The Woods: An Essay About Open Sky in Colorado

By Finn Sapp PZ ’26

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I spent three months living entirely in the woods. I didn’t have my phone, running water, electricity, or anything we take for granted in our daily lives– needless to say, this experience was pretty unusual. For one, I was only allowed to take a shower once a week. I cherished those 10 minutes as they were some of the most refreshing minutes I’ve ever had. These showers were spent pouring water on my head with a bottle, which I scooped out of a bucket. My hair was silky smooth with half-soaked shampoo that stuck to my hair due to my quasi-shower.  

In the summer of 2021 – during my time away from school – I went to the wilderness program Open Sky. Open Sky is based in Durango, Colorado and our ‘basecamp’ was about an hour away from there. My time was spent trekking and appreciating the colossal San Juan’s of southern Colorado. Half of the week was spent on ‘expo’, in which I hiked under these great peaks. The other was on ‘basecamp’ where I would gather myself after an arduous journey. These were the most powerful three months of my life.  

The most interesting part of my time in the woods had to be when I was hiking through the mountains. The intensity and ferocity of the days were incomparable to anything I have ever done (and I used to ride my bike over 300 miles a week). I would just like to preface that this is only a fraction of what my time was like. I could never capture the totality and complexity of my experience in such a short essay. What it really takes is me rambling for 45 minutes and even then, there is no way to convey the extreme nature of the program – but if you want to hear a more complete story my phone number is 970-376-5007. So, I will begin with highlighting the structure of our days. It was a lot.  

It wasn’t just me out there. I was a part of a group that consisted of five to twelve individuals of any gender aged 18-21. The size of our group fluctuated as people came and went from the program. We would come at separate times and leave after our allotted three months were over. With us were two to four guides depending on the size of the group.  

We began our days waking up to the dissonance of our guides yelling at us to get up. Their message was, “10 minutes for shelters down, or else…” The consequence was never fun, so it was vital to get your shelter down and into ‘camp center’ ASAP. A shelter consisted of a tarp that was secured to supports on the ground or tied to trees nearby. The tarp itself hung on a topline overhead. Once we got all our stuff to ‘camp center’ (camp center was just where the fire pit was), we moved on to ‘first check’. This was simply laying all our stuff on the ground to ensure we still had it. The guides checked feet to make sure there was no fungus or any other bad stuff that wouldn’t be fun when you’re over 50 miles from civilization. Next was breakfast. My sugared oatmeal with peanut butter, GORP (good ole’ raisins and peanuts, but it also had dried papaya and pineapple), milk powder, and cinnamon was the best part of my day. Pair that with a juicy apple or an orange and you have yourself a Michelin-caliber meal by wilderness standards. After a gourmet breakfast, we needed to pack all our stuff into our backpacks. By all of our stuff, I mean all of it. This meant our clothes, our personal food, our group food, group materials, trash, journals, water, shovels, cooking ware, bow drilling material (I’ll explain this one later), and anything else we had. That was our morning. Just a leisurely, mellow start to our day.  

From there we were off to the trails. But we weren’t on actual trails 90 percent of the time. A majority was spent trudging through fields, tall grass, or rocks, places people would never find themselves. We typically hiked six to ten miles a day with a fifty pound backpack on. We went up and down and around the majestic mountain sides, beneath glorious rains, and through dogged days. My shoulders were riddled with pain until I finally got to take the backpack off. Once free of the burdensome pack, I released the tension with a scrumptious lunch. Ohh that beautiful lunch! It was the best. A tortilla with GORP and peanut butter. If I was feeling a little spicy, I even went for two, especially if I didn’t need to ration my food. Then it was back to hiking along the blue spruces and glistening evergreens that were seemingly infinite. The connection I made with nature as I experienced it, made the challenging hikes feel like a stroll in soft grass. Time vanished and my imagination took the wheel. Ideas, thoughts, hopes, and desires became effervescent and would percolate upwards, almost to the point of penetrating my skull. Never have I been so creatively engaged or stimulated as I was in the woods. That was the afternoon. Nighttime brought all the fun and excitement.  

The first task we needed to get done was ‘last check’. It was the same thing as ‘first check’, except it was in the evening. For the record, I never had fungus or any problems with my feet during my time at Open Sky. Once our feet were cleared and we replaced the stuff we had laid out, it was time to set up shelters. It was crucial to find a good shelter spot where the ground was flattish, and we could set up a proper shelter. It was not easy to find objects to weigh down the sides or trees that were good to secure our topline. But nevertheless, we had 15 minutes to do this, or else…  

Next was the BEST part of the day: bow drilling. Now you must be thinking, “WTF is bow drilling?” Well, I’ll tell you. It is making fire with sticks. You take the bow, wrap the cord around the spindle, and place the spindle into a hole on the ground board. Then, through enough energy and friction, an ember is born. That coal is then placed into a ‘nest’ of dried leaves and pine needles to bring this fetus of fire into the world. I would need to breathe so gently as if I were just kissing the air to gradually build the ember into a flame. And like that, I made fire from sticks. Not bad, huh.  

Now, we still had to cook on that fire that literally didn’t exist five minutes ago. Skip forward to our dinner, which was the best part of the day. Our go-to meals were either cheesy pasta or quinoa and lentils with spices and peanut butter. They gave us meat so when we cooked burgers or had burrito night, it felt divine. The exhausting days became worth it because of those dinners. The first bite was so special. Each night, it was very delicious, except when we were unable to make a fire and couldn’t eat hot food. We typically held a group during dinner or just talked about life or what the worst part of being in the wilderness was (and there were many). Next, we needed to clean our cups and cooking materials. This was done by viciously scrubbing the pots and pans with dirt then rinsing them off with water. Yes, I said dirt. It was somehow able to get the cooking ware clean, I don’t know how. Then evening drew to a close by bringing all of our ‘smelly’ things (i.e., our food and trash) to our bear fence away from camp to ensure we didn’t get a midnight visitor. This would segway perfectly into a well-deserved slumber.  

Yet above all else during my time in the woods, my ‘fire vigil’ stood out the most. A ‘fire vigil’ is essentially when someone spends an entire night tending to a fire. The person who was to do a ‘fire vigil’ had to create the fire themselves by way of bow drilling. The following step was to collect a plethora of firewood. A successful ‘fire vigil’ was predicated on the amount of adequate wood I could collect. I correspondingly gathered so much wood that it towered over my head. I could have built a funeral pyre worthy of Achilles himself. My wood was just for a challenge. Through the night, I slowly fed this glowing beast and made sure to keep it tamed but not to windle away at the same time. At one point, my fire was literally twelve feet high. I could see like 70 yards away because it was so bright. I completed it though. I pulled an all nighter and kept the fire raging the entire time! 

Nevertheless, it was a profound experience. Not only did I learn about survival and how to live away from the bustle of the real world, I changed in the woods. I learned about myself and how I can handle situations. I learned what it means to work in a team because we relied on one another. Our survival was dependent on how we showed up in the group. I proved to myself that I could step into a leadership role, whilst also following directions at times. Our busy days and cozy nights were challenging. At those moments, they felt the worst, especially when I was hiking through hail or constructing a shelter in the rain. Looking back, however, they have come to feel like the best three months of my life.  

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