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Since 2011, Yosemite Conservancy has supported Adventure Risk Challenge, which provides year-round school-based and outdoor programming for high school students in California’s Central Valley.

In May, ARC completed the inaugural academic year of its new Community Leadership Program, which engages students in weekly workshops (led by two ARC graduates), mentoring and outdoor activities, including rafting, hiking and climbing. July 6 marked the start of ARC’s 2020 summer course, which had been carefully adapted to ensure the safety of students and staff during the pandemic. In this guest post from July, ARC Associate Director Will Fassett shared a glimpse into the first part of the monthlong course, which kicked off with seven days of backpacking in the Yosemite Wilderness.

Tony Marquez, a student from Bullard High School in Fresno, recalls what his summer was like prior to arriving in Yosemite with Adventure Risk Challenge (ARC): “I was lying in bed until late at night, watching TV and eating day-old popcorn.”

Asucena, a participant in the Adventure Risk Challenge 2020 summer course, sits by a tree in Yosemite's high country.

“All the time you’re seeing natural beauty and you start to feel more a part of the natural world.” — Asucena Portillo, one of eight high school students on ARC’s 2020 summer course.

His teammate on the 2020 ARC summer course, Asucena Portillo, shared a similar sentiment. Speaking in Spanish, she said the month of June was “boring” and that “she practically did nothing.”

Tony and Asucena are two of eight California teenagers who have joined ARC for its month-long literacy, leadership, and wilderness course this summer. Instead of stale popcorn and long, repetitive days, they are now hiking up Sierra Nevada peaks, writing poetry, and learning outdoor skills in Yosemite’s backcountry.

ARC’s mission is to empower underserved youth through integrated leadership, literacy, and wilderness experiences. ARC offers immersive monthlong summer courses each year in Yosemite, Tahoe, and Sequoia National Park and provides an academic-year Community Leadership Program in four California high schools. The Community Leadership Program includes weekly leadership meetings, one-on-one mentoring, and progressive outdoor and overnight experiences in Yosemite and other California parks. Students who complete an ARC summer course and the academic year program receive a $1,000 college scholarship.

Adventure Risk Challenge students stand in a circle with their hiking poles in the center during a backpacking trip in the Yosemite Wilderness.

The 2020 ARC summer course participants started their journey together with a weeklong backpacking trip in the Yosemite Wilderness.

ARC took many precautionary steps in its preparation for the 2020 course. Students committed to socially distance and wear masks when in public leading up to the course. Additionally, all the students and staff tested negative for COVID-19 prior to the first expedition into the Yosemite Wilderness. During the experience, students are in a “bubble” and have no in-person contact with non-course participants. After a seven-day backpacking expedition along the North Rim of Yosemite Valley, from Tamarack Flat to the Quarries trailhead, the students settled into their first base camp in Wawona.

An Adventure Risk Challenge student writes in a journal while sitting on a granite expanse in Yosemite, with Half Dome visible in the distance.

Writing and public speaking are core parts of the ARC experience. While in Yosemite, the 2020 students captured observations in journals, and worked on metaphorical poems to present at an online “Voices of Youth” event at the end of July.

During the first expedition, ARC staff modeled outdoor skills for the students: how to pack a pack, cook over a small stove, set up a shelter, take care of personal hygiene, navigate using a topographical map, and more. Meanwhile, the students journaled and captured their thoughts about the beauty of their surroundings in writing.

They spent time enjoying the view from the top of Yosemite Falls. They also climbed to the top of Mount Watkins, which has panoramic vistas of Yosemite Valley and the high country. Asucena says, “Everything was so beautiful here. Where I’m from in Mexico, it’s desert. The whole time I thought about wanting my father to come here and see it.”

In environmental science lessons, the students identified the flora and fauna that surrounded them. They learned to observe and appreciate the birds overhead, the wildflowers below, and the trees above. In this outdoor setting, they also read and discussed short stories.

“I cannot express how different it feels here versus in a classroom,” Tony says. “There’s a fun aspect that makes you want to read and put yourself out there. When you feel the support that everyone is bringing to the group, it’s really empowering.”

During this seven-day expedition, the students hiked a total of 30 miles. Asucena remarked on how incredible it felt to be outdoors continuously for so many days: “All the time you’re seeing natural beauty and you start to feel more a part of the natural world.”

Asucena, Tony, and their teammates are now writing metaphorical poems, in which they compare their stories and strengths to something they have observed in Yosemite’s ecosystems, in preparation for the first “virtual” Voices of Youth event.

From a summer of boredom and endless news of COVID-19-related cancellations, eight high school students are now having a transformational academic and outdoor experience in Yosemite with ARC. The students will graduate on August 1 in Wawona after a month of learning and adventuring.

The eight high school students participating in the 2020 Adventure Risk Challenge summer course pose for a group photo at the overlook above Yosemite Falls, with Yosemite Valley stretching out in the background.

The 2020 ARC summer course students pause for a scenic group photo above Yosemite Falls during their first expedition.

Since their Yosemite expedition, the eight ARC students have participated in a Community Interview Day, during which they interviewed community leaders. In an Instagram post about the event, ARC wrote that the online gathering “was a little different because the interviews took place on Zoom, but the feelings were the same: mutual admiration, positivity, and respect.”

The students also completed a Project Discovery ropes course and a second weeklong backpacking expedition, in the Granite Chief Wilderness. On July 29, they had the chance to practice, and courageously prove, their confidence, poise and public speaking prowess as they read their metaphorical poems during the annual Voices of Youth event. The event, which is normally held in person but went virtual in light of the pandemic, was live-streamed to a rapt online audience of more than 250 people.

Follow ARC on Instagram (@arc_program) and check out the ARC blog for more updates about the program.

Thank you to our donors for supporting this program; to Will for sharing this update; and to Asucena, Tony and their fellow ARC students for offering a glimpse into their summer experience!


All photos courtesy of Adventure Risk Challenge.