Adolescence is a time of huge ferment and change. You decide who you are and where you’re going in life. But you can’t learn these the most valuable life skills in class or in the stratified social system of high school. 

Where can you learn it? Out on wilderness adventures, hiking the trails of the North Cascades and Olympic National Park, canoeing vast lakes, rock-climbing, doing a lot of bonding and getting real in circles with your peers and, above all, getting to know yourself at a deeper level by spending a day or two sitting in “your spot” in the remote boonies. 

That’s the philosophy of Kelly and Tom Shelstad of Ashland, who, over the last five years, have been offering such challenging trips on spring break and summertime as Inner Guide Expeditions.

“What they get is real connection with self and others, vulnerability, self-awareness and a platform to look at themselves,” says Kelly. “Wilderness offers a holding to one’s unfolding. You look at your real self with no electronics, screens, cars and to-do lists. What emerges is more authentic than that.”

The teens, says Tom, start engaging in risk-taking in a safe environment, “being comfortable in their own skins, going out on a limb, communicating effectively, while engaged in processing their own lives.” When they get home, they continue with trail friends in “guide councils” and sometime go on weekend expeditions, skiing-boarding, sea kayaking, whitewater rafting and, of course, backpacking, camping and sharing their stories around the fire. 

IGE bears a strong resemblance to Wilderness Charter School, an Ashland High School program that folded in 2010 amid budget-cutting of the Great Recession. IGE is for-profit and costs $200 to $240 a day.

“It’s fun, but it’s not about the fun,” says AHS student Kate Joss-Bradley. “It’s about self-discovery, connection, gaining mindfulness about who you are and what you want to put out in the world.”

High school life? “Well, it poses difficulties to your mental health. Doing these adventures with friends, you learn leadership and personal growth tools. You’re able to connect at a deeper level with people,” Kate says. “You have more of a relationship with yourself, who I am and what I want from the classes I want to take. Lots of kids my age have no connection with who they are.”

In her before-and-after snapshot of herself, Kate notes she used to do lots of activities “just for the sake of doing them or for good grades instead of discovering what they mean to me. I had zero self-confidence and was not comfortable in my own skin. I came out of this with a deeper relation to myself. I felt supported and understood and content with who I am.”

Kelly calls this “emotional intelligence.” It’s self-awareness without being attached to what you feel, she says. “You’ve navigating what’s challenging and tricky, as an observer, recognizing the feelings in you and others, without your feelings taking over like wild horses. You’re OK with whatever comes up.”

The Shelstads focus on this town’s teenagers, but their expeditions are open to adolescents from all over the world. They fly groups in a float plane to Vancouver Island for a 24-day venture and even trek to the Swiss Alps.

A veteran of three summers with IGE, Kaj Pandey of AHS confesses to deep apprehension at first, but, “It was life-changing for me, one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done — and one of the funnest and most rewarding. It’s the perfect environment to nurture and grow as a person. I gained a deep sense of knowing myself and being comfortable with my own feelings. It’s zero stress, zero distraction. It’s just nature and people and connecting with things around me.”

The two-day solo wilderness experience in North Cascades, says AHS student Avelan McNamara, was “the most important thing … all you can do is think. You learn more about your self and become more confident with your body and more emotionally available to others. Doing the circle around the fire, you learn to listen and open your mind to other possibilities in your feelings. Afterward,you get along better with your family and life is a lot easier.”

What do parents think? Jennifer Joss, mom of Kate and another teen on the jaunts, says, “What you want most for your kid navigating the tumultuous waters of these teenage years are things you don’t always get in school — the development of character, respect, integrity, perseverance, teamwork and connection, with others, the earth, and importantly, with themselves. Tom and Kelly … gracefully guide young people to develop strength and capacity in the world.”

IGE’s webpage is www.innerguideexpeditions.com.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.