Youth Voices: “Welcome to the outdoors – it’ll change you!”

Evelyn Hatem hiking in New Hampshire

Author hiking in New Hampshire

Youth Voices: “Welcome to the outdoors – it’ll change you!”

by Evelyn Hatem

“Gooood moooorning, outdoor citizens!”

“The time is 6:30 and we’re about to start our adventure for the day.” I heard the tents rustle as I sat up, slowly but surely inching towards our day’s excitement.

Over the course of 13 days, we would be learning about our nation’s public lands, while experiencing their joys firsthand with other high schoolers. Our time together began with 6 days backpacking in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, the patch of pristine wilderness sandwiched between Franconia Notch State Park and Crawford Notch State Park in the White Mountains National Forest of New Hampshire. In the beginning, these names were just words on our maps, but eventually they became the keystone in our appreciation of public lands and the outdoors.

Each day, we danced around, attempting to maneuver our heavy packs onto our backs. Besides our necessities for safety and comfort, we carried with us our worries and senses of adventure.

The day was beginning, and our home for the night was now a thing of the past, the packed dirt happily awaiting the next group of tired, sweaty hikers. After breakfast, which was a patience-requiring escapade (everything’s slower in the backcountry), we studied our map and off we went, onto the trail and awaiting the next snack break. While hiking, we played games, our favorite being “Contact,” where we would get to know each other through the words we chose and how quickly the others could read our minds and say the same word. During lunch, we could often be found on a summit, not necessarily eating right away, though, because laying on the sun-baked boulders of the summit seemed just as enticing. We soaked in the sun and admired the view, while our instructors seized this opportunity--sitting still was a rare occurrence-- to teach us about what public lands are and how they allow us to experience the serenity that can only come with feeling the heat of the sun radiate off a 4000 foot mountain.

As the sun lowered from its highest point in the sky, we continued hiking, tying in our water breaks with lessons in storytelling and public land management. After a few hours, we arrived at our site, quickly shifting into camp set-up, organizing ourselves into teams to get us ready for the night. If we got to camp early enough, we could sit by our tents and laugh at each other’s humor, our laughter undeniably amplified by the lack of outside entertainment we possessed.

One evening, our instructors surprised us by kindly cooking our dinner for us, as they could sense from their tent platform that we were becoming the tight-knit, supportive group that any leader could hope for. We carried this bond for the rest of the trip, while fatigue and impatience sure challenged it.

We hiked over ridges, summits, and then finally along a flat trail that led us to our final campsite of the backpacking portion. We were met with a barbecue and running water, which was divine intervention as far as we could tell. That ended our time backpacking, and we anxiously awaited the next two days of workshops at AMC’s Highland Center.

How can we advocate effectively for the things we care about? At the Highland Center, we were greeted by individuals who taught us just that. Our minds shifted from the numbness of hiking to the engaging conversations we shared with each other. We began the workshop with group activities led by Pegah Rahmanian and Court King, leaders of the youth advocacy organization Youth In Action. The game of Charades demonstrated to us the effects of privilege and the importance of perspective when it comes to supporting a side of an issue. We shared dinner together and sent them on their way home to Rhode Island, while we prepared for our second day and enjoyed the luxuries of sleeping under a roof.

The next day, we awoke to the same good morning call, anticipating another full day of learning about conservation advocacy. We met with leaders of the conservation department at the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), as well as representatives from The Wilderness Society. Over FaceTime, we spoke with Joseph Goldstein, a passionate environmental advocate, founder of Kids for the Boundary Waters, and fellow teenager, just before we travelled to a nearby swimming hole protected by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which we had learned about earlier that day. By the end of both days, our toolkits were stuffed with ideas, connections, and the framework to see our ideas to fruition.

Our last few days were peppered with short, frequent rain showers. Good thing we were wearing our bathing suits! While digesting the information we had received at the Highland Center, we returned to the outdoors, canoeing around Squam Lake and camping at islands conserved for recreational use by people like us. We spent our downtime practicing canoe rescues and sitting around the campfire, falling asleep to the sound of waves and loon calls.

After three days of canoeing, we travelled back to Massachusetts, where we camped for the last two nights and prepared for our final policy day in Boston. Our last day of our time together was spent meeting with elected officials about their experience with conservation and youth advocacy. We relished the moment of calm on the Boston Common, then carried on to the AMC headquarters, where we were greeted by AMC staff who met with us to talk about how our own goals and plans to implement the skills we learned and practiced on this trip. Yet again, we brainstormed, imagined, and planned for the positive change we were going to enact once we returned home.

For me, this trip was about the connections I gained from placing myself outside my comfort zone and into this group of incredible individuals. Despite each of us being challenged mentally or physically, we established connections with each other, with our instructors, and, most importantly, the outdoors. We were able to remove ourselves from our daily lives, an opportunity so much of the world does not receive. In this disconnection, we discovered the personal growth that comes with stepping outside- in both an imaginative and literal sense.

Since returning to my daily life, my mind has wandered to this trip when faced with a challenge; I spent 2 weeks with 8 strangers sleeping in the middle of the forest…I can do this. From this trip, I gained the confidence to lead others in the outdoors, as well as support my own and other youths’ passions- what they want to advocate for and how they can do it.  All change begins with a connection, a reason that a person cares enough to speak up.

By accessing the outdoors through wilderness, my peers and I were able to develop this connection, and it is through this connection that we will advocate for positive change in the world. For many of us, this was the first time we felt a true connection to the outdoors- a place which constantly is in need of passionate, skilled, and most importantly, connected, crusaders.

As I walked away from our teary goodbyes, I couldn’t help but remember the first night….

“Evelyn! Look. Up.”

“What?! What is it?”

“The stars! They’re so bright! I’ve never seen that before! Can you believe it?!”

Welcome to the outdoors, fellow advocates. It’ll change you.

Evelyn Hatem is a junior at Bow High School in Bow, New Hampshire. She enjoys running, hiking, and was a participant in Appalachian Mountain Club’s Outdoor Citizen Skills Expedition in July 2018.  She hopes to study environmental economics after high school, and looks forward to advocating for the outdoors in our global community. You can reach her at

AMC’s Outdoor Citizen Skills Expedition is part of The Wilderness Society’s Youth In Wilderness Program, which provides life-changing, immersive experiences for youth on America’s public lands and cultivates the next generation of wilderness advocates.  For more information, contact Liz Vogel