On August 2, this year’s team of 11 youth and 2 adults set out for an unconventional, but deeply spiritual week outdoors for the annual Confirmation Wilderness Course.
The Course has become a staple of KUC Youth Ministry summer programing. Each August, before fall sports tryouts begin, we take a team of youth—those who prefer outdoor learning to classroom learning and those whose schedule does not allow for Sunday classroom time during the year—outdoors to dig deep into topics they might otherwise learn about in confirmation classroom at church: Where is God in creation? Is the Bible true? Who is Jesus and why does it matter? What was Jesus like? What happened when Jesus died? What happened after? Why is there evil and suffering in the world? What about other religions? What is a faith statement and how do I write one? What if I’m not sure about God or the Bible? Where is God in my life right now?
In 2020, it took every effort for our annual wilderness trip to NOT fall victim to coronavirus cancellation. I thought you might like to hear the story of how it actually happened….
Earlier in the year I contracted with guides in Spokane Washington, to lead us on a repeat of last year’s course: a backpacking trip on the Olympic Coast Trail in the remote Northwest. I had every hope of taking the team out to the coast, even as late as early June. But even after our state moved to Phase 4 of re-opening and Washington did not show any worrying level of virus transmission, things changed. Restrictions started to pop up—mostly around transportation—that made that trip difficult to execute and prohibitively expensive. Plus any hope to return to normal air travel dashed remaining hopes.
I researched something that would not require flying as a backup and settled on a plan with Wilmette’s Northwest Passage—adventure travel specialists—who would provide wilderness guides and equipment. We would paddle the Lower Wisconsin River from Spring Green to Prairie du Chien. Our group would be self-sufficient and camp on sandbars. Ground transportation was a little tricky because in June, when we first discussed this plan, Illinois restricted the transportation capacity of a standard school bus to just 9 passengers plus the driver. Fortunately Illinois increased the limit to 15 passengers in July, so I was able to reserve a bus to take us there, and pick us up. The reservation, which is normally confirmed within a day or two, took over three weeks to confirm as the local bus dispatch yard was barely operational on a skeleton crew. Prayers abound for our school bus operators, mechanics, and drivers. School buses have sat idle since March and there is no clear path for school bus companies to resume normal operations….
The Lower Wisconsin River trip remained the plan even in the light of increasing COVID-19 infections in Wisconsin in late July, which we were aware of and tracking. Because we had NO public contact planned in Wisconsin, I was confident this would be the safest trip for our group and made a final go-ahead decision on July 29.
I was looking forward to this trip as late as July 30. Late that day I got news that the New Trier Athletic department announced that anyone traveling to Wisconsin would need to quarantine for 14 days prior to trying out for the few fall sports still open to students. Four of our confirmands were affected by this. I prayed about it overnight and just two days before our trip, on July 31, made the pivot to Plan B.
Our trip destination changed just two days before departure to White Pines State Park in Illinois and our activities would now include biking, kayaking, and hiking from our base camp. Everyone would need to bring a bike and helmet. I got on the phone from my end to make sure our school buses would accommodate bike transportation (they sent us specialized buses) and to change our drop off and pick up locations. This took multiple calls to get through to dispatch management since they had been so slow to respond with the original confirmation. Northwest Passage changed its gear plan and hoped that campsites would be available upon our arrival….
There were other last-minute hurdles, but God saw to it that we checked in our team members (with thorough COVID-19 screening and precautions) and reached our destination without a hitch. Our wilderness guides and gear arrived at White Pines at the same time our team did and we settled in for an awesome, faith-filled week, exhausting our bodies with difficult bike rides, and filling our souls with God’s delightful presence around us and in each of us.
There were many powerful and profound moments during our discussions and at other times throughout the week. God blessed us with light and love and sunshine, great guides and a wonderful team, and reminded us again that in every hardship, God is there to guide us and to strengthen us for the journey.
Come to Outdoor Worship this Sunday at 8:30 a.m. to hear about the Wilderness trip in the words of the young people who God sent on the course with me this year. Register online.
I look forward to seeing you there.