STEP Leadership Reflection

Name: Collin O’Neill

In the late summer, I hiked the approximately 150 mile Big Seki Loop trail in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. This hike refined my leadership skills and cemented my resolve to become a leader in the practice of sustainable engineering.

My understanding of myself and the world surrounding me changed drastically while completing this STEP Project. First, I thought that places so deep into the wilderness would be immune to the effects of human pollution, but this was not the case. At the top of every beautiful mountain overlook, visibility was much lower than I had expected. Upon completing the hike, I researched this lack of visibility, and it turns out it was due to air pollution from neighboring cities. Due to the surrounding mountain ranges and air currents, the air pollution from these cities becomes trapped in the area until it builds to visible levels. This served as a harsh reminder to me that human activity and pollution can have poorly understood and profound consequences all over the globe, even in places that lack immediate proximity to large populations. I also grew to understand that preservation of the natural world must come as much from a place of respect as of care. Additionally, I learned how valuable experience and working with others are to accomplishing my goals.

In terms of my understanding of myself, I realized that I must be motivated not only by a love of nature, but also a respect for it. I certainly did not feel great love for nature when getting swarmed by mosquitoes so thick I could barely inhale without sucking one in, but at these times I was forced to acknowledge that I was dealing with forces not at all within my control. This lack of control I personally experienced made me acknowledge the lack of control that we have in the consequences of environmental pollution. This added another layer to my desire to protect nature, as it now comes not only from a love for it, but also from a respect for the often uncontrollable forces that we risk tampering with.

One of the more mentally trying periods of the hike occurred during days three, four, and five. Almost had to turn back. After a relatively grueling first three days, I arrived at the Palisade Creek Crossing. Although it bore the name of “creek”, I encountered a roaring river that would have been suicidal to cross at the designated point. On the other side of this creek was the relatively tame John Muir trail and the remainder of my hike. Due to the dangerous nature of the crossing and the little time remaining in the day, I made camp on my side of the creek. The next day, I woke up and began scouting upstream for a more favorable crossing, but after several hours of hiking with little luck, I had to return to the campsite. At this point I was despondent, as I was convinced I was going to have to turn around, re-hike the same trail I just had, and end my hike early. Since this plan would leave me with ample time, I spent the rest of my day camped at the crossing. At the end of the day, two experienced woodsman (one of whom was bleeding from a cut above his eye) emerged from the path I had just been walking. I told them the river was impassable and that I planned to turn back. They looked at the river next to me, sat down with a detailed topographical map, and proceeded to find an ideal river crossing upriver using elevation lines alone. I was somewhat skeptical, but after a two mile off-trail hike the next day, we found the exact spot he pointed to on the map. Lo and behold, the river was wide, shallow, and slow there, and we made an easy crossing onto the John Muir Trail. From this I learned that to be successful, you must be willing to accept guidance when you need it, especially when you do not have a clear idea what to do.

My encounter with these helpful hikers and the entire trip taught me the value of experience in being successful. It was these hikers’ experience that enabled them to find a passable crossing. This experience was the difference between my hike ending in disappointment and an amazing trip. I also gained valuable experience just as my hike progressed. The first night, setting up camp, purifying water, and making food were painful and time consuming endeavors. As the hike progressed, however, these things became second-nature. This accurately reflects the general process of learning, as things that seem difficult at first become easy with time. The value of experience will stick with me.

Every single one of these changes will be significant moving forward in my life. A healthy respect for the power of nature will be crucial in becoming a leader in the field of sustainable engineering. I also believe that everyone would stand to benefit from knowing that the consequences of our actions cannot always be fully understood. An openness to accepting help will be obviously beneficial in every aspect of my life. In academics, I will not always understand everything presented to me. In these moments, it is crucial that I am willing to seek help so I can continue to learn and grow. A willingness to accept help will also be necessary as I begin my career in a very technical field, as there is knowledge that will best be learned by being passed on from others.  This passing of knowledge also highlights the value of experience. There will inevitably be things I do not know moving forward, so it will be valuable for me to remember that these unknowns can become simple knowledge with work and time.