Rounding Up for Explore Austin

Summer has ended and schools are gearing back up for another semester — but as we all know, some of the best learned lessons can come from summer wilderness fun!

Every Summer, the team at Explore Austin gear up to send over 150 young explorers on 18 trips to wilderness areas all over the US to hike, bike, climb, and most importantly, find empowerment through adventure and the great outdoors!

We were grateful to be able to donate meals for several of these trips this year and provide much needed nourishment for the trail!

We sat down with Explore Austin Summer Guide, Nora, to take a deep dive into what it takes to be a Trip Leader and Mentor.

What prompted you to get involved with Explore Austin? 

Good question. Funny question for me specifically because I actually did an Outdoors Educator semester with National Outdoor Leadership School right after college because I felt lost. I knew I was passionate about the outdoors, but I had everyone else telling me to go get a nine-to-five and take the corporate America route. 

After I did that semester with NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) I was like, BOOM! Okay, I need to have some of this in my life but I didn’t know where to start so I picked up odds and ends jobs like raft guiding and things like that. One of my coworkers, Amber Bruner, who had been a trip leader with Explore Austin, contacted me as Explore Austin was looking for a female guide for a last-minute trip outside of Denver. 

The stars aligned because I knew I wanted to work with youth and be outside. Getting that phone call from Amber, being interviewed, and then getting on a plane and heading over to help these kids learn how to backpack was amazing.

Now, every year, I have a ticket to go visit friends at Explore Austin and feel incredibly fulfilled by helping youth get outside and do the things I love to do. 

We’ve always seen mealtime as sacred. What can you tell us about the impact of meal time on the Explorers and the trips?

Meal time is so important, especially when you’re on a trip in Arkansas and it’s been 95 degrees with 100% humidity. You are exhausted and you can’t even drink enough water to satiate how thirsty you are. It’s the end of the day and you’re helping people filter water and set up tents. Then, finally, the moment comes that you get to sit down, boil water and cook a meal for yourself. It ends up being the most relaxing part, but it’s also the most rewarding part of the day.

You’re just like, man, I conquered that trail! Now I get to sit and enjoy this fantastic meal!

With a lot of our groups, mealtime ends up being the time we chat about the day. We end up joking about silly stuff that happened on the trail, we talk about different roles in the group, and it’s just one of those really fun, casual community times that feels organic and laid-back.

It’s a time for Explorers to decompress from the day.

Mealtime helps facilitate reflection and growth — celebrating finishing up a big day, buttoning up camp for the evening, and taking time to breathe together. What’s that connection like?

What I love about that time is how organic the sense of community and conversation is. It’s different from facilitating campfire talks like “Rose, Bud, Thorn”. It’s a lot of laughing and jokes like “Oh, did you see who slipped in the river today?” or “You know, this funny thing happened” or “Hey, remember when I couldn’t get over this big log that fell over in the trail and you helped me over it?”

It’s similar to all those formal fireside chats we have after dinner, but it’s happening organically and they’re all excited to be talking about it.

So really, it’s this amazing sense of community. No one is ever left out. Everyone is helping. Someone is filtering water, someone is carrying the stove, someone is carrying the fuel. That engaged participation makes mealtime and the whole trip that much more rewarding for them. 

How have you seen the Summer Wilderness Trips make a deeper impact on the Explorers? What lights people up?

I had the privilege of being with the Lady Birds Group who started in 2021 with a trip to Colorado Bend State Park, then again this year on a backpacking trip in Arkansas. 

I watched them, for the very first time in their lives, learn how to cook on a stove in the backcountry, build a campsite and set up tents, backpack for two nights and go canoeing. We had pouring rain for the first night we got there and then the afternoon after that. We even had pouring rain in the middle of mountain biking! 

Watching them react to that rain with energy and spunk was incredible.

There were other things that were funny to me, too. Like on the first trip, I would remind Explorers to do things like filter water and make sure tents are ‘bombproofed’ before leaving camp. Then, all of a sudden this year, I hardly had to remind them of anything. They’ve grown in their skills over the Saturday Challenges to the point where they showed up to backpacking and absolutely crushed it. They knew how to set up their tents. If you reminded them, “Hey, let’s make sure the rain flies are nice and taught,” they knew exactly what that meant. The skills that we’ve delivered and the things that we’ve trained them on, they’re retaining and it’s very, very obvious that just one year of maturity and new Saturday Challenges really set them up for success in the backpacking section.

So it was especially fun for me to see because I’ve never been with a group back to back like that, especially at the younger ages. It was apparent that these are skills that they’re going to take away with them for the rest of their life. 

I remember tearing up on the last night when they talked about how we are a family. One Explorer said EA has helped them find out who they really are. Multiple girls mentioned how they want to be mentors when they’re older. Another Explorer talked about how they are starting to learn how the whole program comes together, from donors buying new supplies, to mentors volunteering their time, and they’re super grateful for it all

From Katie M, another “lady Bird’s Group” mentor when asked to describe her most memorable meal moment

What about from the emotional perspective?

What has always impressed me is that, no matter what the group dynamic is at the beginning of the trip, by the end of the trip, there’s no man left behind. They’re all giggling and having fun in the van coming back. We had two girls on this trip who had barely even met the rest of the group. They were almost brand new. They’d only been to a handful of Saturday Challenges and weren’t with us last year. By the end of the trip, you would have thought everyone had been hanging out for years! It’s amazing to me how when kids this young are faced with the adversity of really hot weather, steep climbs, bugs and mosquito bites, they overcome with a positive reaction.

Sometimes this is hard. It’s easy to have thoughts like “This isn’t fun. What am I doing here?” but 95% of the time, they cope with it by leaning into a friend, supporting someone next to them, and taking out their frustrations by actually being more positive or overly helpful to someone else. When they see someone struggling, they know what that’s like and they go help. Usually that person who was struggling the first day or two or three is the person that’s being the best helper by day four or five or six or vice-versa. That’s really fun to watch. It keeps me coming back.

What was your favorite PackIt Gourmet meal to enjoy on your Summer Wilderness Trips? 

The Chicken Salad is amazing! You can put cold water or hot water into it so it can be your dinner one night and your lunch the next day. 

It’s the best gourmet lunch you’ll ever have on the trail! 

I’m usually a trail mix and bars only person but once I actually got into the Packit meals as a result of Explore Austin, I was like, oh my gosh, I could have a chicken wrap for lunch?! It’s my favorite one because it’s so fancy!

So you’re usually a bar and trail mix kind of person. A lot of people are like that, what’s the best part about having PackIt on the trail as an alternative?

Hands down, the best thing to me as a Trip Leader was the fact that you could bust out Packet Gourmet for lunch and you could see kids smashing wraps with beans or chicken salad and a wrap or eating chili.

When you’re working with adolescents in the backcountry, you’re usually looking around at every meal time to make sure everyone is drinking water and eating as much as they should be. The fact that Explorers can get a proper meal on a 30 minute lunch break is so awesome!

Plus, a hot meal at lunch. Like, who does that?!

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