In their shoes

400 youth and adults from the Latter-day Saints church experience the struggles of pioneer living

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Two-hundred seventy local youth recently spent time away from the traditional comforts of home, to get a taste of what life was like for Mormon pioneers more than 170 years ago.

These young members of the Vancouver East Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, along with 130 adult leaders, ventured out on a physically demanding pioneer trek reenactment July 27 to 30, near Trout Lake.

The re-enactors spent four days without any modern conveniences such as computers, cell phones, iPads, watches, cameras and make-up.

Instead, they dressed in traditional pioneer-style clothing, and walked up to 13 miles per day pulling a handcart that was filled with necessities including sleeping bags, water, and a collection of large containers — one for each participant. The 5 gallon buckets held personal items including a change of clothes, scriptures, journal, mess kit, soap, towel, small first aid kit, extra socks and underwear.

Participants were divided into groups of “families,” that included 10 unrelated kids and two adult leaders, referred to as “Ma and Pa,” They sang, danced, worked and ate together. There were no showers and they all slept under the stars in sleeping bags.

A total of 3,330 meals were prepared and served, without the use of ovens or electricity.

Audrey Smith, who will soon begin her senior year at Washougal High School, said she decided to participate for the experience.

“It was amazing going back in time,” she said. “We walked in the footsteps that our pioneers did. I think I am blessed to live in this time.”

Her “family” trekked 13 miles the first day, and between 6 and 8 miles each day that followed.

According to Smith, among the most memorable struggles was tackling the mile-long “Courage Hill.”

“It was a steep hill,” she said. “It was very hard because we had to push the hand cart up the hill. It was a killer. Half of our family was pushing up this hand cart.”

When all was said and done, the 17-year-old said she learned a lot about herself.

“I can do more than I think I can,” Smith said. “I have a capability of pushing myself to do more.”

Like Smith, Hayden Stinchfield, 13, also decided to take part in the trek to take advantage of what he figured would be a unique opportunity. The WHS freshman listed getting to know fellow participants as something he enjoyed most about the adventure, while the long days of walking proved to be the most difficult.

“I learned how easy we have it these days,” he said.

Participants had to deal with a variety of mock situations including having handcarts stolen by a pretend mob, whole families becoming ill and needing others to step in to help the sick family by pushing their cart, and walking a mile in silence through a burned area of forest. One group got lost and had to walk several extra miles.

There was some fun, too. At night festivities included a live band and hoedown, a tomahawk throwing contest and shooting a black powder rifle.

Vancouver East Stake leaders organize the pioneer trek about every four years.

The ultimate goal is to provide an opportunity for the teens to appreciate the experience of the Mormon pioneers as they migrated to the Salt Lake Valley in the mid-1800s. Between 1856 and 1860, 3,000 Latter-day Saints pulled handcarts across the American plains more than 1,000 miles.

During the pioneer Trek re-enactment, Hayden Stinchfield’s parents, Tracey and Tom Stinchfield, led one of the families as a “Ma and Pa.”

Tracey took part in a pioneer trek more two decades ago when she was 17 years old and living in Utah. She described it as a “faith-building experience.”

“More than any other experience I had in my life, it helped me connect with the experience the pioneers had — the hard work and the things they went through. I was able to think about why they were able to do such hard things. When you get dirty and hot and tired like that, you have true empathy for what they went through.”

According to Tracey, the trek requires that kids who are essentially strangers get to know each other and figure out how to work together. She was proud of the efforts she witnessed.

“I think it was better than what I expected,” she said. “It was amazing to watch the kids literally dig in and work so hard. They accepted each other so well. Today, teens have so many barriers to coming together. [During the pioneer trek] they were willing to recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses and just roll with it.”