Twenty-seven men and women stand in a rigid line, backs straight and eyes ahead, attuned to the instructor up front. As she calls out directions, the line begins to dissolve. “If it’s most important for you to reach your goal in the outdoors, step to the left,” she tells them. “If it’s most important that everyone in your group is happy, step to the right.” After a moment of consideration, each person shifts a pace sideways.
Soon they’ll be sorted into clusters based on leadership styles. Some would-be leaders discover they’re fairly authoritarian, while others tend to be facilitators. It’s a sunny September day, but the air is cool here on the beach, and a few people jump around, rubbing their hands together to warm up. Nearby, a few older campers lift kayaks off a rack, headed out onto Breakneck Pond for a paddle. For this group, there will be time later on to hike, swim, and explore the wilds of Harriman State Park. For now, they stay put.
These twenty-, thirty-, and a couple of fortysomethings are here to learn from AMC how to be effective, safe, and knowledgeable outdoor leaders. A diverse group of students and young members of the workforce, there’s a doctor, a lawyer, an urban planner, a classical musician, a financial analyst, a few teachers, and some waiters among them. Over the next two days, they’ll tackle various challenges, both on the trail and in the classroom (“classroom” being a relative term, with instruction taking place everywhere from a rec hall to the woods). They’ll sleep in the cabins of The Stephen & Betsy Corman AMC Harriman Outdoor Center, a facility rebuilt and operated by AMC in the woods of New York’s Harriman State Park, 30 miles north of Manhattan, near the New Jersey border. (See “Harriman, by the Numbers,” below, for more.)
When they leave Harriman on Sunday, they’ll be graduates of AMC’s Leadership Training program. Someday, maybe soon, you’ll meet them on the trail. Maybe they’ll guide you on a paddle in Maine or a walk around Central Park. With more than 8,000 AMC trips each year, you could run into them almost anywhere outdoors.
I’m here with the group, taking part in AMC’s inaugural interchapter training—the first training that will be recognized by all 12 chapters of the club, from Maine to Virginia. AMC’s Leadership Trainings are designed to provide volunteers with the tools they need to create fun, safe, and successful outdoor excursions—and to handle any complications that could crop up. These trainings are required for anyone who wants to lead an AMC trip, but the interchapter angle is new; previously, if you were a leader in Connecticut who moved to Boston, you’d have to attend another training to lead trips for the Boston Chapter.
It’s also the first AMC training focused on a specific demographic: in our case, hikers, cyclists, and paddlers in our 20s and 30s. As a 29-year-old Mainer and a frequent visitor to New England’s mountains and lakes, I fall squarely within this sometimes-overlooked group. While there are many people my age who would rather spend their weekends muddy and bramble-scratched than staring at an iPhone, we’re still an underrepresented population in some outdoor organizations, including AMC.
“Our goal is to make sure we reflect the demographics of our areas,” says Susannah Hatch, 28, AMC’s volunteer relations manager and, with a handful of staff and volunteers, the weekend’s co-organizer. “Organizations are stronger if they have members from a range of ideas and backgrounds.” AMC is aiming to attract more young members for several reasons, she says. Younger members can help energize an organization, for example. They bring in new activities, new challenges, and new goals. “But the first reason is obvious,” Hatch says. “They are the future.”
Reaching this younger generation—particularly the often-mischaracterized group known as Millennials—can be challenging. Younger people tend to be more transient, which can make it difficult to get them involved with local organizations, such as their AMC chapter, on a long-term basis. “Part of my goal is reaching out to people who move around by connecting all Young Members groups to each other,” Hatch says. “Say, you get involved in your chapter in New York City but then you get a job in Connecticut. Well, I want you to be able to join up easily in Connecticut—to transfer to the chapter there and be equally involved in AMC events and activities in your new town.
“I don’t know if this only applies to Millennials, but I have noticed many people aren’t comfortable joining an outdoor activity unless they’ve met the other people in a social context first,” Hatch says. To that end, AMC has been holding monthly socials at bars in New York, New Jersey, Boston, Worcester, and New Hampshire. These get-togethers allow potential hiking buddies to chat face-to-face in a casual, low-stakes setting before committing to a five-hour hike.
“Not every outdoor group is as welcoming as AMC,” says Patrick Mercurio, 48, of New York. Mercurio says one of his goals as a leader is making sure every participant feels comfortable from the get-go. Some groups leave you to your own devices, but with AMC: “We go in as a group, we come out as a group,” he says. “I like that.”
This community building is key, both on the trail and at home. Because Millennials tend to congregate in cities, AMC is offering more outdoor activities that take place in urban areas and are accessible via public transportation. As we sit together on a pair of Adirondack chairs at Harriman, I ask another leader-in-training, Hannah Emmert, 21, what brought her to this particular event.
“I want to make friends, but I also want to expand the AMC program,” she says. One of my three cabin-mates for the weekend, Emmert currently lives in New York City, where she studies economics at the New School and works as a session musician. “I would like to learn to lead events so we can offer more events close to the city,” she explains. Like many participants I spoke with, Emmert depends on public transportation for her daily commute, as well as for her weekend excursions. “Getting outside has always been a big part of my life,” she says. “And I want to make it possible for people like me to do it for cheap.”
Sarah Richardsen, a 32-year-old urban designer from Philadelphia, says ease of getting outdoors is a big issue for her, too. “I’ve always preferred playing outside to being indoors,” she says. While she loves her work and enjoys living in an urban area, she views the time she spends in nature as a much-needed reprieve. “I was so excited to come here because I had heard a lot about [Harriman],” she says. “But more than that, I wanted an escape from the city and its distractions.” Later, as we’re heading to dinner, she continues: “Being outside is my way of getting back to what’s important. It’s reconnecting with the basics of life—with your body, with movement, with the wind. It’s feeling part of a larger natural system.”
I’m struck that, for a weekend focused on relative youth, Richardsen has hit on something profoundly timeless: All of us, no matter our age or background, long to be part of something bigger. We all want the peace of the woods, the quiet of a late-night swim—Millennials included.
We spend the morning of day 2 talking about leadership styles, decision-making in emergencies, and how to plan successful YM (or “Young Member”) trips. After lunch, we gather to prepare for a hike that will put some of what we’ve learned into action. On our route over Breakneck Mountain, we’ll work through a series of role-playing scenarios. We split up into groups of six and set out.
Hatch is among our band of hikers, and after she distributes pieces of paper with our character notes, we begin to act our parts. I’ve been cast as a difficult hiker who is unwilling to leave until everyone shows they have the proper rain gear. Kim Sanders, 40, a fellow Maine resident and one of the weekend’s volunteer instructors, is cast as a novice outdoorswoman who came ill-prepared for a (fictitious) gathering storm. In this sketch, the person playing the group leader, a hiker from Pennsylvania named Robert Reese, 29, must figure out how to navigate the clashing personalities while keeping everyone safe from a possible emergency on the trail.
“I think you have a good point about rain gear,” he says to me tactfully. “But I do think that, if she feels safe in her current clothes, we can start out on the hike and turn back if the going gets bad.” He checks with the other members of our group to see if this is acceptable.
At this point, Hatch stops us to provide feedback. She compliments Reese on his ability to de-escalate a growing conflict then provides some advice: “It’s always a good idea, as the AMC leader, to bring an extra set of rain gear and a water bottle. Participants often forget these things at home—even those of us who do this a lot.”
As we hike, we cycle through several other scenarios. In one, a hiker isn’t drinking enough water and is afraid to take “bio-breaks.” The group leader kindly pulls her aside to make sure she stays hydrated. In another, a hiker lags behind. This time the leader, 30-year-old Rafal Rogoza from New Jersey, appoints a secondary leader for the faster hikers so he can stay with the slower-paced walker.
After each role-play concludes, we gather on the trail to discuss what went wrong, what went right, and any thoughts we have about the various leadership styles displayed. We also stop to share snacks, to talk about which species of bush is showing early fall leaves, and to laugh at our acting skills. We laugh quite a lot. Most of us aren’t very good actors, and our stilted conversations about falsified emergencies provide plenty of comedic relief.
But I do learn a surprising amount from the experience. Although I spend my weekends in the woods of Maine, I’ve never been responsible for other adults. I didn’t realize how much work goes into managing a group or how much the rules of diplomacy and communication that I’ve learned in the workplace apply outdoors, too.
A group leader needs to be able to make hard decisions quickly and to implement them with authority—a skill that doesn’t come naturally to me but can mean life or death in the wilderness. Through our role-plays, I became aware of how often groups can descend into bickering. When a storm is coming or someone is injured, this becomes a real problem. In moments of disagreement, it’s up to the leader to establish a plan of action, whether that means turning back to escape lightning, appointing a secondary leader to take the rest of the group onward, or calling 911 for help.
Later, I reach out to several of my cohorts to get their thoughts on the weekend. “I was worried we were going to be judged exclusively on everything we knew about the outdoors,” says Akasha Solis, a 23-year-old AMC intern from Yonkers, N.Y. “But I found the scenarios so helpful, and hilarious, that it made everything flow smoothly. I learned how to be a better co-leader, as well as how to deal with hazardous situations. Group dynamics play a huge role in how successful a trip can be.”
Rogoza says the scenarios helped him learn more about his own leadership style. “I’ve taken wilderness first aid before, which included a lot of role-playing, and I expected that this time, too. But this was oriented toward scenarios a leader may face. I tend to be more relaxed and cool, but I realized I have to be able to get tough when necessary.”
Although the weekend was focused on young members, the role-plays also remind us how varied the skill levels will be of those we lead. You’re likely to encounter people of every age and ability outdoors, from little kids toddling after their parents to elder hikers who have crossed and recrossed the trails. This, in truth, is one of AMC’s greatest strengths.
“The old-timers I have met and had long conversations with at my chapter [New York–North Jersey] are some of the most skilled and well-traveled people I know,” Rogoza tells me, noting how much he has learned from his older friends over the years. He has heard stories about treks across northern Canada and adventures in Patagonia. These tales have inspired him to travel, to get outside, and to learn more about the world.
“Getting young people engaged and participation up at the club is great, but I think it’s just as important for AMC to bring young and old together,” Rogoza says. “We can pick the brains of these older folks.”
This passing down of knowledge from one generation to the next can happen anywhere: in a classroom, on a mountain, sitting around a campfire. And when it comes to the great outdoors, none of us—not even the most seasoned hiker—will ever stop learning.
Katy Kelleher is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in the woods of Buxton, Maine. Her first book, Handcrafted Maine, is due in September from Princeton Architectural Press.
Harriman, by the Numbers
“Harriman has been an amazing success at bringing more diversity into AMC,” says Vincent Spiotti, AMC’s director of lodging operations. “While all of our destinations are open to the public, this is an area with a much greater population density. We’re seeing visitors who have never heard of AMC before and people who are totally new to the outdoors coming with their families.”
Intrigued? Book your own stay at The Stephen & Betsy Corman AMC Harriman Outdoor Center, open mid-May through mid-October, by calling 603-466-2727 or requesting a reservation.
Learn more about Harriman before you go:
» 10,000: Acres donated by Edward Harriman and Mary Averell Harriman, along with $1 million, to New York State for the 1910 creation of Harriman State Park
» 47,527: Current total acreage, making Harriman New York’s second largest state park
» 31: Number of lakes and reservoirs in the park
» 200: Miles of hiking trails in the park
» 40: Distance in miles from Central Park, in Manhattan, to Harriman State Park
» $2 million: Investment in renovating the outdoor center, made possible by AMC and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, prior to its June 2016 opening
» 10: Distance in miles from the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Tuxedo Station in Tuxedo, N.Y., to Harriman via AMC shuttle. (Call ahead to reserve a seat.) To reach Tuxedo Station, guests coming from New York City can take the North Jersey Coast line from Penn Station to Secaucus Junction, N.J., then transfer to the Port Jervis line. Guests also can take the Metro–North line from Grand Central to Peekskill Station and call a taxi.
» 64: Acreage of the outdoor center’s Breakneck Pond
» 20: Number of canoes, kayaks, and other boats AMC keeps onsite for guest use
» 144: Number of overnight guests Corman AMC Harriman Outdoor Center sleeps (74 in bunks, 70 in tents). Book ahead! While Harriman State Park is open for day use, the outdoor center is by reservation only. Guests can bring their own food or reserve meals in advance.
» 5: Number of three-sided, lean-to style shelters at the outdoor center; rates start at $36 per group per night
» 10: Number of campsites, each with a fire pit and a bear box; rates start at $18 per site per night
» 5: Number of cabins, each sleeping four; rates start at $96 per cabin per night
» 3: Number of lodges, each sleeping 12 to 16; rates start at $312 per lodge per night