Student backpackers create lasting memories
Fr. Cavanagh began leading the trip in 1981 when he came to the University and enlisted (then) University Ministry Director Margaret Betz, OLVM to co-lead the excursions. In 1985, Caspers was on sabbatical from the University and residing in Washington, D.C. Since she was only an hour away from Shenandoah National Park, her colleagues invited her to spend a long weekend with them on their backpacking trip in the spring.
“When I came back to Detroit,” recalls Caspers, “they asked if I would be interested in taking Margaret’s place on the backpacking trip, as she was leaving the University for another assignment. And so I thought about it. I’d had a great time. It was perfect weather, the flowers were gorgeous, the waterfalls were spectacular, the deer were friendly. It was like a utopia. And so I agreed to take over for Margaret.” Caspers has co-led the trip since 1986.
Over the years, she has come to view the trip as an oasis in which students can get to know themselves and get some perspective on their lives. “Having a week without distractions gives them a chance to make a lot of life decisions. They can think about their lives, their relationships with others and their careers. They’re more relaxed when the biggest decision is what trail we’re going to hike that day, and they have time to think about things that may be on their minds.”
Fr. Cavanagh says that part of the uniqueness of the trip experience is the close proximity with nature, for example, woodland creatures. “Deer will come up to us when we’re eating dinner. They are very tame and know that they are not in danger. We’ve seen bears and a cougar.”
One memorable year, the hikers were confronted with a huge rattlesnake. Fr. Cavanagh remembers, “We were hiking single file on a trail, I was toward the end of the line. I heard a loud pounding noise, probably a quarter of a mile ahead. When I got closer, I found that it was a rattlesnake that was just sunning itself on a rock, right in the middle of the trail, and it resented our approach.
“Some of the folks at the front were startled and petrified at that point. It was a big snake, probably at least three inches diameter, though we never saw it fully uncoiled. We didn’t want to get anywhere near it because they can strike 10 feet or so out. We watched it for a while and then did a detour through the woods, circling all the way around it.”
The 173 students who have made the trip over the years represent most of UDM’s school and colleges. The campers aren’t just any students. To determine trip participants, says Caspers, “We look for leadership potential; students who are actively involved in some campus organization. That is a pre-requisite. They don’t necessarily have to be an officer but they certainly have to be doing more than just going to meetings and walking out.” While students are chosen for their leadership participation or potential, the trip also provides the opportunity to build leadership, camaraderie, and confidence. The hiking trip has provided participants with wonderful memories, ongoing friendships and character-building experiences.
That potential for success and leadership recognized by Caspers and Fr. Cavanagh many years earlier has continued well after graduation. A great number of the students have gone on to become successful physicians, dentists, Ph.D.s, businesspersons, teachers, nurses and architects.
Architecture major Theresa Skora ’10, who made the trip in 2006, says getting used to the conditions was “an adjustment,” but agrees that getting back to nature was a good thing. “It was nice to have a week with no electronics other than cameras. It sounds cliché, but I was able to get in touch with nature and it was a really good experience.”
She also values the camaraderie the trip fostered among both the students and the leaders. “I enjoyed getting to know the others in a different context. You get to know people outside your immediate circle because it is by invitation and you don’t necessarily know the other people. And though I have never had any classes with Professor Caspers, I still keep in touch with her anyway.”
Bryan Vos ’07, also enjoyed communing with nature in 2004. “The most memorable part of the trip for me was climbing to the top of Robertson Mountain. It was a rough climb up with many switch-backs, but at the top we had a full 360 degree view of the beautiful scenery of Shenandoah Valley below. In addition to this striking memory, I’ll always remember getting to know everyone on the trip. You don’t truly know someone until you’ve hiked with them, and I think that is very true. All of us became very close after spending so much time together walking for miles through the woods, cooking meals, and setting up camp all on our own.”
For Vos, the trip was also empowering. “Living in the woods for any period of time with only what you can carry on your back and working as a team certainly builds confidence and character. I think that all of us were changed by the experience, but it was especially meaningful to me because I was born with cerebral palsy, a physical disability that affects my sense of balance and leg strength and coordination, especially earlier in life. I had already overcome this disability in many ways, and I don’t let it get in my way, but this was the first time I had ever tried hiking long distances. I found that I was able to keep up with the group and they were always there to give me a hand when I needed some help on some tricky parts of the trails.”
For Jamira Jones ’00, the 1999 trip was her first time camping, but she has been camping many times since—to the Grand Canyon and nearly every national park. “I wasn’t really used to roughing it, like not showering every day. It made you appreciate all the things you take for granted, when you’re used to just flipping a switch—electricity, running water. It was also very beautiful and very relaxing. I still talk about the trip with friends when we go camping. The trip also showed me that there is more to life than Detroit. I hadn’t traveled much before that.
“I was never really close with my teachers in high school,” Jones recalls, “and the trip gave me a close relationship with Dr. Caspers. She was always a positive role model who was very supportive of my efforts to become a physician. She is one reason I believe in myself and I am still in contact with her.”
During Jones’ trip, part of the group became separated from the leaders and water and food supplies were dwindling. Though this situation was unnerving, Jones believes “It helped teach us to persevere, to keep moving. There’s nothing scarier than having just a little water. We ended up going 12 or 14 miles out of our way, but we did make it back,” giving those involved a boost in confidence.
Says Nancy Greening Kennedy ’83, “We went in May 1981, and everything was beginning to come out of its winter shell. The trees were not yet in full bloom and there really weren’t many people around because it’s so early in the season, and so it’s just very pristine.”
She adds, “University of Detroit really offered the experience of trying new things, whether it’s putting on activities, doing co-ops. I did a co-op in Washington D.C., and one in Chicago, and each time really broadened my horizons. The backpacking trip was another thing like that—something I had never done before, another opportunity to try something new.
“I think that ability to think outside the box of what we normally do from day to day really helps in leadership,” says Kennedy. “Being with other people who are also thinking creatively, you learn all sorts of different ideas and ways of thinking. I think that’s one of the best ways we learn.“
Carolyn (Jirkans) Rimle ’88, ’90, remembers having a sense of accomplishment at “being able to carry all necessary supplies on my back and spend many days in the woods without indoor plumbing or electricity. I had only been camping a few times before the trip but grew to really enjoy it. Now, my family goes at least once a year.”
She adds, “The trips reinforced my appreciation that everyone has talents and can contribute in some way—from carrying an extra big load in a backpack to having a great attitude during a rainstorm.”
Theresa Spranger ’06, remembers being in a cabin at the end of the 2003 trip and “having a mouse run right across my bed, up the wall, and into its hole. I was so afraid of it crawling on my face that night, I hardly slept at all. We’ve had quite a few laughs about it over the years, especially when I began doing research with Dr. Caspers and taking care of our research mice was part of my job. I also remember the fun the group had together and the great dynamic and camaraderie Dr. Caspers and Fr. Cavanagh created. Everyone liked and respected each other and were there if you needed a hand.
“The trip strengthened my relationship with some of the current leaders in organizations I belonged to,” she adds. “I went on the trip as a freshman with the current president of the Chemistry Club, and I became president the following fall, so I was able to have a good relationship with him and gather tips and information for my new leadership position.”
Katie Pidsosny ’06, ’09, also went on the 2003 trip as a freshman. She says the trip helped students already headed for leadership solidify their commitment and grow together as a group, as nearly all of her fellow freshman campers went on to leadership positions in either Chemistry Club or the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega. “I think we were headed that way anyway, but I think it was a good thing for us to grow together, too,” she explains. “We got to grow as a group and learn from the older students on the trip who were campus organization leaders.”
Pidsosny also remembers that the trip was unstructured and leisurely. “I enjoyed all the trails we took and all the veering off we did. We went all over the place, and we saw everything. I just thought that was really cool. We could stop and look at flowers or snakes. Anything we saw, we could pursue. If there was a log over the river, we could cross over. If one veered off, we all veered off.”
She continues, “We had a really fun, really nice group. We did everything, including chores, as a group. We also had Bible readings every evening. Different pairs of campers would choose the reading, which added a spirituality to the experience.”
Another for whom the spirituality gave the trip an added dimension is Rebekah Langrill ’98, who participated in 1994. “One great memory was having communion and spiritual sharing each evening around the campfire. Each of us was invited to pick one night and share a scripture or an encouraging story, and then we would partake of communion together. I found that I looked forward to this every evening, getting to know my fellow hikers on a more intimate level, as well as sharing the most important part of our spiritual walk together—the Lord’s Supper.
“One of the biggest results of that trip,” says Langrill, “was my decision to become a Catholic in 2004, 10 years after that hike. It was a long journey, but both Dr. Caspers and Fr. Jerry offered guidance and support along the way. Dr. Caspers became my sponsor in joining the Church, and I was proud to be able to share that experience with her.
“I definitely think that going on the trip gave me more confidence in becoming a student leader at UDM,” she adds. “Getting to know professors and upperclassmen made attending UDM more personal. I wanted to share that experience with other students by being a student leader and getting to know them personally, too. Knowing that I could complete a 10-day hike also gave me confidence in overcoming other hurdles that I encountered throughout my college experience.
“I have kept in contact with fellow camper Sarah Vyskocil ’94, who became a mentor of sorts to me throughout my college experience. Even though she went off to medical school, she gave me guidance through some of the rough patches of my undergraduate years. I have also enjoyed a continued friendship with both Dr. Caspers and Fr. Jerry.”
Brandon Longmeier ’02, went on the trip in 2001 and believes it “reinforced my commitment to UDM’s mission as well as my need to give back to the community. ‘Roughing it’ gave me a sense of gratitude for the things that we have that we don’t need. Also you figure things out with teamwork.”
That adaptability helped him along in a journey that had begun when he left Lima, Ohio to study at UDM. “Going from UDM to the Appalachians was another step. I took what I learned on campus and went to another part of the country. The trip provided me with a greater understanding and direction in life, and allowed me to pursue the dream of making a difference in the lives of others who are underprivileged or in need of mentoring.”
The dedication to the Mission that drew Longmeier to UDM and was sustained by the backpacking trip continues in his life today. He continues to take part in service projects such as cancer walks. “My wife and I want to give back and now that we have a daughter, we want to pass the idea of assisting others on to her.”
He believes these ideals are shared by everyone who takes the trip. “It’s something that Fr. Cavanagh and Dr. Caspers see in you. I think they look for people who are in tune with the Mission and have leadership capabilities or potential.”
Brandon was dating Katie (Arsulowicz) Longmeier ’02, who also participated in the 2001 trip. When they eventually married, they received camping gifts for their wedding. She also gained some independence and leadership skills. “I was involved in Campus Ministry, and after the trip, I became more spiritually involved. I participated in Alternative Spring Break three out of my four years at UDM. I also was involved in the Student Nursing Council.
“I believe the trip helped me to take a deeper leadership role in my life and helped me to become more confident in myself and my capabilities,” she adds. “I went on to work at the Mayo Clinic after I graduated, which was a big move for me. I believe my college experience along with this trip helped prepare me for that big endeavor. I also became more reflective in my life and became more aware of how I performed in life and how I acted towards others.”
Longmeier and Rimle both work at UDM, in Athletics and the College of Engineering & Science respectively. They join former backpackers Katy Snyder (E & S), Sandy Yost, CSJ (E & S) and Kathleen Taylor (CLAE) as University employees.