Join us on a hike to Grand Teton National Park’s most aptly named viewing area with the cancer-surviving campers of the Children’s Grand Adventure.
After a crisp morning shuttle boat ride across Jenny Lake in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, we gathered at the Cascade Canyon Trailhead and took in the inspiring sight of the jagged mountain range spanning across the blue sky like the peaks and valleys of an EKG line.
Nearly everyone about to make the hike was a teenager or young adult who had survived cancer in one form or another. In this year’s group, one boy had part of a foot amputated during treatment. Another, 18-year-old Leroy “Trey” Baker, had a prosthetic leg from above his left knee. Others, such as Gabi Gray, 15 at the time, lived with other reminders of their survival — a plate of mesh and acrylic covering her lungs where portions of five ribs and a slice of diaphragm had been removed, in her case. These kids seemed as fit and eager to go as anyone else in the group. Each camper had been cleared by their doctors to go on the weeklong outdoors trip courtesy of donors and benefactors to the Children’s Grand Adventure, a Houston organization that hosts outdoor camps with Teton Science Schools in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for survivors who have completed treatment at Texas Children’s Hospital Cancer and Hematology Centers.
Still, I wasn’t sure everyone hiking with us would make it to our intended destination, Lower Inspiration Point. Our group included the 2018 Children’s Grand Adventure campers and adult staff, photographer Melissa Hemken, my wife, and me. The one who concerned me was my wife, who was six months pregnant and not entirely acclimated to the Mountain West elevation.
We set out up the trail in a single-file line, rocks crunching underfoot among the evergreens. A few minutes after we started, our hike’s leader, Teton Science School instructor Wyatt Klipa, called for a halt. I eased my backpack off. It had already left a damp spot of sweat on my back that cooled in the conifer-scented mountain breeze. If we didn’t make it to the top, it wouldn’t be for lack of rest stops. The kids chatted and took photos in little groups before we started back up the trail. I didn’t hear a single complaint from any of the kids about the pace — too slow or too fast — and they continually checked on each other: Are you OK? Do you need water? A snack? Do we need to break?
This summer will be the 11th for the Children’s Grand Adventure. For some of its campers, whose childhoods have been spent in clinics, oncologists’ offices, and hospitals, it may be the first significant time they have ever spent outside.
Stacey Kayem founded the nonprofit Children’s Grand Adventure in 2008. She talks about the camp’s rejuvenating, life-giving effect on the kids with contagious zeal: how they start out as shy strangers but are fast friends by the end of their flight from Houston to Jackson Hole; the looks on their faces as they marvel at the sight of nature’s majesty in the Teton mountain range; the campers’ measurable health improvements she attributes to the days of fresh air, sunshine, and the newfound independence and self-assurance they have after seeing that they are capable of climbing a mountain.
The kids kick off their week of camp each year at a bonfire welcome, though perhaps bonfire isn’t the right word for it. It’s mainly the adult leaders and sponsors who sit around the stone fire pit with various bites — which last year included lobster rolls and buffalo sliders from a food truck — as the campers are too busy with general horseplay, organized and otherwise. Instructors from Bar T 5 Covered Wagon taught them how to throw a loop at a dummy calf and oversaw matches as the kids challenged each other at leg-wrestling and other contests. This was where my wife and I first met the group before our hike the next day.
As I watched the kids, something seemed unusual about the group of teenagers. I have a 16-year-old son and a daughter who was a teen not too long ago, and this didn’t remind me of any group interaction I’d seen with them. It took me a few minutes to put together what the difference was: Not a single kid was looking at the screen of a phone.
In fact, the only screen time we had was a presentation about the history and mission of the Children’s Grand Adventure, about the improvements the kids have in their outlooks on life, the confidence gained and friendships forged around campfires, in the snow, against the backdrop of the Teton Range and atop scenic overlooks at Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.
Midway through our hike, we stopped at the bridge over Cascade Canyon Creek to take in the tumbling rapids and enjoy the cooling mist that hovered above it, then hiked a few minutes on a side trail to see the tucked-away Hidden Falls, an awe-inspiring 200-foot rocky cascade.
Campers kept asking my wife if she needed a break. She assured them she was fine, heartened by their concern, and returned the query, which they’d invariably brush off. It almost seemed like the kids who had each at some point been the center of attention, cared for through cancer and related challenges, were glad for the chance to check up on someone else with a physical impediment — a prominent pregnant belly, in my wife’s case.
We made it to Lower Inspiration Point (the trail to Inspiration Point itself was closed for rehabilitation) at lunchtime, where before us stretched the evergreen-ringed Jenny Lake. The campers ate sandwiches, laughing at and shooing away the little Uinta ground squirrels that scurried around them begging for scraps.
Some former campers were now serving as chaperones on the trip, like Max Priebe, Emma Hereford, and Bree Hill.
“It definitely helps you gain independence that you don’t really have because you’ve always been around your parents and doctors,” Hereford said. Hill agreed, mentioning one of the boys with a prosthetic foot as an example. “He was telling me how proud of himself he was,” she said. “He almost doubted his ability, but he made it. A lot of it is building your confidence back up.”
Baker, the young man on this hike with a prosthetic left leg, got such a boost himself. I didn’t know it at the time of our hike, but Baker, having already survived osteosarcoma, had relapsed a few months before the trip and had required lung surgery.
“That was my main concern, that I wouldn’t be able to do my best,” he said. “But I actually did really well. I didn’t want to be the one that was always stopping everyone, saying, ‘Hey, can I rest?’ I told [Dr. Tim Porea, one of the adult leaders], and he was like, ‘No, stop us whenever you need to.’ But I really didn’t. I did really well. I pushed through, and I’m really proud of myself.”
From the February/March 2019 issue. To support or find out more about the Children’s Grand Adventure, visit thegrandadventure.net.
Photography: The Children’s Grand Adventure campers reach Lower Inspiration Point in Grand Teton National Park; (Middle image) Leroy “Trey” Baker canoes on String Lake; Sophia Sereni swings a lariat at a dummy calf; Sophia Sereni and leader Emma Hereford cross a bridge hiking toward Lower Inspiration Point; (Front, from left) Gabi Gray, Paulina Villanueva, Grace Lopez, Abby Loya, Sophia Sereni. (Rear, from left) Henry George, Jared Goolsby, Lance McClain, Spencer Garrett, Leroy “Trey” Baker.