Stake Laurel Expedition Brings Girls Backpacking, Rappelling, Rafting—and Closer to Christ

Contributed By Valerie Durrant, LDS.org Church News staff writer

  • 15 November 2017

Sabrina Hartmann, Camille Cooper, and Ashlyn Elggren of the Santa Margarita California Stake hold inflatable rafts above their heads as they prepare to float down the Colorado River during the stake Laurel expedition, November 10, 2017.  Photo by Paula Kinnison.

Article Highlights

  • The Santa Margarita California Stake hosted its first stake Laurel expedition November 10–11, 2017.

“Our incredible young women need to be connected to heaven every bit as much as our young men. They can do hard things!” —President Kirk Hess, Santa Margarita California Stake President

Young men have participated in venturing activities, sometimes called “high adventure” expeditions, for years. Though not as common, some stakes are also organizing venturing activities for the young women.

Depending on the interest and needs of the youth in a stake or ward, leaders can choose to organize activities to help youth develop and grow through more adventurous activities, like backpacking or rafting.

This year, the Santa Margarita California Stake hosted its first stake Laurel expedition, which included backpacking, rafting, and rappelling through Secret Canyon outside Boulder City, Nevada, and down the Colorado River. On November 10, 2017, 25 Laurel-age girls from the stake and 10 of their leaders drove to Boulder City, Nevada, with packed bags and hiking boots, ready to navigate the winding canyon and float down the river.

Navigating the winding, narrow canyon required three rappels, one of which was nearly 100 feet high. Though many of the girls had never rappelled or had a fear of heights, they were able to make it through by relying on their leaders—all while carrying their own backpack with their own gear, raft, life jacket, and oar.

It all started with the vision of stake president Kirk Hess, who was called to his current position in February of 2017. President Hess and his wife, Jenny, are the parents of five children and love to be outdoors enjoying nature, whether it’s backpacking, rock climbing, rafting, or hiking. President Hess had hiked, rappelled, and rafted the route that he took the Laurels on many times before, including one time on a daddy-daughter date with his daughter prior to her mission, so it was natural for him to think of the Laurels when planning the activity.

Ashlynn Elggren from the Foothill Ranch Ward rappels down Secret Canyon on November 10, 2017, assisted by stake president Kirk Hess. Photo by Paula Kinnison.

As part of the stake Laurel expedition, the young women navigated three separate rappels as they made their way down Secret Canyon and toward the Colorado River. Each girl and leader carried their own backpacking gear, including an inflatable raft and life jacket, November 10, 2017. Photo by Paula Kinnison.

As part of the stake Laurel expedition, the young women navigated three separate rappels as they made their way down Secret Canyon and toward the Colorado River. Each girl and leader carried their own backpacking gear, including an inflatable raft and life jacket, November 10, 2017. Photo by Paula Kinnison.

According to the Youth Activities page on LDS.org, the purpose of venturing activities is to “provide positive experiences to help young people mature and prepare them to become responsible and caring adults.”

President Hess said he wanted to impress upon the young women through this expedition that they are important, needed, and valued in the Church and in the plan of salvation. “I’m thoroughly convinced that controlled yet challenging environments are an ideal way to accomplish this,” he said. “Our incredible young women need to be connected to heaven every bit as much as our young men. They can do hard things!”

As the Laurels made their way down the canyon, navigating obstacles together, they learned in a very literal way how to rely on their leaders’ guidance for survival. Many of the girls were stepping far outside their comfort zone as they rappelled and hiked down the canyon, but they came to realize that they were stronger than they thought as they listened to the counsel of their stake president, who they knew had done the trip before and knew the way.

Charlotte Whiting of the Live Oak Canyon Ward, a Laurel who was recently baptized in September of this year, said that “every time before we went down the rappel, I would say a little prayer in my head, trusting President Hess [and my leaders] to keep me safe, no matter how terrified I [was].”

Anika Dunkley of the Santa Margarita Ward said the expedition “taught me a lot about trusting your leaders.”

Another lesson instilled in the girls as they overcame their fears and conquered different challenges was that they can accomplish whatever they set their mind to. “It just proves to you that you’re so much stronger than you think you are,” Anika said. She explained that during other times in her life, it’s been easy to forget how much she is capable of, but the expedition reminded her that “you’re stronger and braver than you think you are.”

The expedition gave the girls confidence not only in their ability to rise to meet demanding physical challenges but also in their ability to follow the Savior through the trials and difficulties of life. As they finished the rappelling portion of the trip and arrived on the banks of the Colorado River, all the light was gone from the sky. Each girl inflated the raft she had been carrying, and two by two, they started floating down the river.

Strapped to one buddy, equipped with a light, they set off to navigate three miles of the river in the pitch-black darkness. Guided only by the lights of the pair ahead of them, the girls learned to rely on each other and cling to the light despite the darkness surrounding them as they looked for the bright light that they knew President Hess would be shining on the bank of the river where they were to camp for the night.

The light that President Hess shone at the end of their journey became a symbol of Jesus Christ for many of the girls. Kennidy Johnson from the Santa Margarita Ward said, “It just made me think about how grateful I am for having a Savior to guide us and help us find our way.”

Devoree Shields of the Live Oak Canyon Ward saw a parallel to the Atonement of Jesus Christ as they arrived at the light at the end of their journey. She said, “If you don’t follow the light close enough, you can miss it.” And indeed, one of the pairs of girls ended up floating about one hundred yards down the river past where they should have gotten off. As Devoree watched this, she became worried, until she heard one of the leaders say, “We planned for this.”

President Hess was prepared to quickly run down the bank of the river to retrieve the girls. The image of the light following the lost girls along and shepherding them back to where they needed to be impressed Devoree and reminded her of how Jesus Christ goes after His lost sheep too.

The idea of seeking out the light as we’re walking in darkness was one of the lessons that President Hess impressed upon the girls as they finished the expedition. He told the Laurels, “We’re in a lot of tough situations here in mortality, where things can look a little dark, challenges that almost seem unbearable sometimes. I promise you that as we gather light individually in our lives, it chases darkness from us, chases the despair and discouragement, and gives us hope and confidence.”

There is no substitute for experience when it comes to learning. As Paula Kinnison, Young Women ward camp leader and high adventure leader in the Live Oak Canyon Ward, said, “Putting the youth into situations where they have to dig deep and make it through and also truly rely on their leaders is powerful. This trip helped them to feel God’s power in their lives.”

Laurels from the Santa Margarita California Stake on November 10, 2017, preparing to embark on their trip down Secret Canyon and the Colorado River. Photo by Paula Kinnison.

Laurels from the Santa Margarita California Stake on November 10, 2017, preparing to embark on their trip down Secret Canyon and the Colorado River. Photo by Paula Kinnison.

On November 10–11, 2017, 25 Laurels from the Santa Margarita California Stake backpacked, rappelled, and rafted through Secret Canyon and down the Colorado River as part of the stake Laurel expedition. Photo by Paula Kinnison.

On November 10–11, 2017, 25 Laurels from the Santa Margarita California Stake backpacked, rappelled, and rafted through Secret Canyon and down the Colorado River as part of the stake Laurel expedition. Photo by Paula Kinnison.

Laurels from the Santa Margarita California Stake pictured with their inflatable rafts, preparing to float three miles down the Colorado River to camp for the night, November 10, 2017. Photo by Paula Kinnison.

The Santa Margarita California Stake Laurel expedition concluded with a devotional next to the Colorado River, where girls shared what they learned about the plan of salvation and the Atonement of Jesus Christ during their trip, November 11, 2017. Photo by Paula Kinnison.

Laurels from the Santa Margarita California Stake on November 10, 2017, floating down the Colorado River with a buddy and a light. They were guided to shore by their stake president, who stood holding a light for them to see. Photo courtesy of Kirk Hess.

Laurels from the Santa Margarita California Stake on November 10, 2017, floating down the Colorado River with a buddy and a light. Photo courtesy Kirk Hess.

Leaders from the Santa Margarita California Stake who accompanied the Laurels on their trip, November 11, 2017. Photo by Paula Kinnison.