“There is a wolf in me. …I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.”
-Excerpt from "Wilderness" by Carl Sandburg
For Jodi John Pippin, Sandburg’s poem is a reflection of her experiences growing up at Eagle’s Nest, a summer camp and academic semester school nestled amongst the dense forests, cool creeks, cascading waterfalls and rolling mountains of Transylvania County.
“Once you feel that you belong to the land and that it belongs to you, there is no way to let it go,” says Pippin. “The connection cannot be unheard or unfelt. It is a rare thing today, to find 143 acres of conserved land that has 90 years of life-changing stories to go with it.”
Over the past six years, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy worked with Eagle’s Nest to permanently protect more than 75% of the 184-acre property, saving the invaluable educational, outdoor and cultural adventures that so many generations keep coming back to experience.
As a child, the Blue Ridge Mountains cast an enchanting spell on Pippin. As a teenager, she slow danced at camp for the first time knowing she could relax and just be herself… even while stepping on her partner’s toes. As a young adult, morning strolls through the rhododendron thicket made her feel completely at peace with the world. She fell in love with her now husband on the front porch of the dining hall while she was a camp counselor. They have three children and, as an adult, Pippin has watched them with pride as they grow comfortable in their own skin as campers and students at Eagle’s Nest.
Pippin’s story is not unique.
“I wanted my children to be able to grow and experience independence in a safe, positive, inspiring environment away from home as I did,” says Cissy Byrd, who attended the camp in the late 1960s and 1970s. “I wanted them to be influenced by and build trust in people beyond our family. I wanted them to find joy and build confidence in themselves and feel the rewards of contributing to and being part of a community. I knew that they would get these things at Eagle's Nest.”
Over the decades, Eagle’s Nest has expanded from its beginnings as an all-girls camp when it first opened its doors in 1927. It transitioned to a coed camp in the 1940s, chartered as a nonprofit 501c3 in 1950, started offering specialized wilderness-based programs for teens in the 1970s and added The Outdoor Academy (academic semester school) for high school sophomores in the 1990s. Today, all these programs operate under the umbrella of Eagle’s Nest Foundation.
“Eagle’s Nest emphasizes a child's development with a nurturing community in nature,” shares Mo Waite, whose parents, Alex and Hannah Waite, ran the camp for more than three decades. Mo grew up at Eagle’s Nest, studying salamandersandwaterbugs and learning how to use an axe and cross cut saw.
The multi-generational connection continued, with Mo’s wife Helen, an experiential educator, taking the helm from his parents in 1978. His daughter, Noni Waite-Kucera, attended camp and since 2000, has served as the Executive Director of Eagle’s Nest Foundation. Today, Mo’s grandchildren listen to the sounds of bullfrogs at the lake and make s’mores around the campfire on the hill just as he did in the 1940s.
“With all these changes, the mission remained unchanged,” says Mo. “The clear vision of my parents when they founded Eagle's Nest has stood the test of time through many advances.”
Eagle’s Nest allows campers and students to strip away the complexities of life and experience a simpler way of living. To take a deep breath of fresh mountain air, touch the towering pine trees and gaze up at the stars twinkling in the dark night sky.
“The times that I spent lying in a field of tall grass watching the clouds roll by and letting the crickets leap across my cheek, the times that I took groups of kids wandering up the trails to find the giant Frasier Magnolia...these are forever imprinted in my mind,” says Pippin. “That land is full of variety and surprise. I will always love it and feel that I am a part of it.”
Educational experiences are deeply steeped in every aspect of life at Eagle’s Nest. Myriad English, math, music and science classes teach critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and tolerance. But, those same skills are also acquired in the 12 cabins where the soft breeze permeates the screen windows, in the dining hall where the rain pounds down like drums on the roof, and in the open air Arts Arena where projects are crafted with natural materials found steps away.
“I'm often trying to live out the person Eagle’s Nest empowered me to be in the greater world,” shares Jamey Lowdermilk, “to be open, kind, creative, to be diligent and light-hearted. I gained these values making my way through the many experiences Eagle’s Nest offers.”
Lowdermilk continues to apply these lifelong skills today, as a law student. “So much of our days are absorbed with stress driven by more stress,” says Lowdermilk. “Eagle’s Nest taught me to get to the heart of what matters. Am I contributing to meaningful work? Am I in good company? Are there opportunities for play, rest and reflection?”
Eagle’s Nest continues to serve as home to a diverse community of young people from around the world. It has welcomed students from Cuba and youth living with diabetes. Conserving this land ensures that our children and grandchildren will continue to connect with the wonders that only nature can provide.
“Eagle’s Nest is special for its commitment to authentic, lived experiences; for its commitment to the past and to growing into the future,” says Lowdermilk. “It empowers young people to explore their unique perspectives, ideas, and curiosities while reconnecting all of us to natural rhythms and native landscapes.”
Pippin believes that without the important partnership of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and Eagle’s Nest Foundation, generations of campers and students would risk losing their roots, their magic and their connection to that land.
“The intricate mushrooms that pop up in between classrooms, the rays of sunshine that drop down through the trees, the sound of the hawk circling during group activities,” shares Pippin. “These are the precious moments that will continue to fall into the laps of those who are lucky enough to walk the paths of Eagle’s Nest at 43 Hart Road.”