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The YouthVoice Project – 50 Miles to Manhood

During the summer of 2017, I experienced some of the most meaningful moments of my entire life. My dad got married to a Finnish woman in France, I tried out for the JV soccer team where I was shunned by upperclassmen and brought into the Einstein High School culture, and most importantly, I went on a journey of a lifetime.

This journey was a three-week backpacking trip in Olympic National Park — a coming of age rite of passage on the other side of the United States when I would leave behind my childhood and enter young adulthood. On July 22nd, my mother, brother, stepdad and I departed from Dulles International Airport at 10 a.m. After a five-hour plane ride, we arrived in Washington State and crashed in our little log cabin thirty minutes away from the place I would be dropped off the next day. I was nervous, yet excited for the upcoming adventure because I knew there would be incredible moments awaiting me. The next day, I arrived at base camp just outside of Seattle. This is when we said goodbye to our parents and had a chance to meet the other boys. There was a release ceremony where I said goodbye to my mother for three weeks, there was no turning back. I spent this journey with eight other boys and three guides who would literally keep me alive during this trip. We each had a thirty to forty-pound bag with everything we needed for one and a half weeks until resupply. Each person carried a bear bin (a canister that protects food from being eaten by wild animals) with food for the group. When we were assigned our bear bins, the luckiest person would have the lightest bin.

After arriving at our first campsite the day before we started hiking, we set up camp and prepared food. Setting up camp meant not only putting up the tarp to keep us dry during the night, but getting firewood, preparing dinner, and hanging a clothesline. This first campsite was really special for me because it was the debut of the long journey ahead. As a reward for completing a long car ride from base camp to this campsite, we went swimming in the Puget Sound where we saw a baby seal, two bald eagles, and the tall, snow-capped mountain, Mt. Rainier. On this beautiful, clear night, spaghetti accompanied by oysters (collected from the sound) and the jam I made nourished our hard-working bodies.

I woke up the next morning at the crack of dawn to the soothing sound of birds chirping and waves crashing as they washed upon the shore. We set off for the trailhead early in the morning. Peter, one of the counselors, asked me a question before hiking, “Are you ready for the wilderness to change you?” Yes, I answered. We hiked six and a half miles to our first on-the-trail campsite. This was the most difficult hike of them all. We trekked with full backpacks, all of us amateurs. After ten minutes of hiking (not even five percent of the way there), we stopped off at the river we would be following for one and a half weeks. I knelt down by the riverbed, and using my filtering water bottle, scooped up some water. The glacial water was cold and refreshing with a mineral essence.

When we knew we were close, one of the guides and I ran all the way to the campsite. My thirty-pound backpack rubbed against my hips as I ran. I didn’t care. I was so determined to get to our site. As excited as I was to stop hiking, I had another challenge to face: washing in the frigid river water. It wasn’t terrible after all. My friends and I played a game to see who could do the most push-ups, completely submerged in the fast-flowing river. Afterwards, our mushy, camp-style dinner filled us up and we settled down for the night. I laid down under the stars on that clear night. As I was falling asleep, a shooting star raced across the sky and that special moment concluded the day but began the next fifty miles ahead of me.

The first leg passed with multiple obstacles, both mental and physical. I missed my family, good food, my cats and dog. Physically, my back hurt every day, there were blisters on several of my toes, and my neck was constantly hurting because of the pressure of my pack on my upper back. The eight other boys with me were mostly kind and gentle, but some came from hard places. Two of the kids were constantly fighting. During the first leg, they started fighting on the edge of a cliff. During the second leg, they fought on the beach. This was scary because we were all stuck with each other in the backcountry for many more days to come. This was a coming of age journey, and we needed to work through our differences. I had to play my part; I became aware of my influence within the group.

Day six of the first leg involved a long hike, a five and a half mile stretch that consisted of jagged landslides, waterfalls, and a beautiful view of the mountains all around us, protecting us from the nonsense of the outside world. Three-quarters of the way through our hike, we stopped for a break after fording a river. One of our counselors, Peter, started frolicking in a field until he reached the top of the hill. I followed him because I wanted to run around for a bit. Peter disappeared into the bushes and came back when I arrived at the top of the hill. “Come look at this,” he said excitedly. “Look at what?,” I responded. Peter stayed silent. We ducked under the bushes, and through the leaves, there was a crystal-clear waterhole filled by a majestic waterfall. After a day of hiking and sweating, I needed refreshment. I took off my shirt, socks, and boots, and dove into the water. We called up the entire group. Playing in the falls was the most fun I had the entire trip.

The second leg of the journey began after a day to resupply and rest. We spent three days walking along the beach. There were many memorable moments: we encountered a dead, beached whale and watched otters run along the beach with the red sunset in the background. We continued to bond as a group of boys.

The whole trip lead up to one final moment, a twenty-four-hour solo vigil in the wilderness where we couldn’t eat, sleep, or leave a 20-foot radius. All I had with me was the tarp I had set up the day before, firewood, matches, a water bottle, a sleeping pad (though I wasn’t allowed to sleep!), and some warm clothing. One of our guides would come by every four to six hours to refill our water bottles. When they passed by, they wouldn’t talk to or look at us.

The morning of the solo, the guides, Peter, Jared, and Ryan, woke us up around six in the morning. They took my watch so I didn’t know the exact time. I walked to my spot on the beach, where we were all spread out apart from one another. I set up my stuff and sat there. ¨What should I do now?¨ I asked myself. I was the only person I could talk to for the next day. I started carving a piece of beech wood that was as smooth as velvet. I wanted to make a spoon for my grandma. This activity kept me occupied for the next couple of hours. I had just woken up from a twenty-minute nap. The temptation to sleep was inevitable. When I sat up, I couldn’t see thirty feet in front of me due to the mist. I looked up at a nearby rock formation, and there was a bald eagle perched on the highest point on the peak. It felt as though the eagle was sitting out the solo with me. I was inspired to sit like that bird; calm, confident, and silent.

Hours and hours passed by. I wrote in my journal, carved my beach wood, and talked to myself. One of the guides, Ryan, walked by and dropped off something. I got up and ran to my mailbox, a stick in the ground where water was delivered to me throughout the day. I was so desperate for something to do. I bent down to check what I received. It was an envelope with a matchbox. I was excited that I could start my fire as it was getting to be dark. I ran back to my tarp and opened the envelope and read what was inside. It was a letter from my mom that she wrote days before my trip. I got really emotional, but this letter gave me courage and a reason to get through the night. I started my fire and lay down next to the bright flame that warmed up my tarp and my heart. I watched the fire dance and fell asleep after I drew in my journal and wrote down what felt to be hourly updates.

I opened my eyes to a bright, grey sky. As I rubbed my face, I felt a slight mist. My tarp was wet and low to the ground due to the winds and rain. My fire was out, nothing but smoke rising from the ashes. I guess it gave up on me because I wasn’t tending to it. It was the morning and I knew we would be called back to camp shortly. I began to pack up my things, take down my tarp, and urinate on the fire to put it out completely. The mist had ceased, and through the fog, I saw a bright orange light glowing in the distance. This was the “big fire”. The counselors told us to come back to base camp when we saw it. A rush of joy ran through my veins almost as fast as I ran back to camp. I had just finished an entire day alone with nobody to talk to, no food to eat, and no entertainment other than my own mind. We ate miso soup, saltine crackers, and oranges to replenish ourselves. The eight other boys and I shared our stories from the solos, the stories that we would tell for the rest of our lives, the story that I am telling now.

The wilderness did indeed change me. Something that my counselor, Ryan, told me and I became aware of myself, was that I can serve as a leader from behind the scenes, working to maintain the foundation of the group and to preserve our integrity. I learned how to navigate the wilderness for three weeks. I also learned how to navigate group dynamics and personalities. Most importantly, I learned how to navigate my mind.

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About the Author: Luca Utterwulghe

My name is Luca Utterwulghe and I am fourteen years old. I live in the Washington D.C. area. I was born in Brussels Belgium and I am Canadian and American as well. I play on a competitive travel soccer team in Maryland and I played on my high school’s junior varsity team. Over the summer of 2017 I did a rite of passage journey in the Olympic National Park in Washington state and experienced some of the best moments of my life.

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