really a premier school for expedition training,” Bill said. “I’ve also had medical training through the Wilderness Medical Institute. I have to recertify every two years. It teaches you to care for minor things like cuts and scratches, as well as major things like broken bones and illnesses. It’s very extensive training.”
Though they are in the wilderness without cell phones, Bill said they are still connected to emergency responders, and parents can even follow their journey online. Each camper will be equipped with a SPOT receiver, a satellite messaging service.
“If we get in any kind of trouble, we can send out an SOS,” he said. “It’s kind of like that airbag you have but hope you never have to use.”
Suzanne said the SPOT receivers also track their location on Google Earth, so parents can know where their children are at all times.
Bill said perhaps the biggest safety net they have, though, is good planning.
Campers don’t have to have any experience in outdoor adventures, he said, but they should be used to activity. Bill even recommends that those going on an expedition start a regular exercise regimen during the weeks leading up to the trip.
The only equipment campers need is their clothing, sleeping bag and a backpack. Bill said they would be renting backpacks out for $85 for those who don’t want to buy one.
The packs weigh about 50 pounds, depending on the size of the camper, and contain clothing, sleeping bags, camping gear and food.
“Food really takes up a good part of the packs,” Bill said. “The menus are one of the hardest things to plan. You have no refrigerator out there.”
Campers should expect to eat a lot of pasta, rice, couscous, bagels and peanut butter. Bill said they’ll even bake pizzas and possibly a chocolate cake before the end of the journey.
The only requirement when it comes to their cooking is that all of the food is eaten. That’s part of the “Leave No Trace” policy that will be followed during the expeditions.
Leave No Trace requires the campers to leave their site exactly as they found it.
While only two expeditions will be offered this summer, Bill and Suzanne are hopeful Treeline Expeditions will grow to offer more and more each summer.
So far, the first session is almost full, and they’re taking reservations for the second one.
To learn more about Treeline Expeditions, visit its Facebook page.