Extreme Small Groups Camping

Here's the last of the articles I wrote for the most recent issue of Interlinc's music mag (YLO 71). I've been on a few group canoe trips to the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota. Those experiences turned into an article about Small Groups and Summer Camp!

Extreme Small Groups Camping:
A Summer Canoe Experience in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

By Kirk Moore

The large summer camp experience inspires students and usually brings them home with the warm memories of a "mountaintop experience." But finding opportunities for relationship-growing and faith-enriching small group experiences in a large camp event isn’t an easy task. Here’s a camp experience that not only makes that opportunity a reality – it makes it required!

In the Boundary Waters, canoe camping groups are limited to 9 people on any single campsite. In keeping groups small, the pristine nature of the area continues with little evidence of human interference. The Boundary Waters continue to be an area of quiet reflection, hard work and evidence of God’s marvelous creation.

Here’s some tested advice for planning and leading a Boundary Waters trip:

Reserve your camping permits early!
Summer permits begin to be available just after the beginning of the new year. Remember to reserve one permit per 9 people expected on the trip (even numbers work better – as 2 people per canoe works better than 3.) You can make reservations at bwcaw.org

Plan your trip with an experience and respected canoe outfitter in the Boundary Waters.
Outfitters that provide everything your group needs (canoes, tents, food, sleeping bags, utensils, packs, portable stoves etc) help make the trip a success. I’ve had great experience with Sawbill Canoe Outfitters out of Tofte, Minnesota.

Train students and chaperones in canoeing techniques beforehand.
If possible, take your group to a local lake with rented canoes and have them learn steering and paddling techniques. Most of the canoeing in the Boundary Waters is on calm lakes. On the trip, you’ll also spend lots of time carrying the canoe over difficult terrain. You might also want to practice canoe portaging – but the outfitters will also train you in this area.

Train chaperones in First Aid.
This is wilderness camping. There is no guaranteed cell phone or radio contact with the home base. Canoe groups should have emergency first aid supplies (supplied by the outfitter) and trained first aid personnel. In the event of a dire emergency, canoe outfitters have ability to get a helicopter or floatplane to the area. However, word needs to get to the homebase by campers.

Assemble canoe groups with care.
A small group of 8 should include 6 students and two adult chaperones. I’ve had the best experience by letting students choose at least one close friend to be in their. But for the most part, relationship and faith building works best with groups that aren’t an established clique.

Daily devotions are necessary and helpful.
Give each group daily devotion sheets (in a waterproof bag) and ask chaperones to be sure they set aside a few minutes each day for devotions. (If you’d like a sample of these devotions, send me an email.)

Take lots of pictures!
Each canoe group should have with them a disposable camera with flash and a disposable camera that can go underwater. Nowadays it’s also possible for groups to have single use video cameras too! Be sure to get pictures printed as soon as possible after the trip.

If you’re driving, try to plan travel with one night of state park camping on the way there and a less "roughing it" motel experience on the way home.
The state park camping on the way there helps get students ready for the wilderness experience that is coming, and the motel experience comes just at a time when they’re really tired of sleeping outdoors.

Spend the last night’s devotions with large group discussion about the trip and give students a chance to sign "warm fuzzy" sheets (kind of like yearbook or autograph books) with memories of the week.

Organize a picture reunion within 2 weeks after the trip.
The relationship building will continue as students share memories and pictures with one another. Encourage trip attendees who aren’t regular youth group attendees to join with their new friends at other youth group meetings, too. And continue to do many group-building activities at weekly Bible study/group meetings.

I’ve found that the extreme small group experience of Boundary Waters Canoe Camping to be one that helps students grow in their faith in Jesus and one that helps them grow in their relationships with others. It’s a great addition to the rotation of summer camp experiences for students.

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