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The Wilderness Experience Turns 50

For 50 years, sixth graders at The College School have had the tradition of the Wilderness Experience. Every fall, the students paddle, climb, camp, journal, and backpack in the Shawnee National Forest of southern Illinois. It is one of the school’s most time-honored traditions.

One really special and significant part of the Wilderness Experience trip is when each student undertakes Solo Night. This is a time when the campers go off into the darkness and sleep by themselves at Upper Panther’s Den. Solo Night can be challenging and daunting for some campers because many are sleeping alone, without a tent, for the very first time.

On this year’s Solo Night, sixth grader Eddie R. was nervous about the “prospect of being alone but felt fine and excited” after settling in. After completing Solo Night and his Wilderness trip, Eddie reflected that he felt “amazing” and he “learned so much about my class, myself, and teamwork.” 

Eighth grader Kate Q., who had her Wilderness Experience in the spring of 2021, shared some of her experiences as well. Kate said that a challenge she had on the trip was not Solo Night, but paddling when she was tired and climbing outdoors in a style unfamiliar to her. In the end, however, Kate felt “proud, and I wanted to re-do the trip.”

Kate also vividly recalls the Circle Ceremony, a closing activity that acknowledges the challenges that the campers have faced and overcome. Kate said, “We lit candles and wrote journal entries for what we are thankful for and then shared.” 

Eddie said that his most lasting memory of Wilderness was also the Circle Ceremony. “Sitting by the fire, surrounded by candles. That was an important milestone for Wilderness and my time at TCS,” he said.

Middle School teacher Heather Walka, who has been co-leading The Wilderness Experience with John Colbert for several years, says that Wilderness is “an opportunity for personal growth,” and that “the challenges and successes that students faced on the first wilderness and the ones faced in the 50th are eternal.” Heather believes that one crucial skill the Wilderness trip instills is personal empowerment and the opportunity for each student to find their own success. In Heather’s eyes, “Each trip is unique, and that’s one of the beautiful things that runs through the thread of 50 years and why it continues to be such an impactful experience for TCS students.”

With the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Wilderness Experience, Heather and many others in the TCS community – past, present, and future – are excited about the experiences that future classes will have on Wilderness for years to come. 

The College School’s longest-running theme turned 50 this year! Sixth Grade’s Wilderness Experience, founded in 1973 by Jan Phillips, focuses on personal growth, teamwork, outdoor skills, and stewardship. Through weekly day trips, such as rock-climbing and canoeing, sixth graders experience challenges that help them develop a wide range of skills, which are tested during a culminating five-day backpacking expedition to Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois. Throughout the theme, students also practice reflecting upon and taking responsibility for their learning. They discover more about their personal and collective strengths, ultimately learning that they can do more than they first thought they could. In the end, students learn many lessons, such as perseverance, trust, and cooperation, which they can then apply to many situations throughout their school and personal lives. Academic integrations include connected literature study, problem-solving skills, reflective writing, and research projects.

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