Merrowvista Wayfinders leave a legacy at North Star Shelter

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Summer 2021 was filled with joys and challenges as the American Youth Foundation found new ways to welcome campers back to Miniwanca and Merrowvista in the midst of a pandemic.

One of the biggest changes was the launch of the Wayfinder program, which replaced the traditional Four Trails experience in 2021. The pandemic prevented campers and staff from embarking on the Odyssey, Voyageur, Adventurer, and Explorer trips, but it also gave them the opportunity to explore the hundreds of acres that make up Merrowvista and Miniwanca and provide valuable service to the camp community.

2021 Director of Programs Matt Loper said they wanted to give Wayfinders a chance to leave a legacy at camp. “We wanted to support campers who wanted to give back to a place that has been such a meaningful part of their development,” he said. “Each year, many older campers start to wrestle with the realization that this might be their last summer as a camper. We wanted to help them give back and make their last summer meaningful, to give a sense of closure to their camper experience.”

The Wayfinder Songbirds, the oldest Merrowvista campers, elected to assist with the deconstruction and rebuild of the Ledge Shelter. Armed with sledgehammers, handsaws, and hardhats, around two dozen youth and their leaders trekked just over a mile to begin the difficult task of deconstruction and rebuilding the structure with only power drills and manual tools.

2021 Service Learning Coordinator Adam “Boots” Smetana oversaw the group and said the Songbirds far exceeded his expectations. “We set an ambitious goal and said we’d see how far we could get,” he said. “In one day, they had completely deconstructed the building.”

Once the shelter was deconstructed, the teens spent the week engaging in physically demanding work. They carried several large stone to lay a new foundation, while others pummeled rocks to dust with sledgehammers to seal the gaps with stone dust. They skinned the bark from dozens of large logs, then hauled them up to 200 yards back the site.


“One log was nearly 2,000 pounds and required the entire group to work together to safely bring it to the building site,” Smetana said.

The Wayfinders repurposed any existing material from the former structure, carefully saving and reinstalling the floorboards and even pulling and manually straightening nails to be reused.

“I oversaw the work, but it was wonderful to watch these youth discover together how to manage the construction site,” Smetana said. “They took ownership of this unfamiliar project and made it their own.”

The Songbirds also spent several nights camping in the backcountry a half-mile from the shelter site, adding the challenge of remote living to their Wayfinder experience.

At the end of the summer, a sturdy new shelter rose from the forest floor, each log and stone carefully placed by this team of capable young adults. Loper said future Pioneers and other young campers will trek to it for their first overnight experiences, and many will stop on their way to and from the Ledge and enjoy the beauty and peace of the mountain.

“The work this group did was so meaningful to them,” Loper said. “It had significance and weight. They shifted their mindset from being people who experience camp to people contributing to the future camp experiences of others.”

That sentiment was reflected in the plaque the Songbirds designed to commemorate the structure and officially bestow its new name, The North Star Shelter:

“In the summer of 2021, the Wayfinder Songbirds, a group of Merrowvisa’s oldest campers, dedicated their time and energy to fully restore this North Star Shelter. Their wish for all who rest here: No matter how far your roam, may you always find your way home.”

Registration is now open for Wayfinder 2022 at Merrowvista and Avail 2022 at Miniwanca. Learn more about all Summer 2022 program offerings at Miniwanca and Merrowvista.