Feature Story

November 22, 2021 | By Cole Hatcher

Thirteen Ohio Wesleyan students and Associate Chaplain William Hayes visit the Blue Ridge Mountains for their Fall Break Wilderness Trek. OWU offers fall and spring treks to help students make new spiritual and personal connections. (All photos courtesy of the Outdoor Ministry Team)

‘Reflecting and Recharging’

Ohio Wesleyan’s Wilderness Treks Provide Time to Build Friendships and Faith

Alena Arnold ’23 enjoys a Blue Ridge Mountain sunrise.

When fall break finally arrived, Alena Arnold ’23 was tempted to spend her free time writing a paper and catching up on other classwork. Instead, Arnold and 12 other Ohio Wesleyan University students followed a different calling.

“This fall break, instead of working on my Geography essay, I found myself watching the sun rise in gold and orange over the Blue Ridge Mountains,” said Arnold of Ashland, Ohio. “I had woken up early, and trekked with a few members of our fall break group to the ridge near our campsite. We climbed a huge chunk of rock and sat on the top, watching as the world was bathed in a golden glow. I could have stayed there for hours.”

‘From Strangers to Friends’

Josie Fornara ’23 has been participating in Wilderness Treks since her first year at Ohio Wesleyan.

An Environmental Science and Biology double-major and Sociology-Anthropology minor, Arnold said the four-day backpacking trip in Grayson Highlands, Virginia, was filled with other memorable moments as well.

“We saw wild ponies grazing on the mountainside, played in an icy mountain stream, and sang campfire songs.” She said. “I watched as our group went from strangers to friends with the ease peculiar to backpacking trips.

“I have been a member of the OMT (Outdoor Ministry Team) fall break trips every year,” Arnold said, “and every year I am reminded of why I love them so much. Our groups have open and meaningful discussions about faith, or spend time alone, reflecting and recharging in nature. I love the break from hectic college life that lets me escape back into the wilderness, and there is nowhere I would rather spend my fall break.”

Twice-a-Year Treks

Allyson Amstutz ’24 is happy to meet ponies during the Fall Break Wilderness Trek in Grayson Highlands, Virginia.

William Hayes, associate chaplain and director of Wilderness Ministry for Ohio Wesleyan, can’t help but smile when he hears such a positive response to the twice-a-year treks. Ohio Wesleyan offers both fall and spring break excursions in partnership with the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Coalition for Christian Outreach.

“The Wilderness Treks are designed for students to learn outdoor living skills through a four-day backpacking trip and are intended to give them time and space to focus on their faith and spirituality in the context of a supportive community,” Hayes said. “I hope that students return to campus with new friends, a greater love for the outdoors, and a fresh desire to continue growing in their faith.”

Refocusing on Relationships

Grace Ison ’23 and Abbie Setlik ’23 enjoy the breathtaking views during their OWU Wilderness Trek.

Josie Fornara ’23 of Coshocton, Ohio, also participated in October’s Fall Break Wilderness Trek.

“As a busy college student, nothing feels better than getting the chance to step away from the hectic pace of campus life for a few days,” said Fornara, a Pre-professional Zoology and Environmental Science double-major and Chemistry minor.

“When I am distracted by classes and homework and meetings, I feel like I don’t have a lot of time for thoughtfulness, reflection, or spending quality time with my friends,” she said. “Wilderness Treks give me the time and space to remove myself from these distractions and refocus on my relationships with God and with the people around me. Having no cell service definitely helps with that!”

Allyson Amstutz ’24 and Jaden Smith ’23 enjoy rock climbing in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Like Arnold, Fornara also enjoys meeting and getting to know other OWU students.

“We all come from different social and cultural backgrounds, and we all have different academic and extracurricular interests,” Fornara said. Some of us are upperclassmen who’ve already found their place on campus, and others are in their first semester of college. Some are avid hikers, and others have never slept in a tent before.”

‘Feeling So Welcomed’

“It’s very rewarding to see how all of our differences ultimately bring us closer together throughout the trip,” Fornara said. “For example, the seasoned backpackers help the less-experienced members of the group learn how to pack their packs, set up tents, and cook meals using a camp stove, which helps everyone get to know one another and feel included as a member of the group.”

Wild horses dot the landscape in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Furthermore, being in an unfamiliar environment opens up the members of the group to vulnerability and being willing to engage in personal, meaningful conversations with one another,” she said. “I remember feeling so welcomed by the other students in my group during my first Wilderness Trek as a first-year student, and that same feeling of acceptance and community is the primary reason that I continue to look forward to Wilderness Treks every year.”

Trekking Here, There, and Everywhere

Ohio Wesleyan students learn camping and life skills during twice-a-year Wilderness Treks.

In addition to Arnold and Fornara, this year’s Fall Break Wilderness Trek participants were Allyson Amstutz ’24 of Orrville, Ohio; Grant Brooks ’22 of Dublin, Ohio; Savannah Cushing ’25 of Mokena, Illinois; Katie Doiron ’23 of Monument, Colorado; Grace Ison ’23 of Oakmont, Pennsylvania; Kaylee Moore ’23 of Greenville, Pennsylvania; Jonathan Munroe ’24 of St. Louis, Missouri; Caylin Price ’25 of Findlay, Ohio; Abbey Setlik ’23 of Herndon, Virginia; Carissa Silet ’23 of Buffalo Grove, Illinois; Jaden Smith ’23 of Marion, Ohio.

In addition to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Hayes said OWU’s treks also have included trips to Joshua Tree National Park, California; Cumberland Island, Georgia; Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado; Ten Thousand Islands, Florida; and Quito, Ecuador. In March, Ohio Wesleyan’s Spring Break Wilderness Trek will visit California’s Death Valley National Park.

Learn more about Wilderness Ministry and the fall and spring break treks at Ohio Wesleyan.