Engaging Kids with Nature Through Ascend Wilderness
By Jon Lewis
Down in the Canyon
Story by Jon Lewis
AMANDA BARRAGAR KNOWS firsthand what it means as a kid to venture into the Trinity Alps Wilderness Area, which is why she’s dedicated to ensuring other youth can have that experience.
“I grew up in this community and I’m passionate about the Trinity Alps Wilderness, and I’m passionate for kids to experience nature,” she says. “It helps develop us in healthy ways as we grow older. I was one of those kids at one point in my life and I can look back and see how it changed me.”
Danyel Aglipay says her adolescent years were highlighted by a handful of positive experiences in the Alps (including meeting her future husband, Taylor), and as a result, the 525,000-acre expanse of meadows, granite spires, lakes and trees are near and dear to her heart.
Aglipay, an artist and music teacher, vividly recalls the transformation she underwent after her first backpacking trip. “It was just a really genuine and authentic trip. That was a formative moment in my teenage years and I felt like I came into my own. I became much more comfortable in my own skin.”
All of which helps explain why the two women have banded together to continue Ascend Wilderness Experience, a program that organizes free five-day backpacking trips for middle- and high-school students. Food, gear, transportation, backpacks and even hiking boots – the essentials for an expedition – are all provided at no cost.
Why? For a host of reasons, many kids today are missing out on the physical and emotional benefits that come from exposure to the natural world. Ascend Wilderness aims to change that by letting young people discover the restorative and positive powers unique to spending time in the wilderness.
The outdoors, the women contend, is unparalleled in its ability to bring visitors face to face with perceived emotional and physical limitations and in turn provide the tools to overcome those limitations.
“We’re about connecting human beings with nature,” Barragar says. “We like to pick kids who have a deep desire to be out in the woods.”
Ascend Wilderness typically leads between three and four trips each summer. The U.S. Forest Service limits backpacking groups to 10 people per permit, so an Ascend trip includes eight kids and two adult guides.
“We would love to do more, but it costs us about $700 a kid so it’s pretty expensive,” Barragar says. Included in that cost is gear, food, transportation, insurance and trained guides who are also certified in CPR and wilderness first-aid.
Ascend was established by Scott La Fein in 1999 and was originally under the auspices of the Human Response Network, a nonprofit social service agency. Ascend became its own incorporated nonprofit in 2006. After eight years of operation, the program went into a hiatus while La Fein pursued a doctorate in social services. Barragar and Aglipay stepped in as volunteer co-directors in 2016 as La Fein began his career as a licensed therapist.
La Fein gave both women a crash course in grant writing and the other skills involved with running a nonprofit, and the backpacking trips resumed in 2017. Barragar has been involved with the program long enough now that she’s encountering former Ascend backpackers as young adults.
“I was getting my lifesaving certification at the pool and I was in a class with a ton of teenagers. Two of them were on a trip I guided in 2011, and now here I am on a peer level with them. It was really sweet,” says Barragar, 35. “I got sort of a burst of energy from them, sharing their memories. That was just my most recent experience running into these kids again. That’s what special for me, being from this community and continuing to give back.”
Aglipay says she’s inspired to keep Ascend going every time she reflects on the life-altering experiences she enjoyed as a young girl from Junction City who was introduced to the Trinity Alps. “I don’t expect it to have that impact on every kid, but if one in 20 or 30 have that kind of experience, it’ll be a worthwhile endeavor.”
Just as importantly, Aglipay says, the more people who come to love and respect the Alps, the better the odds that they will be preserved and protected. “At a young age, I was mesmerized by that place and I had many positive times out there. I want to foster people’s interests in it so it remains.”
The well-traveled Canyon Creek Lakes Trail is the primary route for Ascend outings, and with good reason, says Barragar. “There’s a reason why it’s so popular. Every half-mile takes you through a new ecology. It really is special.”
The Canyon Creek Lakes Trail does not require as much elevation gain as other trails in the Alps, and it offers a lot of camping options along the way. “It has beauty, wildlife, wonderment, views, waterfalls, granite … it is such an incredible entryway into the beauty of what the Alps offers.” •
A Trinity Alps Wilderness Permit and a California campfire permit are required for camping in the Trinities. Both are free and available through the Forest Service. Call (530) 623-2121 for details.