Big South Fork a BIG Success!

Reed Gabhart, Head of Goshen CampusBSF_7

I returned last Friday from another week in the woods and on the trails of Big South Fork National Park and Recreation Area in Tennessee, backpacking with our 8th graders. I have taken this trip enough times that I have lost count (14? 15?), but it never fails to energize and educate all of us!

As always, one of the things I like to do with my “watchgroup” (dubbed the “Gabzios” by my trip partner Angela Ponzio), is ask them why St Francis School thinks it is important to take this trip? Why would we “give up” a week of sacred instructional time to backpack in the woods? And instead of providing them with the answers, we let them tell us around the campfire on Wednesday night (and the campfire sessions are one of the most valuable and enlightening things we do at BSF). The students never fail to seize upon the many reasons and articulate them well: to foster independence and a sense of self-achievement; to help them to realize how fortunate they are in this world and in their home lives; to learn how to function effectively in a group setting and help others who are struggling; to bond as a class; to learn to deal better with adversity when it arises and adapt and overcome; to appreciate the natural world in which we live; and to succeed in this 8th grade rite of passage. Some of the reasons are more obvious, but some require a little unearthing out on the trail (and this year we didn’t have too much adversity in the way of weather, but the bugs helped to take up the slack!). Add in the joy they experience from the views they reach, the stories they share, and the hikes and physical challenges they conquer, and you have one very special and memorable trip.

We also found out during our last whole group campfire on Thursday BSFBlue_GroupShotnight that trip founder Mike Black is hanging up his hiking boots. Mike started the St. Francis Outdoor Program in the late 1980s and lovingly shaped it into the program of which we are so proud. He is our spiritual leader out there, and a true St. Francis legend. But Mike’s lessons, wisdom and stories will live on. We all share them around the fires now, and I hope for generations to come kids will still marvel at Zorba the Greek, Cherokee parables and the legend of Sam Gam Gee. I know I will.

But we are in good hands with Mike’s successor, Patrick Donovan, our Outdoor Education Program Coordinator. Patrick did another outstanding job this year organizing this incredibly complex trip and helping to make sure our kids experienced success out in the “wilds”. The rest of the article belongs to this “grizzled” (literally) veteran trip leader to whom we are all eternally indebted!

By Patrick Donovan,  G ’79, ’83
8th Grade Language Arts and Social Studies


The success of trips like BSF ride in large part on the backs of the teachers who lead our Watch Groups. They take on a monumental responsibility in safely shepherding groups of 13- and 14-year-olds over the hills and through the woods of Tennessee. In fact, our outdoor trips cannot happen without the eager willingness of our teachers. St. Francis is lucky to have teachers like Angela Ponzio, Madelyn Blue, Tina Brown, Mike Black and Reed Gabhart  – they are true leaders and their efforts make this trip a memorable one for our students. Thank you!

As for my own thoughts on the trip, I am drawn to what Wendell Berry writes in The One Inch Journey, “Always in the big woods when you leave the familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into. What you are doing is exploring. You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is an experience of our essential loneliness; for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.”  Berry’s words always strike a chord with me because he nails the essence of our shared BSF experience.

On the one hand, it is scary for everyone, both the adults and students, to head out into the Cumberland Plateau backcountry for a week. We all know the physical comforts of our daily lives will be absent for the week. In the simplest terms, the things we often take for granted – food, water and shelter – will become chores that our daily schedule revolves around. In the starkest of terms, we all wonder (sometimes aloud): Can I do this? Can I hike all day long with a large pack and take care of myself?

Magic occurs when we finally hit the trail. The anticipation of the BSF_1challenge disappears into taking that first step, which is quickly followed by the next. And, soon enough, we all find that the challenges pent up in our mind about the unknowable quickly dissolve into the doing of it. We learn that the water we filter is cool and clean and quenches our thirst in a way that turning the handle of a faucet cannot. We learn that the food we prepare and cook is delicious and filling sustenance. We learn we can sleep outdoors under bright stars while also staying warm and comfortable. In short order, we are experiencing the world in a way that is simply not possible during our typical day in school.

Finally, when we all come together on Thursday night for our campfire-lit celebration of the week, everyone is able to revel in the shared pains and joys that defined the week. As Berry notes, the “common ground” we hiked becomes a “common bond” that we equally share.