Tessa Kennett and Craig Steppens couldn’t be more different.
Kennett is an 18-year-old college freshman, while Steppens is a 61-year-old retired veteran. But the two, along with 13 more Cuesta College classmates, were brought together for a unique experience a couple weeks ago as they departed for a three-day backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada.
The 17-mile hike was to be the final exam for KINA 236, a backpacking course at Cuesta College led by instructor and cross country coach Brian Locher.
Over the span of the six-week summer course, the first of its kind at the school, the students built up their stamina on local hikes such as Valencia Peak and Cerro Cabrillo, learned the basics about backpacking and prepared for the possibility of everything from bad weather to bears. Their curriculum also included The Backpacker’s Field Manual: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills by Rick Curtis and a whole lot of walking.
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“I felt like we should be offering more outdoors activities class,” said Locher, adding more students than he expected signed up for the class. “It keeps them in shape and helps them learn a skill which is invaluable to their self-confidence and their ability to be self-achievers. You can take Basketball 101, but I don’t know if there is any self-challenging there.”
Before the big hike
The class filled their packs with the needed supplies, which for some totaled about 30 pounds, and ran through last-minute preparations on a hike through Irish Hills on July 13.
Kennett’s mom had signed her up for the class, her first as a college student. The Atascadero High graduate had been hiking and camping before, but this trip would be her first backpacking experience.
“I was expecting to just get thrown into it,” Kennett said about starting the class. “But (Locher) led us up to harder hikes and heavier packs. It was better than I expected.”
Steppens had hiking and camping experience, but said he hadn’t been on a hike since the ’70s. He still had an advantage over most of the students in the class, who had never been backpacking before.
“I’m retired and trying to figure out what you do with my retirement, and this was the best thing I could think of,” Steppens said. “I saw this class. I went ‘Whoa, there it is.’ ”
Steppens said he was looking forward to the experience and checking out new hiking technology but admitted he’s not as young as he used to be. When asked what he thought would be the biggest challenge during the upcoming hike, Steppens said with a laugh, “The uphill part.”
After the class’ final practice hike, they finalized plans and mentally prepared for the trip, which began the next day, July 14.
“This will be our last chance to shower,” one student said, drawing a laugh from the class.
After the big hike
During the final exam, there were no showers, but Kennett said that swimming in the clear waters of Jennie Lake was a highlight.
“It was freaking awesome. I’m so glad I did it,” Kennett said. “But it was a lot harder than I was expecting.”
The group arrived at Big Meadows Campground in Tulare County on Thursday before setting out on the first leg, a six-mile hike to Jennie Lake on Friday. On Saturday, the crew headed eight more miles to Weaver Lake before wrapping up the trip with a mellow three-mile downhill hike back to where they started.
Outside of a few campers struggling with the high elevation of 7,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level, there were no injuries, no lost campers and no bear encounters. Kennett said she got dehydrated at one point and had to stop, but when it was over the only damage was a small blister.
Steppens said the group had plenty of food and worked together to make sure not to leave a footprint in the wilderness.
“It was grueling, but it was a great trip,” Steppens said. “The weather was great, there were no mosquitoes and we had moonlight.”
Kennett said she got a big dose of “I told you so,” from her mother after the trip. Steppens said it was a great back-to-school experience after 30 years.
“It was challenging mentally, physically, emotionally and scholastically,” Steppens said. “It tested you. It’s not for the weak.”
A few of the class members said they will continue to get together after the class is over to go on more hikes.
“It has been great,” Locher said of the experience. “I love the class I have. They just mesh really, really well together.”
Locher said it’s not up to him, but he hopes Cuesta College will offer the course again in the fall when the class sizes are bigger and his syllabus becomes more refined.
“Brian put a lot of work into developing this class,” Steppens said. “I really had a ball.”
Pro Tip from Cuesta backpacking instructor Brian Locher: Bring Duct Tape
- Shoe Repair
- Blister Coverage
- Backpack Repair
- Ankle Support