Roughing it, Loving it

Port teacher’s Riveredge wilderness trips enthrall kids with hard challenges amid nature’s beauty

Ryan Cowen (left) leads campers who carry up to 40 pounds of gear on their backs during annual trips to the Upper Peninsula and Boundary Waters through Riveredge Nature Center. His son Connor has been on three of the trips, as well as other excursions with his father and has developed a love of adventure. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Connor Cowen took in the breathtaking scenic view from sand dunes in the Upper Peninsula. He could see above all the trees in the forest.

“I just like being lost out there. You just clear your mind. There’s no stress,” he said.

That’s the perspective of a 14-year-old forced to be away from his phone for a week.

It’s exactly what his father Ryan Cowen hopes for when leading Questers’ trips to the Boundary Waters and Upper Peninsula through Riveredge Nature Center.

Cowen, a science teacher at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, has been running the excursions for youth in grades eight through 12 for 14 years and notices some of the same transformations each time.

“Kids might leave as acquaintances but when you come back, they’re family,” he said.

It’s not the easiest of transitions. When roughing it, there is no electricity or clean running water, and everyone uses pit toilets. There’s no cell service (but Cowen carries a satellite phone for emergencies).

There is, however, pristine land and tranquil views and bonding. The experience of getting away from it all — singing songs around the campfire, playing card games inside the tent and overcoming obstacles of living in the woods and water — brings people together like nothing else.

It’s what Cowen remembers the most. The kids on last month’s trip embodied that more than ever.

 “They just had a great bond together like I’ve never seen before,” he said. “To see kids endure hardships and then come together as a team.”

Team members hike and canoe their way along, lugging 40-pound packs anywhere from a few miles to 12 miles per day in 80-degree heat or pouring rain, helping each other when they can.

“You carry someone else’s canoe sometimes. It doesn’t matter,” Connor said.

His father is the perfect advocate to lead the way. Cowen grew up in Fredonia and attended nature camps at Riveredge. On an eighth-grade trip, his tent partner was the now world-famous explorer Eric Larsen.

“We’re still friends to this day,” Cowen said.

In college, Cowen did camping trips with his cousin and realized they wanted to pass along the joy of the experience to children.

“Once you experience amazing places, the next step is sharing them with other people,” he said.

He hopes his trips instill a love of nature and adventure in teens, and gets them away from their phones.

While pulling young adults away from their electronic devices can be tricky, the experience has grown in popularity.

Cowen’s first trip 14 years ago started with three people.

“Now,” he said, “there’s actually a waiting list.”

Trips used to include mostly boys. Now, Cowen said, that has flipped to girls as the majority of the campers.

Cowen can take 14 youth and three other chaperones to the Boundary Waters. The Upper Peninsula allows 21 people.

Many are repeat customers who look forward to the trips all year.

Even those who haven’t fully bought into the experience at the start are full-fledged fans by the time they get back, Cowen said.

“Then they bring a friend,” he said.

Two campers — 2011 Port Washington High School graduates Elizabeth Gerrits and Tori Klotz — even changed their career plans because of the trip. Both went to work in national parks.

Cowen’s groups face unpleasant challenges, including mosquitoes, flies and rain. Trekkers can expect to get bitten and possibly be saturated for a few days. Once, it rained so hard that canoes began to fill with water.

Run-ins with all sorts of Mother Nature’s cast of characters are always a possibity.

Howling wolves once woke Connor up.

“I didn’t get back to sleep for a while,” he said.

Other sleep disruptions come courtesy of “tenacious” raccoons, which often return even after being scared off.

 Moose have walked through camp and past canoes. Loons have come right up to the boats.

Cowen said groups have seen black bears in the distance. Clanging pans keeps them away.

Riveredge provides food for the trip, and Cowen said “the kids like the cheapest stuff” like Ramen Noodle Soup.

“It’s soooo good,” Connor said.

Turtles appreciate the frugal cuisine as well. They will watch as the group washes dishes near the lake and move in after the area is vacated.

The campers use silverware, but one time they had to improvise. Someone dumped all the utensils out with the dish water into the latrine. 

Cowen made it into a learning experience, whittling utensils from branches.

“It turned into a fun thing. You carve your own spoons,” he said.

Cowen tries to ensure everyone knows what they’re getting into through a “pretty thorough” meeting beforehand.

The plan, he said, is to “plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

The excursions are so successful that parents have asked Cowen to run adult and family trips.

One of the trip’s highlights, Connor said, is running down a high-sloped 600-foot sand dune in the Upper Peninsula.

“You can float in the air,” he said.

Beyond that, it’s the tranquility.

“I like the peacefulness of it. Listening to loons at night. Being out on the lake. Being around the campfire with newfound friends,” Connor said.

Cowen said teens return with a new appreciation for little things often taken for granted.

“Just turning on a sink,” he said.

Trips cost $600. Riveredge provides food, tents, water purifiers and Coleman camp stoves, bear barrels (bear-proof containers that float) and backpacks.

Cowen’s other regular chaperones are fellow teachers Adam Allen and Jen Verheyen, and his cousin Tim Bischof.

Regardless of how many times he camps, it never gets old for Cowen.

“It’s still one of the highlights of my year,” Ryan said. “When I first push off from shore, you just look forward to the adventure.”

For more information on Questers and other Riveredge camps, visit



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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