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Future Women Leaders: Experience in the ‘Daks

Tier 2 Expedition, July 5-9, 2023

Written by: Scott Wager

This was a five day journey, in the High Peaks region of New York’s Adirondack Park, undertaken for the specific purpose of building the self-confidence and leadership skills of future women leaders. The expedition team comprised of three young women from last year’s female empowerment expedition (Alicia, Rayanah, and Zashenka) and two new members (Makayla and Maribel).  All five were rising 10th grade students at Newark. Four of them were part of a friend group, one, Maribel, was an outsider. My partner Danielle, Kenna, a former student of Danielle’s attending Alfred University to pursue art therapy, and I were the leaders of the expedition.

Throughout our drive, from Newark to the Adirondacks, the team chatted casually and frequently filled the van with laughter.  Based on the mood in the van, and the positive memories from last years empowerment expedition with Alicia, Rayanah, and Zashenka, I had formed an expectation that guiding the team would be easy, and facilitating the daily conversations would be fun. Yikes, was that a false expectation!  This was, by far, the most challenging expedition I have ever lead.

Like most of our Adirondack expeditions, we stopped for a short shake out hike before rolling in to the Wilmington Notch Campground. At the trailhead, it was hot and humid, the air was still, and the sky was muted by smoke from the Canadian wildfires.  Danielle explained to the team that the hike was short, just a half-mile up, and its summit would be an inspiration place to have our introductory conversation. Maribel and Kenna were not quite prepared for trail’s steepness, and found it difficult to breathe while hiking at the pace of the other 4 girls. Danielle hiked along with Maribel and Kenna, coaching them on how to pace for their breathing, as I hurried along to keep eyes on the rest of the team. After a few rounds of “are we there yet?” Rayanah, Alicia, Zashenka, and Makayla emerged onto the treeless upper slabs of Owl’s Head Mountain. There, the sun was relentlessly hot so the team opted to forego the summit’s panoramic views and instead chose have our conversation in the shade provide by a dense cover of trees.

As we started our conversation, a light, cooling rain began to fall.  Zashenka, Rayanah, and Alicia started panicking about their phones getting wet and wanted to retreat to the van.  Danielle, Kenna, Maribel and I thought the rain felt refreshing and because there had been no rain forecasted, we expected it to pass as quickly as it began.  We made the team wait out the rain, which passed in just a few minutes. The planned flow of our conversation had been disrupted by the rain causing us to skip introductions and jump right into a conversation about the connections between empowerment and leadership. Makayla, not overly phased by the rain was tuned in to the conversation and openly shared her thoughts. She identified never giving up as a characteristic of leaders and empowered people. This spawned a discussion about how to differentiate between backing off and giving up.  Some of the girls had good examples of backing off, and others saw failure in both.  As I offered them my thought, that backing off should never be considered a failure because it leaves an opportunity to try again in more favorable conditions, rain began to fall again. To Danielle and I, both the sky, and the weather radar showed nothing more than a brief afternoon humidity shower, so we told the girls to relax, we were going to wait it out. Thirty seconds later, the temperature dropped sharply and the rain turned horizontal! A premonition of sorts, this pop up thunder storm was the first in a daily barrage of emotional and environmental storms.

We arrived at our campsite around 5:00 pm and started hustling to setup tents before another round of rain showers.  As I pulled all of the tents from the van, Rayanah, barked at Makayla, “Where is the big tent from your mom?” “We left it at home”, she replied. Angry that her plans to have a party tent were thwarted, Rayanah rained an emotional storm upon the team in the form of tantrum. As angry accusations, blame, and retorts flew between the four friends, I stepped in to bring an abrupt end to the unproductive behavior. “Ray,” I said, “It is not Makayla’s fault, it is yours and mine. You said you were bringing the large tent and never communicated to me that this had changed, so I told Makayla’s mom that we didn’t need a second large tent, and left it in Newark. Two of you are going to have to share a tent.” Maribel, who also brought her own tent, quietly stood back and observed as the other four argued about who would share a tent. Alicia, who had brought her own tent, specifically so that she could have her own experience on the expedition, was the only one to concede and offer to share her tent with Rayanah. As that storm dissipated, I shifted my focus towards setting up a kitchen and eating area that was sheltered from the rain. One by one, as the girls finished setting up their tents, they made their way over to help Danielle and I build a rainfly over the picnic tables. “What’s for dinner?” the girls asked.  “Whatever you make. Here are all the ingredients we have”, I replied. “Wait, we get to cook?” Makayla excitedly asked. They settled on grilled chIcken caesar salad, and worked together as a team to prepare dinner.  Alicia, and Makayla grilled the chicken, Ray and Maribel chopped vegetables for a salad, and Zashenka helped me start a campfire.  The mood was positive and supportive. A nice rebound from the earlier contention and angst. 

Day 2 of the expedition focused on being mindful of the inner story that forms in our mind when things get tough. We asked the team to pay close attention to how fatigue, hunger and dehydration tend to shift that narrative in a negative direction. The adventure that would present an opportunity to practice this mindfulness was a 6-mile (round trip) hike to the summit of Ampersand Mountain. Offering beautiful, panoramic views from the summit, and a rejuvenating swim in a clear mountain lake at the end, Danielle and I anticipated that Ampersand would be a tough, yet pleasantly rewarding day for the team. 

Danielle led the the faster moving group of Zashenka, Rayanah, Alicia, and Makayla, while I hiked at a slower, conversational pace with Kenna and Maribel.  Our plan was for the faster group to enjoy some extra time and conversation at the summit before Maribel, Kenna, and I arrived with the supplies for a mid-day art project. The hike was gruelingly long and steep for Maribel, whose legs were fatigued from the prior day’s steep trail, but she pushed past the discomfort to see just how far she could go. She, Kenna, and I chatted about our families, lived experiences, leadership, movies, and more as we moved our way up the mountain. When we arrived at the summit, I was surprised to see the four other girls heading back down towards the trees. “Are they all going to pee?” I asked Danielle. “No, they just want to get off the summit”, she replied.  It was sunny and warm, so I assumed, that like the prior day, they just wanted to get out of the sun. “They had lunch, and were hanging out for a few minutes, but they just can’t seem to sit with their own thoughts”, Danielle commented. 

She then suggested that we switch groups on the way back down, so everyone had the chance to learn from her and I.  I quickly ate my lunch, celebrated Maribel’s summit, and headed back down to the four girls waiting in the trees below.

As I clambered down off the summit rocks, I came upon Alicia, sitting alone on at the base of a large rock. She was slightly hunched over, as if looking at her phone. “Can I sit with you for a minute?” I asked. Her response was an outpouring of sobs and tears that almost instantly escalated into hyperventilation and clutching her chest. In a fraction of a second I had two conscious thoughts: this is bad…control her breathing. Instantly, my mind had shifted from casual conversation, to a wilderness first responder assessing the need for an emergency rescue. I leapt in front of her, lifted her chin until her eyes met mine, and in the calmest, stern voice I could muster said “Lee, I need you to look at me and match my breathing pattern.”  With large exaggerated breaths, I repeated: “Breath in, 1, 2, 3, hold 1, 2, 3, breath out, 1, 2, 3” until she was no longer hyperventilating and was able to talk.  “I just…experienced…the most severe…panic attack…of my life!” she sobbed.  As her breathing and heart rate slowly returned to normal, she explained that it was triggered by the stress of some group conflict and her fear of heights. With a few final sobs, she wiped the tears from her face and asked my permission to continue hiking down. Before I finished the word “slowly” she was off, rocketing down the mountain. Rayanah wanted to run after and console her, but I held her back and asked that Alicia be given some space. For the next 30 minutes or so, I hiking alongside Rayanah and Makayla, talking about what had just happened. They revealed that the conflict was between between Alicia and Zashenka, and were actively strategizing how to get them to talk through it. Their intent, forcing the conversation to happen, was heartfelt and genuine, but their chosen words were abrupt and filled with accusation. This was a good teachable moment for Rayanah and Makayla, so I explained how defensive I would feel if they approached me in the manner they were describing, and suggested they start the conversation by communicating how they each value the group’s friendship and are being impacted by the conflict between Alicia and Zashenka.  

For the last 30 minutes of the hike, I walked alongside Makayla, getting to know her through the stories she told about her lived experiences. I learned that at the age of 12, she had experienced things that I would not wish upon anyone, let alone a child!  Her stories revealed that she is a genuine, kind-hearted person, who is passionate about bringing joy to young children, and frequently cares for others at the expense of her own needs and desires. I learned that judgement and reputation are often assigned by people who have not listened to the lived experiences of those they label. As Makayla and I rounded the final corner of the trail we saw Rayanah, Zashenka, and Alicia, all standing together, smiling. Rayanah gleefully shouted, “they just had the conversation!” to Makayla and I.  After what I describe as a frantic checking of their phones, the four girls and I headed to the beach of Middle Saranac Lake to cool off (mentally and physically) while we waited for Danielle, Kenna, and Maribel to finish their hike and join us.

About an hour later, as Maribel, Danielle, Kenna, and I were swimming, another emotional storm erupted between Makayla and Rayanah. For reasons that I still do not know, beyond being hot and tired, they screamed at each other, declared each other to be the problem, and both stormed off towards the van.  I looked over at Danielle and said: “Well, I guess that my cue to get out of the water. By the time I arrived at the van, they had both calmed down and Rayanah apologized to me for the way she acted at the beach.  Baffled by the days unexpected challenges, I chuckled aloud and asked “anyone up for ice cream?”  A harmonious 7-person cheer answered the question. 

Day 3 was structured to be a recovery day with leadership skill development activities at Experience Outdoors in the morning, and relaxing at the beach in Lake Placid during the afternoon. It had rained on and off throughout the night, and heavy storms were predicted throughout most of the day, so the team’s level of stoke was pretty low.  At breakfast we told the team that our plan was simple: do whatever we can at Experience Outdoors, and adapt to make the rest of the day as fun as possible.  

First up, Experience Outdoors!  We arrived at 10:00 am to a stormy looking sky, but otherwise pleasant weather. Their team building course at sits near the top of a small ridge called Scott’s Cobble. Prior groups we had brought here were driven to the top in 6×6 vehicles, so I had prepped the team to expect the same.  When our facilitator “Mouse” announced we were going to hike to the area, I expected a full on mutiny!  In particular, I felt bad for Maribel, whose legs were completely wiped out from the prior two days of hiking. “I’m sorry Maribel”, I said to her, “I was expecting them to drive us up there like they did last year.”  With a mixture of a grimace and a smile, she said: “it’s okay, I hurt and I’m going to be slow, but I’m not going to die.”  It started to rain during our first activity, so we huddled under some trees as the first round of rain passed.  At the second activity, the girls were just starting jell as a team when a powerful thunder storm announced itself with a distant clap of thunder. 

A few minutes later, the 6×6 vehicles I had hoped for in the morning came racing up the hill to get us before the storm hit in full force. We waited out the storm under a massive lean-to, along with Mouse and several other Experience Outdoor clients. Some girls napped, some chatted, and some scrolled on their phones. When the storm passed we carried on with our leadership activity. Makayla was keenly focused on her phone and not participating, so after a few minutes I quietly asked her to put the phone away and join the group. She burst into tears, shouted something about responding to her dad, and not being able to deal with all this, and then ran off towards the van.  I gave her a few minutes to be in her own space before approaching her again. “Are you okay?” I asked. Still crying, she shared that both her father and boyfriend were messaging her constantly and making hurtful accusations if she didn’t immediately respond. “I want to participate, but I just can’t with all of this.” she said.  “Can I please just stay in the van by myself to process everything?” she asked. I obliged.  

Meanwhile, the rest of the team was working on getting everyone up, and over a featureless, ten foot tall wall. Maribel, often talked over by the other girls, quickly saw the winning strategy for this challenge, but the louder voice of Zashenka put a plan into action that did not account for Maribel’s level of fatigue. 

Despite knowing there was a better plan, Maribel supported the team decision and gave 110% to make that plan work, until her muscles literally gave out. Danielle, Kenna, Mouse, and I praised the girls on their individual leadership strengths, teamwork, and perseverance before moving on to our final activity – a high ropes course.  We made it half-way through he high ropes course before another round of thunder storms forced us out of the trees, and back under cover.  Drenched, and drained in every way imaginable, we all piled into the van and headed back to camp for a hot shower and a late lunch. Nature, it seemed, felt a cold shower was more appropriate, and parked a thunderous storm with rain flying from all directions above us for the next 20 minutes.  

During the storm, Kenna and Makayla had a long, heartfelt one-on-one conversation in the van.  They talked about what had happened to Makayla at Experience Outdoors, what was what was going on with her and the others on the expedition, and many other aspects of Makayla’s life.  After nearly an hour of talking with Makayla, Kenna approached Danielle and I.“Scott, Makayla has something she wants to talk to you about…would you mind joining us in the van for a minute?” she asked.  In the van, Makayla opened the conversation by saying “I don’t want to disappoint you, but want to he honest with you and tell you the truth, even though (name I will withhold) said I should lie to you and say I’m having my period.  I have arranged for my mom to pick me up after work tonight.” “Thank you” I said, “I appreciate your honesty Makayla, and would really like to know why, if you are willing to share.” She spoke  openly about the challenges she was facing due to her boyfriend’s perception of why she wasn’t available for his immediate beckoning, and how that amplified her frustration with the constant group conflict. I am afraid that I am going to snap and ruin the trip for everyone,” she said. I continued to listen and Makayla processed her thoughts and emotions by way of talking.  Eventually she shared that she was no longer able to handle the mental stressors from afar, and needed to go home to make it end. I told her that I appreciated both her honesty and her decision, and then closed our conversation with a story of my experience learning to decipher who had my best interest at heart, and who did not. “What I have learned”, I said “is that you are not responsible for the choices other people make – that is on them. You can only control the choices you make, and each of them should lead you toward joy and empowerment.”

While Maribel and Makayla showered, and the other girls hid from the rain in their tents, Danielle, Kenna, and I talked through a few scenarios that we could envision for the remainder of the trip. It was clear to us that when Makayla went home, her friends would want to leave as well; that would likely lead to a miserable last day. It was also clear to us that some of them had breeched our trust by again bringing a vape device on the trip – but we did not see the value in searching their belongings to find out who. Instead we decided to pull the team out of their tents and have a conversation about the true purpose of the expedition, and the broader Future Women Leaders program that they wanted to be a part of. Deeply disappointed by the breech of trust, I started the conversation with a lecture on importance of honesty and integrity as a leader. I shared that for me, without honesty, there can be no trust, and those who I can not trust will not be welcome in the program. As I said those harsh, but true words, Zashenka put her head down on the picnic table and didn’t look up again until dismissed. I asked the girls to be honest about where they were emotionally, and why the wanted to go home.  Maribel, the only of the girls that had never complained about the weather, but instead adapted to it, said “I am tired, and my body is sore, but I want to stay and ‘till the end.”  Alicia, frequently the spokesperson for her friends, shared that the group conflict was difficult to deal with, and that for her, the timing of the trip created additional challenges. She also shared that her panic attack on the mountain and the thunderstorms earlier in the day had scared her and made her really want to be in the safety of her home.  Zashenka and Rayanah sat silently.

I asked the team to close their eyes and by show of hands, vote on leaving the next morning or staying the full five days.  Alicia then asked “if we choose to go, does it mean we can never come on another trip?” “No”, I said. “We are here to support you, and as long as you are honest with us, don’t bring drugs or vapes to school or our events, and you aren’t skipping classes you will be welcome on the team.” To my surprise the vote was 3-2 in favor of staying, but it was evident that one team member was trying to hide her vote to stay from the person sitting next to her, who voted to leave. As I pondered the team’s vote my mind flashed back to the question I had asked them on Owl’s Head Mountain: “How do you decide when it’s time to back off, and when to keep pushing forward?”  The irony of its foreshadowing to this moment had not been missed; now was the time to back off.  I shared the results of the vote, and quickly followed to say, “but I think it’s best for everyone that we head home tomorrow morning.” Relieved by the decision, and still hungry but not wanting to cook, the girls asked if we would take them to McDonalds for dinner.  Not wanting McDonalds ourselves, Danielle and I compromised on taking them there, and then we would get something while walking around in Lake Placid.  I think that was the girl’s happiest moment of the entire expedition; a small comfort from home – the familiarity of McDonalds chicken nuggets, fries and shakes!  In Lake Placid we gave the girls an opportunity explore the village on their own. We created a group text, and agreed to meet back at the van in 2 hours. Within that time, one last emotional storm erupted when Makayla discovered that Rayanah had been dishonest, and taken advantage of her generosity earlier on the trip. Thankfully, they had mostly hashed out their disagreement before Danielle and I returned to the van.  

Back at the campsite, the rain had temporarily stopped and Danielle and I wanted to lead one more fireside chat to close out the expedition. So, Makayla and Zashenka learned how to split firewood with a hatchet and built a roaring fire, while Kenna, Maribel, Danielle and Alicia worked on independent art projects.

The knowledge that the trip was over brought a palpable calmness to the team.

As I reflect on the overall experience of this expedition, through the process of writing this trip report, two powerful lessons occupy my thoughts:  1) Withhold your judgement of a person until you have time to learn who they are through their life’s story – What those who are quick judge portray as an irreparable flaw, may very well be a miraculous coping mechanism for traumas we cannot even imagine. 2) In many teams, the strongest leaders are often overlooked because they do not seek the spotlight. 

I am eager to continue working with these young women as they hone, and refine their leadership skills and style through the Future Women Leaders program this school year.