Ten weeks ago, two strangers in a green Volvo picked me up from my house to begin to a life-changing adventure in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains. Our destination was nestled deep in the sleepy town of Meadow Valley: the University of California Forestry Camp, a 98-year-old university-owned camp dedicated to nurturing the next generation of foresters and natural resource managers.
After a three-hour drive getting to know my driving buddies, listening to Fleetwood Mac and reveling in the forested landscape, we arrived. Lines of small wooden shanties and long dormitories circled around a campfire classroom, and small hand-painted signs directed us to various camp buildings, classrooms and bathrooms. As I tried to contain my excitement, I saw a handful of other campers who looked just as overwhelmed as I felt, unable to believe that this was to be our home for the next two months.
That first day of camp transported me back to a time when friends were made around picnic tables instead of 600-person lecture halls or random parties. After I found one of my friends, we sat near the entrance of camp and attempted to get to know the people we’d be spending all our time with. We helped people unload, found unclaimed rooms, played table tennis and shared our fears of spending the next two months without reliable cellphone service or social media.
One of my friends from the Volvo became my new roommate, and we chose our room based on the beautiful piece of bark near the door and the giant sugar pinecone hanging from the ceiling. Our “suga’ shack,” as it came to be known as, was a tiny, room-sized building with two tiny beds, two desks, fold-up chairs and little room for anything else. The rooms were open to the air, with screened doors and wooden walls that turned into metal mosquito netting about five feet up. We noticed that there were already families of spiders throughout it, with their intricate webbing tying together various pieces of furniture. Although we swept away the webs that day, by the end of camp, various critters — including squirrels, crickets, ants, yellow jackets and spiders — were normal companions in any building we inhabited.
During these eight weeks, I learned more about the forest than I thought I’d ever know. We learned about soil site indexes, forest pathogens, measurements and logging techniques. We took field trips to lumber mills and logging shows, and we climbed mountains and took plant quizzes on the way up. I learned how to climb a tree, hold a fire hose and properly chop wood. I woke up to the call of the Mountain Chickadee’s “Heeyyyy hippieee” call and went to sleep cradled by the light of the moon. Our days were hard; there’s no denying the struggle of waking up at 7 a.m. and not being done with class until 5:30 p.m., but now, comfortably sitting in my house with a hot cup of coffee and a cat, it’s incredible how lucky we were to have a living classroom that we could shape and be shaped by.
It’s difficult to properly articulate all of the memories I’ve made at camp. Relating my experiences to my friends and family since I’ve been home seems to almost cheapen the activity or make it seem even more surreal than it already feels. We spent our afternoons crick-dippin’, Lover’s leapin’ and thriftin’ at the local thrift stores, but just saying that doesn’t let you feel the cold water of the leap after a five-hour day in the field or laugh at the strange variety of souvenirs we found in Quincy shops. Looking through the lens of real life, these seem like activities that you could do anywhere and with anyone. But sharing those memories with the beautiful individuals I was lucky enough to meet this summer made it an experience that I can never forget.
I first heard about Forestry Camp from various friends in the College of Natural Resources, who raved about the amazing food, the weekend adventures and the general debauchery that usually occurs when large groups of college students congregate. Sure, I thought, this would be an opportunity to have the camp experience I never received as a child, a time to make great friends and maybe learn a few things about trees. What I didn’t realize at the time was how meaningful those eight weeks would be in molding my future aspirations and providing a platform for clarifying my passions and talents. Not to mention the eight weeks of giggle fests, late night fires and inside jokes that have made me doubt my ability to assimilate back into faced-paced city living. Now, as I get ready to move into my apartment and start my senior year of college, I’m so proud that I took that initial jump of faith in applying for camp.
What I learned this summer is that whether it’s a difficult class, a university-accredited forest camp in the summer or committing to Ultimate Frisbee, trying new things can have some great rewards. And, as college students, what better time is there than now to start exploring?