The Gulch


Henke with her girls.

Sarah Baker, Page Editor

“To this day, Gulch has been the most powerful experience I’ve had … It was completely life changing. It gave me the space, as a young woman, to really figure out who I was and who I wanted to be … It made me fall in love with the wilderness and the outdoors.”

CHS alum Marina Henke went to the Cottonwood Gulch for three summers as a “trekker” and came back this year as a staff member. As she describes it, The Gulch is less of a summer camp and more of an expedition group. The Gulch is based out of New Mexico and was started in 1928.

The Gulch is co-ed, but some of Henke’s more meaningful experiences were when she was with all girls on her trips. The Gulch groups go backpacking and on adventures.

Henke went to Gulch for the first time during the summer before eighth grade. She returned two years later. The following year she came back for a six week trek. This past summer, she worked at Cottonwood Gulch and led fourteen girls for five weeks. The girls were between the ages of 13 and 16.

One part which makes the Gulch unique from from other camps is the Native American aspect. The groups become part of the Navajo community.

“I think one huge element is this Navajo culture that we become a big part of … It’s not really community service or lending a hand to the people that live on reservations… We stay at their houses not as help but as guests and friends,” Henke said. “At a young age I really got a different perspective on what it means to live in different economic situations.” Henke said

(Some other transition here) During her second summer at Gulch, she shared a tent with a Navajo girl for five weeks. She also described how she has helped butcher a sheep for a Navajo wedding this past summer.

Henke also said that, at the Gulch, everyone is a part of the functionality of the place. As a staff member, she helped the kids take out the compost after every meal and feed it to the chickens. They poured their coffee grounds on the fruit trees they planted.

“It’s real work and gives me a sense of purpose now and when I was in middle school,” she said.

Henke met a Navajo woman at Gulch who she admires. The two women have very different lifestyles.

“I have this big appreciation for this specific culture in a way that I think a lot of American citizens don’t, and that’s really tragic, because I think that I’ve learned a lot about the sorrow of a lot of Native Americans,” Henke said. “But also the beauty of this really vibrant culture that we don’t really know a lot about.”

One big thing that Henke learned at the Gulch is to be silly. She says that silliness is really important to the integrity of the group. She met people who she thought of as role models at Gulch and who were goofy. As a staff member she showed her girls the importance of silliness. She remembers that it is stressful during high school, and at the Gulch she didn’t have to act mature or be the best. She could be herself.

“Since the Gulch, I have adopted [silliness] as a part of my personality and now it is one of my most cherished things about me that makes me feel so good,” she said.

Henke also believes that the Gulch gave her a new perspective on successful and happy people. She felt very overwhelmed with the high academic track of CHS, but thought that Clayton was the only place where she could excel. The Gulch opened up her mind to the possibility that her life could be something other than a very rigid academic lifestyle.

“As a staff member this summer, I felt a deep groundedness and knew that this is where I really belong. This is what makes me so grounded every single day,” she said.

As a staff member, Henke would always address the campers as “fine young women.” She wanted them to feel strong, confident, and capable. By the end of the camp they even referred to themselves as fine young women.

“It was incredibly cool to see that energy in a group of women in a way that I want all women to be able to have in the world.”

This summer, on her group’s last day on the road, Henke remembers feeling incredible pride of overcoming challenges with her group of self-sufficient females. She says that sometimes people don’t think women are capable of what they are indeed capable of. Being in a group of all women was incredible for her.

Although the gear and the trips are costly, the Gulch recently started making its trips more accessible for people with less economic means. They are currently giving thousands of dollars for kids to go to Gulch on either full scholarship or partial scholarship. According to Henke, there are some kids who are from wealthy families at Gulch and others who are not as well off. She thinks the Gulch is making a conscious effort to be more inclusive.

Henke is now in her second year at Bowdoin College on the coast of Maine. She believes that she was drawn to Bowdoin because of the proximity to the ocean and the outdoors. She credits a lot of experiences to where she is now, but she describes the Gulch as the core of her identity.

The Gulch helped give her purpose and get rid of some of her stress. Henke said, “I came back as a staff member both because I feel so indebted to this place and because I know the profound impact that it can have on kids, because it had that on me.”