“Circles? We don’t need circles!” Given that Cottonwood Institute instructors and students spend a good deal of time in a circle, this was an interesting unofficial mantra for the Colorado Academy/Cottonwood Institute Summer Camp trip to Mission: Wolf.
Mission: Wolf (M:W), though run by volunteers and well-strategized plans, feels like it operates on magic. Tucked away in the shadows of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, next to the Great Sand Dunes (as the crow flies), this unique wolf sanctuary houses rescued wolves and wolf dog mixes, with an emphasis on education, collaboration, and sustainability. Run off of the generosity of volunteers and donors, this magical place teaches people that wolves play a vital role in the environment, shedding light on these misunderstood creatures.
Taking six middle-school students from the urban setting of Colorado Academy in the ‘burbs of Denver, three adults braved I-25 and a four-hour drive, while playing car games, chess, and just plain being silly on the way there.
Prior to jumping into the school bus to head out, the group circled up without protest for a quick name game and a much needed toast of clear crisp water.
That was the beginning of a new adventure, but the downfall of the circle.
“Why do we have to be in a circle? What about all the other shapes?” This question inadvertently shaped the remainder of the trip, across discussions about diversity, inclusivity, wildlife, environmental issues, political climate, and so much more.
Starting the first day there, students learned that they could trust each other as tent mates, while still being an individual. After setting up camp in beautiful weather under the majestic Ponderosa Pines and enjoying a hearty dinner of burritos, they wandered out into the peaceful night for a much anticipated night hike under the stars.
April, one of the CI instructors, being the first to lie down on the dirt as to get a much better view of the Milky Way, encouraged the others to do the same. After mere seconds of considering the dirt vs the stars, everyone chose the stars, and a quiet so loud took over the night, as students and adults alike were mesmerized by the magical night sky. The silence was only broken by whispers of excitement as shooting stars were noted and wistful wishes were made. As they were getting ready to leave, one student duly noted in the logic only given to a young teenager, “The moon is a cookie and there’s a reason that it’s in the Milky Way.” There’s no adult out there that could have summarized this magical evening any better than that.
The next morning brought out the heat of the sun. Bathed in sunscreen, yawns dissipating into the early morning, the group made its way up the daunting hill from the campsite to finally meet the wolves. Meeting their Mission:Wolf leader for the week, Ari, was a highlight on this trip. Ari is an inspiration to many, encouraging the students to think, to problem-solve, and to laugh even when the work is hard. M:W is built off of volunteers, and this group was no different. From hauling wood, to cutting wood, to organizing storage areas, to hauling more wood, and then unloading wood, the strength and determination shown by this group was indeed quite extraordinary.
Oh, but it is not all work and no play. This group loves to think, so turning many conversations into games was a no-brainer. From Contact (a word game) to Up Chicken Down Chicken (a strategic game) to the ever-popular Camo (a hide and seek game) to PDQ (a get-your-butt-moving kinda game), to the official game of M:W, hockey sack, they played them all, and they got quite good at them. Well, maybe not at hockey sack, but they tried.
Meeting the ambassador wolves and getting kisses from the wolf puppy was definitely another highlight of this trip. Meeting these wonderful creatures up close and personal is something to never be forgotten. But there’s more! The students got a hands-on science lesson when it came time for the big feed on Wednesday. Ranchers donate their horses when they are old and sick and ready to be humanely put down. Volunteers then get to help cut up the meat that will be fed to the wolves. While this event is not for everyone, it is a valuable life lesson in learning where food comes from.
And the excitement and education never stops. The last night, the group was treated to a birds of prey presentation where they got to learn about and meet a peregrine falcon, a great-horned owl, and a turkey vulture.
Exhausted, excited, and educated, the last day of camp was bittersweet. After many challenge by choice activities, including the blind drumstalk and the way of council discussions, a variety of shape-shifting discussions, fun challenges for the coveted “alpha” role, service learning projects, wolf kisses, nature awareness games, birthday celebrations, and all around (or should it be a-square) good times, it was time to bid farewell to this magical place called Mission:Wolf.
And in the true spirit of the group and the wolves and their shape shifting unique style, they group learned from this trip that there are other ways to communicate. So while a circle may sound so simple, if somebody suggests something different that yields the needed results, why not give another shape a try? We are, after all, fluid, in more ways than one.
Written by Cottonwood Institute Instructor April Pishna
See more photos from the trip here!