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The Power of the Wilderness

Scott Allenby

In just over a month, Proctor’s 120 new students will head into the wilderness of the New Hampshire’s White Mountains for five days of backpacking, camping, and exploring. The experience that awaits them - the vastness of the wilderness, the challenges of hiking high peaks, and the relationships forged with classmates and faculty leaders - will lay the foundation for their Proctor journey. 

Proctor Academy Wilderness Orientation

Over the past year, Proctor has been in the midst of a strategic visioning process that is challenging us to think about what the next chapter of Proctor will look like. We must decide what aspects of Proctor will remain and what will need to be set aside in order for new opportunities to emerge for the school. As we have conversations with parents, students, alumni, employees, and members of the Board of Trustees, we ponder how the culture of an organization sustains over time? Is it the people? Is it the mission? Is it the programs offered? What is it that allows Proctor’s unique culture to thrive year after year, and how do we cultivate continuity when we welcome new faculty, staff, and students to Proctor’s community each September? One of the answers lies in our 52 year commitment to Wilderness orientation. 

In 1971, former Head of School David Fowler and Assistant Head of School Chris Norris introduced the concept of Wilderness Orientation to Proctor. Wilderness Orientation effectively weaves mission and people into an incredibly powerful, complex, cultural underpinning of the school as eight students and two faculty leaders embark on the five day, four night backpacking trip. Each year we have some families ask if such a rigorous orientation experience is necessary. Each year we respond with confidence that the experience of Wilderness Orientation catalyzes the relationships that serve as the foundation of Proctor’s culture, and it is worth our time, energy, and investment to ensure we are prepared, trained, and equipped to have the best start to the year possible. 

Proctor Academy Wilderness Orientation

Last summer, David Fowler passed away, but his writings and legacy live on. As he entered his final year as Head of School (1994-1995), David wrote to faculty and staff, “One of the reasons Proctor has done so well over the years is due to its clear mission. Our job is to support that mission in all we do. The mission dictates the programs that we have, the values that we feel are important, and the type of student we want to have at the school. If we forget who we are and who we are committed to serve, then the clear purpose of the school is clouded and frustration and confusion can sap our energies and educational commitment.” 

Collectively, we have a responsibility to keep that mission clearly in focus, and Wilderness Orientation helps us do just that. The power of the wilderness is real, both in how it can challenge us and how it can build us up. We have resisted the temptations to stray off the path, to take the easy trail, to bend to the fears of those who do not fully understand why we do what we do. When we have a mission that centers us, and a community that believes in that mission, we hold the course. We do the hard things because we believe in their impact on our community and their contribution to our continuity of culture, a continuity so many organizations lack. We prepare our bags, lace up our boots, pack our gorp and sleeping bags, and embark on the best, hardest five days of the year. 

  • Environmental Stewardship
  • Experiential Learning
  • Wilderness Orientation