Campus & Community

The tough get going

long read

Learning teamwork where the wild things are

Students with
Backpacked, baseball-capped, and bandana’d, the intrepid first-years carry supplies to the buses gathered near Lamont Library, engines running, ready to transport the young explorers into the unknown.

Forget about summer enrichment courses, insiders’ guides, or college counselors.

The skills you really need to adjust to life at Harvard include sleeping on the ground, licking your bowl clean, and tying a trucker’s hitch. Dancing like a squirrel and nailing all the words to “Me and Bobby McGee” won’t hurt, either.

Along the way, you’re likely to forge some fast but deep new friendships that you can lean on freshman year when the going gets tough.

That’s the philosophy behind Harvard’s First-Year Outdoor Program, or FOP. Since 1978, FOP has oriented nearly a quarter of the freshman class through weeklong backpacking and combined backpacking/canoeing trips in New England’s north woods. One of 110 such programs at colleges throughout the country and one of the few to be accredited by the Association for Experiential Education, FOP uses the wilderness as a vehicle to help incoming freshmen learn more about themselves and each other, thus easing their transition into Harvard.

The Gazette joined FOP 41, nine incoming freshmen and three upper-class leaders, for part of their backpacking trip in the Lake Sunapee region of New Hampshire to witness this rite of passage that some alumni deem their most valuable Harvard experience.

FOP begins with Aloha Day, Sunday, Aug. 26, when the 307 FOPers gather in Harvard Yard. As they await their group assignments on the steps of Widener Library, the 72 FOP leaders entertain them with skits and the legendary FOP dance, a glimpse of the mood of the next week. Just hours before, at gear check-in, these same leaders were all business, sifting through packs to reject leaky rain gear and flimsy boots.

Students with
Bearing packs weighing up to 50 pounds or more, members of the 2001 First-Year Outdoor Program (FOP) gather in front of Lamont Library in the still predawn hours. In moments they will be aboard the buses that will carry them to the northern New England wilderness.

After a first night of “camping” on the floors of dorm rooms, FOPers stumble into predawn Harvard Yard Monday morning to board buses waiting on Quincy Street. A few sleepy hours later, the bus deposits FOP 41 at the Mount Sunapee Ski Area parking lot. The skies open immediately. The FOP leaders – Luke Stein ’02, Anne Morris ’04, and Bob Elliott ’04 – seize the downpour as a teaching opportunity, explaining the importance of keeping rain gear accessible and ensuring that clothing and sleeping bags are swaddled in plastic garbage bags. This is the first of many wilderness tips imparted to FOPers in the next week, all aimed at increasing comfort, safety, and confidence in the wild.

Bob, an amiable and able sophomore from the Detroit area, corrals the group for a game of Moose. When he raises his open hands to his head, the person on either side of him must create a corresponding “antler.” If someone misses a Moose cue, they take a drink from the water bottle at their feet. (If any FOPers recognize this “hydration game” from high school parties, they don’t say so). Like many FOP activities, Moose serves double-duty: It hydrates the FOPers for the physical challenges ahead while forcing these near-strangers to get to know each other by acting slightly silly.

“FOP is not just a program to teach people to become better campers,” says FOP director Brent Bell. “We’re trying to get them to know people very well, very quickly. And the woods and hiking and the physical challenge of it is a method to promote that.” Students who spend a week together in the woods, Bell says, will form much deeper relationships than they could in months on campus, giving FOPers an instant support system when they start Harvard.

“The most valuable thing is to walk in, day one, and know eight other FOPers, says Bob, who came from a high school that hadn’t sent a student to Harvard in 16 years. “FOP gives you a base of connections.”

Luke Stein, Matt Rioth and Justus
Luke Stein ’02, a FOP leader (center), anchors a ‘bear bag’ high up in the trees to keep food and other aromatic items well out of the awareness of large, furry, scary animals. Helping Stein are freshmen Matt Rioth (left) and Justus Meier.

The first day’s hike is a steady but relatively short climb to an abandoned campsite on the edge of Mount Sunapee ski area. Carrying common equipment and shared food – giant sacks of Cheerios and logs of cheese – FOP packs hover around 50 pounds, nearly half the body weight of some of the students. If anyone is suffering, however, they’re doing it silently.

The gregarious leaders fill the void with getting-to-know-you questions and their varied views on Harvard life. Over the next five days of hiking, FOPers pepper Anne, Luke, and Bob with questions. What’s the skinny on my dorm? Which expository writing course is best to take? Do you know my proctor? Bob shares his exclusive formula for maintaining a B average and an active extracurricular life, and Luke offers intelligence on the frequency of popcorn chicken at Annenberg.

As the increasingly filthy group pares trail life down to the bare necessities of nutrition and hygiene, some advice – the best sushi in Cambridge, for instance – seems ludicrous. “Buy a tux,” Luke says, discussing the preponderance of formal events at Harvard. “You’ll save so much money over renting, your parents will thank you.” The male FOPers, who will wear the same T-shirts and shorts for five days, take note.

The first night of camping is luxurious: FOPers enjoy nearby running water and three-sided shelters with floors and roofs for a night of relative comfort. It’s the wilderness nonetheless, and the leaders spur the group into action to prepare dinner and secure the camp for the night. Over the course of the trip, Anne, Bob, and Luke will gradually cede these duties to the group, but on this first night, nine freshmen look to them for guidance.

Group leader Anne Morris ’04 (hands in foreground) shows a deft touch as she demonstrates some knot-tying techniques to the group.

While Anne teaches FOPers essential knots, Luke takes some volunteers to hang the “bear bag.” Although the black bears and brown bears in the northeast are less ferocious than grizzlies in the West, he explains, they’re every bit as hungry for a cheap meal of camp food. Each night, FOPers will hang all their food plus any “smellies” – toothpaste and other toiletries that might attract ursine visitors – high off the ground to keep it from becoming some furry creature’s midnight snack. Matt, a lanky Coloradan, hurls a line weighted by a rock with impressive accuracy and height over a notch 20 feet up a tree. Luke rigs up a system of pulleys using rock-climbing equipment; this Ivy League improvement over Girl Scout methods will ease the bags of food aloft.

Over a dinner of burritos, the leaders discuss “leave no trace,” the ethical and practical code that governs FOP’s wilderness experience. It’s pack-in, pack-out with a vengeance: trash, obviously, gets packed out in Ziploc baggies, and so does dirty toilet paper and food waste. That one peanut or crumb dropped by a FOPer might not seem like much, say the leaders, but multiplied by all FOPers, by all FOP trips, by everyone who might ever camp at that site, it has an impact.

After the group makes a serious dent in the Cheerios supply Tuesday morning, Bob leads them in a discussion of their goals for the trip. What do you want to bring to the group, what do you want to leave with the group, what do you want to take back to Harvard from this experience? Common themes of openness and friendship emerge.

The leaders give each FOPer a piece of cord to make a bracelet with three knots, one for the answer to each of Bob’s questions. “Tying the knots in the middle is easy,” says Luke, a New Yorker and member of the FOP steering committee, but someone else will likely have to help with the knot around the wrist. “Feel free to find a metaphor in that,” he says. It’s one of many such interpersonal games and exercises that distinguish FOP trips from mere walks in the woods. In addition to extensive training in outdoor skills and first aid, FOP leaders receive training in team building – and it shows.

Team leader Anne Morris ’04 makes a watchful survey of her freshman charges during a break in one of their daylong hikes.

Tuesday’s hike is the longest and most arduous of the week, starting with several miles of very steep uphill on ambiguous trail. After an hour of climbing, the leaders notice that the group has divided itself by gender, with Rachel, Elizabeth, Hilary, and Carolyn forming a ponytail posse at the front. To mix things up, Anne sifts the men into the women and the climb continues. Luke, eager to sing, coaxes from the group a few weak “na na nas” at the end of his “Me and Bobby McGee.” He has slightly better luck with tunes from “Rent,” which David also knows and loves. At the next break, group dynamics have loosened noticeably and the volume of FOPer chatter increases.

This bonding grows through the trip; some of the group activities later in the week generate genuine warmth and caring. “Fear in a Hat,” an exercise that asks FOPers to admit their fears about coming to Harvard, was “a really powerful activity,” says Luke. As the trip goes on, he says, “people become more comfortable putting themselves on the line or embarrassing themselves.”

Hikers keep an eye on the ground as they walk along a ridge.

It’s a transformed group of FOPers that pulls into a rapidly darkening campground Tuesday night after 10 tough hours on the trail. Although exhausted, they spring to action setting up camp, which tonight includes stringing up tarps for shelter. Rain threatens, but they have their rain gear at the ready. They’re joking more easily: Benny, the only foreign student in the group, turns his new friend Justus (“as in ‘for all’”) into the scales of justice by instructing him to close his eyes and placing a heavy bag of food in each of his outstretched arms.

“Things said on the trail today showed a level of comfort that was a lot greater than the first day. People are showing their true faces. These are the stages of group development,” says Bob.

While the FOPers may not be quite ready to make fools of themselves, the leaders are. Bob, Luke, and Anne shuffle through the FOP dance again, then throw in the Brown Squirrel Dance and the Ride the Pony song for good measure. By the end of the trip, they predict, the FOPers will join in these gleeful but undignified performances.

With the day’s exertion and a soaking early evening rain behind them, the group gathers at the edge of the still pond they’re camped on. They gaze at stars they’ll never see from Harvard Yard. Ben, a quiet freshman from Berkeley, wows the group with his knowledge of constellations.

Undefeated by the group’s musical shyness, Luke, Anne, and Bob start crooning a Motown tune. In the darkness, voices fill in bass lines and falsetto solos soar, tentative at first, then exuberant. Among them, the FOPers know most of the words. The harmonies are dead-on.

Feel free, Luke might say, to find a metaphor in that.

Reporter Beth “Last Time I Did This Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth” Potier and photographer Justin “I Can’t Believe This Was My Idea” Ide are twice as old as the students of FOP 41. Although they are both experienced in the outdoors, Justin and Beth currently have desk jobs at Harvard’s Office of News and Public Affairs, where a hike from the 10th floor of the Holyoke Center to Au Bon Pain is high adventure. Beth knows most of the words to “Me and Bobby McGee.” Justin shot many of these photos with a 5-pound Nikon F100 he now calls “The Anvil.” They both thank the participants and leaders of FOP 41 for letting them tag along.

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Benny Wijatno, a freshman, takes a break and checks out the view during the second day of hiking in the Mt. Sunapee region of New Hampshire.