The winners of our second annual Boundary Waters Teen Essay Contest are Josie Donaldson, an 11th grade student from St. Anthony, MN and Shea Frawley, an 11th grade student from Ventura, CA. Thank you to all the high school authors who competed in this contest.

Josie Donaldson, an 11th grade student from St. Anthony, MN.

Why do I want to go on an unplugged camping trip with my friends and no parents allowed? Because when someone asked me yesterday what my favorite word starting with the letter w was, my immediate response was “wilderness.” Responses from my friends followed like “waffles” and “water,” but I was zoned out, thinking about my favorite place in the world—the middle of the woods.

My family is not a camping fanatic group of people. In fact, they’re quite the opposite. My mom always says, “Why would I want to act like I’m homeless?” My dad hates bugs, and let’s just say my brother isn’t exactly built for roughing it. I’m the odd one out. I have always had a part of me that feels like a caged animal. A part of me that needs to go outside and run for miles on end. It’s a part of me that can’t stand walls or indoor voices or standing still. I love simply being outside and having no mission whatsoever. It’s the most freeing feeling on this earth, and I will always have a part of me that feels trapped in a box, ready to cross a continent at a dead sprint. I don’t get too many opportunities to satisfy my love of the woods. Ever since attending summer camp for the first time at age nine, I’ve been in love with the untouched, natural world. The outdoors captivates my attention and satisfies my thirst for free adventure more than anything on this earth.

Nature’s ability to provide an unrivaled stillness but also the best amounts of adrenaline draws me in. The life of a high school junior is stressful, but it’s also fairly predictable. There’s not a lot of adrenaline-pumping adventure. The excitement pumping through the woods keeps me coming back. It’s the feeling that I remember every time I think about past camping trips. The challenges of completing a hike, swamping a canoe, navigating rapids, building shelter, or navigating through the middle of nowhere are risky, they’re unpredictable, and they’re what my brain thrives on.

In contrast, the outdoors has and continues to calm the overwhelmed soul inside of me. Without fail, every time I step away from the insanity of being a sixteen year old to the open world of the woods, I find an overwhelming peace. The stillness of the woods calmed me when I was in elementary school wrestling with a difficult sibling and what seemed like a hopeless family dynamic. The stillness calmed me when my family moved from Indiana to Minnesota in 7th grade and I had no friends for 6 months. The stillness calmed me when a close friend committed suicide sophomore year and I wrestled with feelings of guilt that I could have prevented her death, and the stillness settled anxiety that someone else I loved would commit the same horrible act any minute.

Yet, taking that step into the stillness is harder said than done. 21st century America demands a lot of its high schoolers, whether consciously or not. We start getting mail from colleges around sophomore year, are ever reminded about how our generation is ruining society, and are expected to ignore the bad stuff and do well on tests. It’s a great life. Finding the time to step away from Instagram, the 70 texts you got in the last 8 minutes, school responsibilities, sports, family, and work to take a much-needed break in the woods is almost unheard of for teenagers today. In short, 21st century America misses what I like to call the “exploration age.” In high school, you start to appreciate your individuality, you start to face the world on your own, and you combine these new skills to face the world with your own unique personality and skills. But all too often, high schoolers aren’t given enough space to explore. We start to look around, and before we know it, we’re being asked where we’ll be in 10 years. The wilderness, away from all these voices, gives kids that chance to explore not only their world but also themselves and how they fit into it.

Goals aren’t always a bad thing, but I think we need to stop focusing on what we want to be and start focusing on what we are. I will never forget the first time I was asked what college I was going to attend. I was in 8th grade, and I was riding home from a babysitting job with the mom I was hired by. “So,” the woman began, “What are your plans for college?” I was baffled. “Well, I don’t really know, I’m only in 8th grade,” I stuttered. The woman nodded, “Yeah, I guess you have time.” I sat silently in shock, “I guess?” I thought, “I have over 4 years!” Four years later, I know the woman’s intent was not to imply that I was unprepared or stress me out about my future. I’m sure she was just making conversation, but why is this the topic used with anyone under the age of 18? It may have been unintended, but this is the attitude I’m talking about. Society is pushing its kids faster and faster all the time. Soon, teens will have no time to explore what we’re good at, what we love, or how we fit into the world because adults are too worried about where we’re going, not where we’re at.

That is why I love the wilderness. The wilderness doesn’t push, it simply lets you be. It lets you explore and learn its many lessons at your own pace. No one nagging about the 56 things you need to have on your radar, what Sophia posted yesterday, or the drama between 2 people at school that you’ve never talked to in your life. The wilderness is the perfect teacher. The wilderness doesn’t stand one hundred yards away and tell you to come here. The wilderness walks alongside you. When you leave, the wilderness is always there, waiting patiently for you to return and always happy to welcome you back. It doesn’t get angry that you were gone too long or didn’t stay long enough. It offers its plethora of adventures all day every day. You just have to show up.

The wilderness is a 21st century American teen’s best teacher, personal trainer, and most accurately prescribed drug, and there’s no doubt we need one. Why are we anxious? We’re overstimulated with technology and expectations spewing in from every side. Why are we depressed? Society tells us we’re screwing it up and it’s impossible to meet every standard thrown in our faces. Why are we scared to death? We’re being forced into a world we haven’t been given time to explore yet. We’ve been kept in our parents’ boxes and the comfort of Netflix and Chill for too long. I love breaking out of the box and breathing truly fresh air whenever I can, but the opportunity is hard to find, and it only gets harder the older I get. College recruitment is picking up speed right about now, my parents can’t seem to be quiet about ACT prep this week, and being a softball captain is no walk in the park. It’s every high schooler’s dream to go on an unsupervised camping trip, most of them just don’t know it yet. Most kids can’t comprehend the freedom of letting everything stressful fall away and letting their minds run wild, sitting in the calm. I know what that’s like, and I want that for me and my friends.


 Shea Frawley, an 11th grade student from Ventura, CA.

Living amidst the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles, there is no time for rest, and more importantly, no time to get outdoors and explore. At least that’s what society tries to tell us. I caught myself completely swooped up in that lie. I fell prey to the mainstream message that the world was advancing so rapidly that there was no time and place for the simplicity of nature. It wasn’t until my trip to the Boundary Waters that my love for nature was rekindled. That trip redirected my whole mindset, making me the confident and exploratory person that I am today. My hope is that my friends will get to experience the profound impact that being in nature can have on their lives as well.

As a child, playing outside under the canopy of our big fig tree always came before sitting in front of the TV, glass-eyed and inactive. I learned early on that my time was best spent outside, enjoying all the wonders nature has to offer. All be it, it was mostly because my parents pushed me to play outside and get some fresh air whenever I could. However, my backyard quickly became my own little world. My friends and I made villages of leaves and sticks, scouting out a lucky bug to inhabit our miniature town. We played hide and seek in the trees surrounding my house and even had an ice cream shop constructed purely from the bark of trees. The unlimited natural resources that my backyard had to offer quickly replaced my toys. The outdoors became my safe space. It was where I resided everyday after school and where I made friends with the roly poly colony in my front yard.

As I grew older, I clung onto my love of the outdoors at every chance I got. I went hiking with my father often, and even made the trek up Mt. Whitney. I kayaked around the channels islands and enjoyed the intricacy of the sea caves. Most importantly, I fell in love with beach. The beach became my escape, where my only worry was getting back out fast enough to catch the next wave. I longed for the freedom of diving under the cold, crashing waves and the peacefulness of floating on top of the sun kissed water. I still found the same refreshment and energy in the outdoors as I had when I was a kid. The only problem was, my world was about to be turned upside down.

Flash forward to 2016 and, oh boy, had my world changed. I enrolled at a private, all girls, Catholic high school, where I currently attend. It doesn’t seem like much, but the 30 miles between my home, Ventura, and the home of my school, Thousand Oaks, made all the difference. Ventura is home to surfers, hikers, and hippies, where I fit right in. Thousand Oaks, on the other hand, caters to a wealthier crowd of people who don’t care much for getting mud on their shoes. There was immediate pressure to fit in, something I was not accustomed to. Hiking and surfing didn’t fit the picture perfect image of the people at my school, so I changed. I made it a priority to have the perfect appearance, the perfect Instagram page, and the perfect life. I was sucked into a world of social media and constant pressure to measure up to everyone else. As my world became increasingly reliant on technology, my presence in nature slipped away. No longer did I enjoy taking a hike on Saturday morning or spending all Sunday afternoon at the beach. Sure, nature was still present in my life, but I didn’t take one second to appreciate it the way I had before.

Come summer of 2016, it was time for a family vacation. My mom announced that we would be spending four days canoeing through the Boundary Waters. While my family’s feedback was mostly groans and confused looks, something inside of me was excited for this adventure. Looking back, I’ll admit that part of me might have been more excited about the photo opportunities and the praiseworthy comments I would get on social media. But, deep down, I could feel my childhood self squealing with joy, as its hunger to explore mother nature would be set free after a long time in hiding. My family spent the months leading up to the trip prepping, researching, and packing all of our new-found essentials. The time came and we rolled up to Ely Outfitting Company ready to go. With the orientation fresh in my mind, I was too anxious to sleep. I knew that they next four days would be an adventure, whether good or bad.

Hopping into the canoe bright and early the next morning was, to say the least, refreshing. Paddling into the expanse of the glassy clear lake, I felt free. I knew that for the next four days, I wouldn’t have to prove myself to anyone, I could just be me. The constant dinging of my cellphone and the stream of overly photoshopped images no longer bombarded me. Sure, I absent-mindedly reached for my phone many times, but after a few days, that last thing on my mind was who was texting me or how many likes my last post got. Society’s hold on me was released, and I was free. Little did I know, that was the best gift I could have ever received. That trip gave me the chance to reconnect with the person I used to be and to rekindle the love I had for nature. It gave me the chance to stop, enjoy the moment, and reflect of my life. I realized that my five year old self would not be happy with the modernized and crowd-following person I was at that moment. Something in me changed. Maybe it was the ease of being around friends, old and new, or the excitement of catching fish at midnight out on the lake. Whatever it was that brought back the authentic and nature-loving side of me changed my heart from that point on. I can confidently say that without that trip to the Boundary Waters, I would still be spiraling down the media-riddled path of negativity and comparison.

That being said, I would love for some of my friends to also experience the freedom that nature unleashes. I see so many people around me, people that I consider my best friends, wrapped up in the negativity of our society. I get it, it’s hard to think straight when all you see is screen after screen filled with unattainable body images or negative comments. That’s why I want my friends to experience what it’s like to be genuinely themselves for a few days, without the distraction of the media. My wish is that they not only have the chance to free themselves from whatever burdens hold them back, but to also try their hand at something new. To try fishing and canoeing, inside of posing for photos and shopping for whatever is trendy. I want them to understand that not everything needs to be posted on Instagram. That the beauty and solace of nature can’t be minimized into a Snapchat. I want them to feel the true and lasting happiness that nature can bring to their hearts. Most importantly, I want to do it without parents. For both myself and my friends, I can say it’s easier to let lose and transform who you are without a parent breathing down your back. My hope is that my friends and I will have the chance to escape the outside world and dive head first into the relaxation and refreshment that nature offers, without the pressure of social media and nosy parents.