Wild at Heart

A Yosemite program introduces kids to the great outdoors

At 9 a.m. the morning fog is beginning to lift from eastern Yosemite Valley. Thirteen sixth graders are milling around, preparing to set off on a daylong excursion. Bundled in fleece jackets against the chilly air, the kids are chattering about their ultimate destination: Yosemite's "Spider Caves." One rumor—that it's pitch-dark in there—is true. But others just may be exaggerated. "My sister has been there before; she said you can fall a really long way," says 11-year-old Charles Healow.

The students have converged here under the auspices of the Yosemite National Institutes, a nonprofit organization dedicated to connecting young people with this magnificent wilderness, using its 761,000 acres as a classroom. On weeklong outdoor-education outings in Yosemite, iPods and laptops are banned. For many of these sixth graders, all of whom attend the Notre Dame des Victoires school in San Francisco, going unplugged is a rude awakening. Ordinarily, admits 11-year-old Kenny Tankeh, "I'd be home right now, watching TV." The institute estimates that school-age children across the nation spend, on average, fewer than eight minutes outside each day. "We're aiming to be the antidote to this nature deficit disorder," says the organization's Adam Burns.

Today the instructors are leading 20 student groups into the park. During an academic year, more than 14,000 kids will trek here. Most attend schools in California; this week's groups include a contingent from New York City. Last month, students came from as far away as Beijing.

The wilderness immersion programs were started in 1971, when Santa Barbara high-school teacher Don Rees brought a class to Yosemite. That same year, in cooperation with Rees, the National Park Service expanded his idea to help create the Yosemite National Institutes. The fledgling venture benefited from the support of several high-profile board members, including astronaut Bill Anders and actor Robert Redford, who had worked in Yosemite after high school.

Early in the afternoon, the Notre Dame des Victoires group, led by institute staffer Laura Manczewski, clambers up a rocky slope to the Spider Caves. The youngsters lower themselves into impenetrable darkness. "I can't find my foot!" yells 12-year-old Charles Kieser from the inky gloom. "I lost my right foot!" Ten minutes and 100 feet later, the students emerge one at a time through a crevice, smiling and squinting into the light.

Manczewski tells everyone to sit on the grass and write in their journals. A half-hour later, Kieser volunteers to share his musings. "The Spider Caves are like life, because you can't always see ahead of you," he reads, "but if you keep going, you'll find your way." It's the kind of road-less-traveled insight that John Muir himself might well have understood—and appreciated.