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Expedition 7: Belize




Greetings from East house!

We had a quick turn around after everyone got back from Spring break. It was great catching up Sunday night and falling back into being at school. On Monday we had breakfast with all of the houses in the dining hall before heading up to school. We spent the rest of the day preparing for Belize making sure that everyone was packed and properly prepared for the flights, had sunscreen, bug spray and any other essentials that they may have run out of throughout the year. We also withdrew spending money for the trip which got everyone very excited about getting lots of trinkets!

We left at 4:00 am on Tuesday morning to start our drive to the Atlanta Airport. We were lucky that everyone had loaded gear into the van the night before so it was just moving every person to the vans and then going back to sleep. The flight was great; about 3 hours of watching movies. Time went back an hour so it was only noon when we touched down. After getting through customs and immigration, picking up rental vans, and huge water jugs we were on our way to Altun Ha, the tiniest of the ruins we would visit. It was a great introduction to the culture and history of Belize with our amazing tour guides who explained all about blood offering and piercings. We got to climb to the top of the ruin and look out at the entire site. Small booths were set up which our students got to peruse for souvenirs. A lot of our guys got fresh coconuts to drink the water.

The drives all seemed a lot longer than in the U.S. due to slower speed limits and such bumpy roads, but we finally completed our drive to San Ignacio where we stayed at a place called the Trek Stop. We had a late dinner and then assigned students to cabins. It was a little different than normal as students were 2 or 3 per cabin. They got to practice a bit more self-sufficiency and time management as they were responsible for getting themselves ready, areas, cleaned and all essentials ready to go in the mornings after instructors woke them up.

In the light of morning the trek stop was even more gorgeous. We took advantage and nature journaled in their butterfly gardens and did some math worksheets. Cahal Pech in the afternoon was great. Each ruin reinforced the information from the previous one and introduced a few differences in each place. Altun Ha for example had the biggest piece of jade, which showed they did trade with other Guatemalan and Mexican Mayan sites while Cahal Pech didn’t have evidence of as much trade.

Food was a big way that our groups experienced the culture. We went to so many restaurants throughout our trip such as Hode’s Place, Benny’s Kitchen, we had tamales provided by our guide service after cave tubing, fresh fish and seafood on the islands, fresh fruits, and fresh made bread. Students tried termites during our jungle hike, and ate whole fried conch on the island. The strangest fruit we tried one morning was breadfruit, later we found out you are supposed to cook this fruit before you eat it!

We loaded onto ferries to Xunantunich. It was a tiny crank ferry that was so neat. Xunantunich was interesting because the top of el castillo was so different. The friezes had been through more restoration and were covered over with plaster so our guide got to talk a lot about the gods represented on the building. There was also a tiny museum to look at things like the hoop from the site’s ball pit.

Day 4 we woke up and drove to Franks Eddy for cave tubing. After getting a safety briefing, geared up with headlamps and tubes, we started a nature tour through the jungle. We hung from huge natural ropes, tasted nasty leaves, and learned about natural medicines in the jungle. Cave tubing was an experience using your arms to paddle forward avoiding the cave walls. It was a large happy chaos as we splashed downriver. People had fun tipping rafts, going through small rapids, swimming during a break, and got to jump off of a rock into the water in the cave.

The drive to Caracol was amazing. We had a military escort through this hugely bumpy road and even saw a crocodile in the wild as we drove over a bridge. A lot of our tours had nature tour sections – we saw our first ciaba tree here, the national tree of Belize, a connection between the earth and underworld for Mayans. They are huge!

The largest ruin that we visited was during our day trip to Guatemala. Tikal was impressive. There was a model at the entrance showing the expansiveness of this site. We would have been days at Tikal to see it all but focused on the largest structures. It was very hot, about 100 degrees, but it was amazing seeing the monkeys and hearing the howler monkeys (same sound as the dinosaurs on Jurassic Park). We did a lot of shopping in Guatemala and then headed back over the border. It was time to leave the Trek Stop and head towards the second section of our trip to the island!
We caught a cool boat to Glover’s Atoll Resort which was one of the furthest islands on the reef. It was a 2.5 hour boat ride. Once we arrived we had a tour. The guys were most excited about the coconut cracking station set up and to stay in huts out over the water. We did a lot of school so that we would have more time the next days for water activities.

Days 8 & 9 we got to take a small boat to snorkel on the reef. They saw colorful fish and stingrays. The teams enjoyed some downtime showering, petting friendly dogs on the island, and eating coconuts. They got to see over 20 nurse sharks feeding every night when they cleaned the catch of the day. We went scuba diving down to 40 feet giving our newly certified divers some more experience with these skills. They got to use weight belts for the first time instead of weight pockets and didn’t have to wear wet suits in the 82 degree water. The people who didn’t want to dive got a chance to swim, fish, and kayak around (boating didn’t last too long because it was so windy).

Sadly it was time to leave the island. After a quick breakfast and loading up we took the 3 hour boat ride back. We had a late lunch, did some last minute shopping, and then drove to the Tropical Education Center near the Belize Zoo. We got to do a night tour of the zoo seeing all of the nocturnal animals as they were active. Everyone put a Boa around their necks, got to touch and feed a Tapir, saw a somersaulting Jaguar, the queens rats, and lots of owls.

We finished up with showers, repacking, and then the next morning we drove to the Belize International Airport. We had another relaxing flight watching movies, and then went through the lengthy process of customs. We actually stopped at Wendy’s for dinner which was a huge treat for our guys who didn’t always enjoy the different foods we ate in Belize and then got returned to campus.

It was a productive weekend finishing up all of the schoolwork, catching up on sleep, doing laundry and preparing for the campus phase!

Until next time with our West Road Trip!

Expedition 2: Rock Climbing in Seneca Rocks & Backpacking in Shenandoah National Park

After two weeks on campus, all of the students were ready for their second expedition, arguably one of the most exciting expeditions of the year. They left early on a Sunday morning, trailers packed with gear, and began their journey to Seneca Rocks in West Virginia with plans to also backpack in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. If you’ve never been to West Virginia in October, it is beautiful. The students settled in at their campsites with a clear view of the peak they all hoped to be summiting in the next few days.

Group Climbing in Seneca Rocks

But first things first—safety. Day one was spent in ground school, learning how to tie various knots, practicing belay skills, and mastering communication with their teams. Seneca Rocks is a multi-pitch climb. This means that several ropes are set up because it is too long for just one. Like many goals our students set, we always encourage them to take it one step at a time. So on day two, they got to try out the North side of the rocks, a shorter climb to practice their skills. Most of our students are beginners, but their confidence in their abilities shined through, and we knew they were ready for day 3. Although nervous, North and South house all made it to the summit and were able to rappel back to the base of the climb—nearly 200ft!

Rock Climbin in Seneca Rocks

Unfortunately the weather wasn’t as kind for East and West house. Unsafe to explore above ground, these two teams ventured underground to Seneca Caverns, a limestone cave in Riverton, WV. The students learned about different rock types and formations and got to experience total darkness in the cave.

No surprise to many, all teams celebrated the completion of the first part of their expedition with a pizza dinner out. Before beginning their backpacking trips, the students spent time working on their school work and visiting the Frontier Museum. Here they learned about the ways of life for English, German, Irish, and African people in colonial America. They learned about what motivated them to move around the world, what the journey might have been like, and where they lived and what they did. They got to operate a two person saw, learning what it would have been like to clear land. They also go to grind corn into meal and cook eggs in a hearth!

This time around North and South house got their dose of bad weather. After hiking the first 3 miles into their campsite, they were met with Tropical Storm Phillipe who showered them with cold rain and gusts of wind through the night. Managing to stay mostly dry, they had to hike out the next day to dry their tents and clothes before hiking back in that evening. It was a rough start, but they persevered as a team to complete the trip. In all, the students backpacked about 20 miles, seeing waterfalls and lots of salamanders along the way.

Another great trip in the books. Next up, paddling the Suwannee River in Florida. Stay tuned!



East/West House Expedition: Panthertown Valley, Fontana Lake, Ocoee & Nantahala Rivers

Our school year officially began earlier this month (September 7th), and things are off to a great start! East and West House were the lucky teams to go on Expedition first. For those of you who aren’t very familiar with the Academy at SOAR, our students operate on a two rotation. They spend two weeks out of the month on campus and two weeks on expeditions, traveling throughout the United States. For this first expedition, the teams stayed close, visiting some of western NC’s beautiful outdoor spaces. After a minor 2 day delay due to Hurricane Irma’s heavy wind and rain, East and West house departed campus for their first adventure of the year!


Their first stop was Panthertown Valley, near Cashiers, NC. Upon arrival at the trailhead, the students had a quick lesson on using a compass and how to read maps. After hiking a few miles, the teams made it to their first campsite of the trip where the learned the ins and outs of setting up camp—where to set up sleeping, cooking, and bathroom areas to protect from animals, assembling the tents, and setting up their water filter. The students spent a total of two nights in Panthertown Valley, hiking out on their last day to head to Fontana Lake to set up camp for the next phase of their trip.


Fontana Lake is a beautiful mountain lake bordering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Before beginning their canoe trip, each team spent a day on the Ocoee River in Tennessee, barreling down the river’s class 3 and 4 rapids. One of the most exciting rivers in our area, the Ocoee is known for whitewater rafting and for hosting the whitewater events during the 1996 Summer Olympics. After a warm shower and a night of rest, the students finally began their canoe trips. East House canoed a total of 18 miles and West House a total of 19 miles! But don’t worry, there were plenty of breaks for swimming, cliff jumping, and exploring. Last but not least, the trip ended with a day on the Nantahala River. While not quite as thrilling as the Ocoee River, students had the opportunity guide their rafts and implement the strokes they learned to help steer their rafts with confidence.


As with all expeditions, school is incorporated into day to day adventures. On this expedition students calculated water usage, researched dams as alternative forms of energy, calculated density of objects they found at and around their campsites, began reading Candide, learned about the Columbian Exchange, Medieval Times, and the Reconstruction Era.

Both houses have returned to base and are currently in their first campus phase, doing school in a more “traditional” way and likely dreaming of their next expedition starting in a couple of weeks. Up next, rock climbing in Seneca Rocks, WV and backpacking in Shenandoah National Park.

Stay tuned!