By Jenny Neyman
It’s one thing to learn about the pioneer settlers of the American West in a classroom or textbook — looking at pictures of their rudimentary equipment and meager supplies; reading statistics of how many traveled, how far they went and how many didn’t make it; hearing stories of the adventures they had, but also the challenges faced and hardships endured.
It’s quite another thing to re-create that journey and walk in the pioneers’ shoes, as 105 teenagers and about 40 adult chaperones with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did on a four-day trek through the Caribou Hills from June 2 to June 5.
Well, technically, most walked in tennis shoes. But modern footwear was one of the few elements of the trek that wasn’t kept as authentic to the pioneer era as possible.
“We wanted the kids to be able to fully appreciate and be in the spirit of the trek in order for them to fully understand what the pioneers went through. It’s a great way for our youth to be able to appreciate and understand what our pioneer ancestors did for us, and it gives everybody a chance to get out and enjoy each other’s company,” said William Jackson, who, along with his wife, Camberly, coordinated the youth activity.
Early members of the Mormon Church in the U.S. migrated West from 1846 to 1868, coming from the East Coast, and some originally coming from Europe, to settle in the Salt Lake area of Utah. At first, the pioneers used horses, mules and ox-drawn carts. But as the numbers of travelers increased and resources dwindled, homemade handcarts became the common standard of transportation. To celebrate that heritage, the Mormon Church organizes youth treks that duplicate many of the conditions faced by the pioneers. Treks have been held in Alaska for several years now, Jackson said.
“It was a very, very arduous journey with tremendous hardships, deaths and births — a lot of things happened on these treks across the country. We are celebrating and honoring our pioneer heritage by having the youth in our church kind of re-enact these treks,” he said.
Including this year, the Kenai Peninsula stake of the church — including Kodiak and Cordova as well as peninsula communities — has had two treks, one every four years.
“We had a lot of help but it was just a monumental undertaking. It requires a ton of preparation. We worked on it right up until the minute we left,” Jackson said.
Participating youth, ages 14 to 18 from throughout the peninsula stake, are asked to bring period-specific clothing, in many cases making it themselves.
“We wanted them to dress as close as possible to the pioneers, but being reasonable,” Jackson said.
Comfortable footwear and modern-day rain gear were allowed. “We had sewing days so they could get together and make shirts and aprons and everything. And the guys did it, too.”
Going without modern apparel was a jolt for some of the teens.
“It was really interesting. It made me appreciate what the pioneers had to do because it was hard. We wore dresses with aprons and skirts that went all the way to the floor and we wore bonnets. It was new, definitely a challenge at the beginning to get used to all that stuff. It was fun, though,” said Courtney Lewis, of Soldotna, who will be a junior in high school this fall.
The other main rule of the trek was an even bigger leap away from today’s society — no technology or modern-day conveniences allowed.
“They were unplugged from society. That was a big stickler of ours,” Jackson said. “I went to all the wards (churches) in the area and told them we were not going to allow anything — no radios, stereos, cell phones, iPods, cameras. We wanted them to be able to unplug from society and experience the outdoors and experience life.”
Chaperones were ready to confiscate any smuggled gizmos or gadgets, but didn’t have occasion to. They didn’t even have to listen to complaints from screen-addicted kids going through withdrawals.
“We asked quite a few of them afterward and they all said they never even missed it. It was really good to be able to hear that kids haven’t been become so accustomed to that stuff that they couldn’t live without it,” Jackson said.
Lewis said she was too busy to have time to think about electronic entertainment.
“It was a big thing to get away from things of the world for few days. It was really interesting to experience that. Our whole day we were always doing something, so I wasn’t bored sitting around wishing I had a TV to watch,” she said.
As the name would imply, much of the outing was spent trekking, with the 140-person group covering about 30 miles in three days of traveling, with one day spent staying at camp. But this wasn’t any old hike. Participants were divvied up into eight- to 10-person families, each with a grandmother, grandfather, ma, pa and kids. Each family was assigned a handcart to haul, patterned after the ones the pioneers used to move West.
Some upgrades were made — steel wheels and axles were used instead of wooden ones, and 2-by-4s instead of hand-hewn logs — but the dimensions were roughly the same. In pioneer days, each person was only allowed 15 pounds of personal items, with the family’s food, cooking equipment and other gear on top. These carts probably weighed 400 to 500 pounds, Jackson said, and were equipped with a crossbar in front for people to stand in and push or pull. “Family” members took turns at the bar, two at a time, with everybody chipping in on the hills. The trek proceeded along a dirt road developed for oil and gas development access, Jackson said. True to the area’s name, there were ups and downs as they trekked across the base of the Caribou Hills outside Ninilchik.
“When it comes to the big hills everybody just jumps on where they can and pushes. It’s hard work but is an awesome learning experience for the kids. It teaches them teamwork and effort and that everybody’s got to help. Every member of the family is important, not just mom and dad,” Jackson said.
For meals, authentic preparation techniques were used, cooking on cast-iron skillets and in Dutch ovens. But the menu was expanded from what pioneers would have subsisted on.
“We wanted to feed the kids well. We didn’t want them to have to suffer the mundaneness of flour-and-water-only like our pioneer ancestors did,” Jackson said. “It was a lot of soups, stews, potatoes dishes, pancakes, biscuits and gravy — stuff like that. We had a cook-off one night to see who had the best dessert and dinner.”
Even leisure time was patterned after the mid-1800s. One night a contra band came to perform for the teens and teach them dances. For games, trekkers tried their hands at rolling metal hoops with sticks and three-legged sack races. On the day they stayed in camp, they did a service project cutting up spruce bark beetle-killed wood with a two-person crosscut saw, and donated the wood to residents who needed it. Each day also involved testimonial meetings and spiritual discussions.
One of the most memorable experiences for Lewis was sharing pioneer stories. Each participant was supposed to memorize the name and story of a pioneer of the American West and share it on the trek. She chose her great-great grandmother, who made the trip West when she was a baby. The handcart she was traveling in tipped over into a river.
“She almost died but she got rescued. It was a miracle story for her,” Lewis said. “After the whole thing was done I think we traveled about 27 miles, but the pioneers did so much more. To think what we did was a sacrifice — we were all tired and ready to take a shower. I’m definitely more appreciative of the people who traveled and the things they did for us, the things they had to go through and sacrifice for us today. I think that was incredible.”
The trek was meant to be a fun activity overall, with the teens getting to experience the outdoors, meet new peers and reflect on their heritage. But as their pioneer ancestors knew well, best-laid plans sometimes go awry, especially with the weather.
“We had everything from hail to pouring rain to beautiful weather, it was crazy,” Lewis said. “One day we were pushing the handcarts and it just rained for all morning. We were cold and freezing. That was probably the most challenging thing, was we were only like halfway done. We were all a little bit tired and the weather was cold.”
One evening the group was pounded by a thunderstorm, which unleashed wind and rain that flooded camp. Tents had water running through them and everyone had to scramble to dig drainage ditches and get things out of the mud.
“It was kind of a traumatic experience for the kids and for the adults, too. We had 140 people we had to figure out what to do with,” Jackson said. “It gave them a whole new appreciation for teamwork to pitch in and help out. It was a good bonding experience, something I felt had to happen, that we had to go through to persevere, and they came through with flying colors.”
Before the trek, participants were asked what they’d think of the experience if the weather ended up being bad, which it most certainly did.
“They said they’d be pretty disappointed and bummed out if the weather was bad. So they were quite humbled, I think, in the fact that it helped them understand just exactly how unforgiving Mother Nature can be and how modern conveniences make it so much nicer for them,” Jackson said. “I know they grew tremendously from that. If you asked them now, they’d say the hardest part was the weather, but it was also the best part because they learned so much from it.”
That was Dax Thompson’s assessment. He’s a recently graduated senior from Kenai. This was his second trek.
“It was a really good experience. It was great to get out and away from everything for four days,” he said. “It was very different but also really good at the same time. Things were a lot harder, having to manually cook everything in Dutch ovens and having to wear dirty clothes and sleep in a wet tent. It was really rough. But I definitely got a deeper, better understanding of the pioneers.”