By SCOTT BECKER
Sun, dirt, elevation, dirt, dust, dirt, blisters, outhouses, bruises, scratches and dirt. Sounds like a dream vacation.
Four Hood River Valley High School cross-country runners discovered what a dream vacation is all about last week when they made the trek to Steens Mountain Running Camp in Southeast Oregon.
Senior Christy Paul attended the camp for the third consecutive year, while fellow seniors Jeff Fisher and Jon Gehrig survived the experience for the second time. Sophomore Alex Jimenez attended the camp for the first time.
“Each year we come up here it gets easier because you know what to expect and are able to come better prepared,” said Paul, who is preparing to defend her state 4A cross-country title in fall 2002.
The camp combines a rugged style of living with a high altitude desert environment as well as a stellar reputation for attracting the best coaches and athletes from around the country.
“When you come up here, you’re surrounding yourself with people with high goals, and that really inspires us and gives us a lot of confidence,” said HRV girls cross-country coach Kristen Uhler.
Standout activities that the camp offers include a 30-mile run/hike through the gorges around the mountain, and the “cross canyon,” a team race through the canyons with no designated trail or obvious line of approach. With snow, creeks, barbed wire and thick sagebrush standing in each team’s way, every activity had a specific lesson about the sport of cross-county and life in general.
“In the cross canyon you can see the finish from the start,” said camp director Harland Yriarte. “But once you descend into the canyon it becomes more difficult to keep track of your goal. This low point represents the fifth and sixth weeks of the cross-country season.”
Other life lessons become evident in the “Big Day,” the 30-mile hike through the canyons around the mountain. “In the last miles of the Big Day campers are required to climb out of the 2,500-foot canyon,” Yriarte said. “And people lie down and say ‘I can’t go on’ or ‘I’m too tired’.
“It’s at this point they will be asked what will happen when they reach a similar point in their marriage or their job. Will they quit or keep going?” he said.
The campers at Steens are going to have to work harder to keep going in the future. The camp has come under scrutiny for the impact that it presents to the mountain, which was designated a wilderness area in 2000.
The act now requires the camp to obtain a special permit from the Bureau of Land Management to bring the camp into the wilderness. Environmental watchdog groups are trying to convince the BLM to deny the camp the ability to enter the wilderness for the Big Day.
“This camp is not merely an endurance training event. It teaches kids to appreciate the environment using spiritual, mental and physical experiences,” said assistant director Cliff Volpe. “More harm than good is being done because the environmentalists are opposing a camp that espouses environmentalism.”
“It’s obvious that most of the accusations are based on misleading information,” said Gehrig, who is one of the core members of the 2002 HRV team. “The lessons learned up here are too valuable to be lost on something so trivial.”