by Kimberly Benson
When our nine-year-old daughter Kallan registered for Catoctin Quaker Camp, the only availability was a two-week session at the beginning of August. The timeframe coincided with an important anniversary: our first son was born on August 7 and died seven days later. Each year during that week, we retreated to nature as a family to relax, reflect, and celebrate his life. We usually sailed to some isolated anchorage on the Chesapeake Bay, but our daughter’s camp adventure would preclude such an excursion. We had to head for the hills and forge an alternative tradition.
We eased Kallan into camp with a family overnight at Catoctin Mountain National Park. The park was lovely but crowded. Cars jockeyed for parking and trails streamed with hikers. The atmosphere of our wooded campsite was dominated by music from other campers, and the headlights of cruising cars blazed our tent walls throughout the night.
For the anniversary period during Kallan’s second week of camp, we would need respite, not urban hubbub in a natural setting. Desperate for an alternative, I searched “wilderness Harper’s Ferry,” and Google led us to Friends Wilderness Center (FWC).
FWC enjoys a central position on the 1400-acre Rolling Ridge wilderness preserve, land acquired and conserved for “spiritual use” by a visionary Quaker couple, Henry and Mary Cushing Niles. Nestled between the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Shenandoah River south of Harper’s Ferry, Rolling Ridge is the largest privately-owned, wilderness preserve accessible to DC and along the entire length of the AT. FWC offers full access to the preserve’s extensive trail system and provides various levels of accommodations: wilderness and platform camping, yurt and geodesic dome cabins, and homey bed & breakfast rooms at the Niles cabin.
Everything was arranged through a few warm emails with caretaker Sheila Bach: home-cooked breakfasts at the Niles cabin and reservations for the Treehouse: a roofed, tent platform elevated into the forest canopy.
Our arrival to FWC was like a gentle massage, smoothing away muscle tension and stress. As our car slowed to the comfortable walking pace appropriate for the gravel roads, we found ourselves noticing mushrooms and wildflowers. Every breath seemed to lengthen in the cool forest air.
Memories of traffic and competitive commuters disappeared when our surprise was reciprocated by gracious smiles as a vehicle going the opposite direction “reminded” us that the path we traveled was inconceivably, but inevitably, 2-way. Our mini-van crawled up the ridge, forded a shallow, mountain stream, and eased into a sunlit meadow embracing a frog pond and the colorful Niles cabin: the heart and soul of FWC.
During our stay, we slept among whispering, treetop branches; delighted in the midnight greetings of owls; hiked in solitude to the AT and down to wade in the Shenandoah river; explored natural springs; caught crawfish and salamanders in the rocky rubble of mountain streams; and meditated on sun-warmed boulders to the resonant rush of waterfalls. Each morning, Sheila nourished us with fresh coffee, delicious wholesome breakfasts, and compassionate conversation. Our family was physically apart: missing our daughter, as well as our first son, but the peace and beauty of this incredible, natural place reminded us of our universal connection. We always would be together in love and spirit.
Kallan continues to enjoy BYM summer camp, and we are drawn to FWC throughout year for monthly education programs and family excursions. We have hiked, snowshoed, and mountain biked; marveled at meteor showers; examined geology and forest ecology; composed and savored poetry; painted natural wonders; and crafted ephemeral sculpture with forest materials. We encourage you to discover FWC (http://www.friendswilderness.org) for multi-generational wilderness experiences infused with Quaker heritage and values. The light and spiritual grace of this amazing BYM resource will continue to invite you back.