We were ready to head out early. The white van and trailer led the way and the blue van was close behind. We headed up Woolman Lane at 8:45 am on Monday morning the 26th of January. The thirteen students of the Spring 2009 Woolman Semester (and six staff) were on their Orientation/Wilderness Week to Jug Handle State Reserve. As with every trip of our program, this one proved to be unique, and not just because we left ahead of schedule!
From Woolman, we headed due west on Highway 20. The trip across the state is a study in diversity of microenvironments, from the foothills where we live, across the rice fields of the Sacramento Valley and delta, past the Sutter Buttes, around Clear Lake, over the coastal range, and on to the Mendocino Headlands and the Pacific Ocean.
Jug Handle State Reserve is a registered National Landmark on the California Coast between Mendocino and Fort Bragg. The reserve is an ecological staircase of five terraces created over a million years. Adjoining the reserve is the Jug Handle Creek Farm and Nature Center where we spent the week.
At Jug Handle, the semester was launched with a diversity of activities and experiences. We spent a perfect half-day in canoes, heading out from the mouth of the Big River where it flows into the Pacific and heading up river to a resting spot to eat our lunches while our canoes floated lazily, then heading back down river to the ocean. The perfection was granted by the synchronicity of the timing of the tides and the timing of our trip. The current of the Big River at the place we set to in our canoes is controlled by the tide of the Pacific, coming in or going out. We just happened to take our canoe trip when the tide for the first half of our paddle was coming in, which meant the current was with us…and for our return trip the tide was going out, so the current was with us again. According to the folks at the canoe rental, this only happens once or twice a month at that time of day.
So with lots of energy left, we returned to the Farm and began our first of three “shared work” periods which allowed us to experience the fun of working together and the satisfaction of contributing to another organization caring for the earth. Over the course of the week, we renovated their compost system, thoroughly weeded the garden, transplanted and started native plants in their nursery (including baby alders and Douglas firs), and split logs. We also spread the good will of Woolman; the high spirits and conscientious work ethic of our new group of students impressed everyone who came in contact with them. The canoe folks commented that they rarely see a group of young people clear out the canoes on their return. The folks at Jug Handle said we had made a huge difference in their efforts to keep up with all they are trying to do and they asked us to come back every January.
The week also included hiking, playing at the beach, and lots of games in the evenings. But the center and perhaps the purpose of the week came when each student was led out to a solo spot that had been previously chosen by Jess and Lara just for them. After careful preparation, packing, instructions and a ceremony, each student was taken in silence to their solo and for the next 24 hours they spent their time alone, in the woods, without contact with others. We prepared their food and left it for them at designated spots, thus checking up on them without disturbing their solos.
On Thursday evening we led them back in silence to the Farmhouse where they told the stories of their experience and what it meant to them. The stories included climbing a tree, sleeping in a tree, exploring the forest at night, writing poetry, being terrified of mountain lions, spending the time sleeping and reading, hearing the birds at first daybreak, waiting for dinner to come and falling asleep, seeing the stars through a tiny window in the tall, tall trees. When trying to understand what it meant, one spoke of letting go of the almost daily contact with a close friend in order to be at Woolman. Another spoke of finding the strength in himself to spend the night and the day alone. Another spoke of her love of dirt, of the earth, of just being connected to the cosmos.