Trailblazing the College Transition: 50 Years of Vanguard, High Road, and Wheaton Passage
Around 1 p.m. on a sunny Wednesday in August 1984, Frank Heegaard ’88 ran into HoneyRock wearing his hiking boots. He was the first in his group of incoming Wheaton College freshmen to officially complete the High Road “marathon,” a dozen or so-mile-race into camp. After spending about two weeks out in the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he backpacked for miles and miles, canoed for 30 hours straight, and fasted for three days by himself along the banks of Lake Superior, this marathon through the Wisconsin pine woods was the last hurdle to cross.
Recounting the story is still emotional for Heegaard, who vividly recalls the feeling of accomplishment, excitement, and relief when he first spotted the telltale signs that he was nearing the finish line at HoneyRock—the rock, the sign, the High Road banner. Just a few days later, he’d be heading into his freshman year at Wheaton College, a few pounds lighter yet filled with affirmation that he was ready for this new season.
Heegaard is like thousands of others who have participated in Wheaton College’s student transition program based at HoneyRock, the Outdoor Center for Leadership Development of Wheaton College in Three Lakes, Wisconsin. Over the course of its now 50-year history, the program has worn different names—Vanguard, High Road, Passage—but at its core, it’s “always been about college transition and always been about friendships,” according to Passage Program Manager Rachael Cyrus ’14, M.A. ’15.
VANGUARD ERA: 1969-1981
Back in 1969, Dr. Stanley Pickens ’73, who had been accepted to Wheaton College earlier that year, received a note in the mail at his home in Aurora, Illinois, about the College’s Vanguard program. The letter indicated that Vanguard “would involve vigorous activity and that it might be a good orientation for college,” Pickens says. “So, I thought, well yeah, let’s go ahead and try that.” Pickens was part of the inaugural class of Vanguard, a program developed by Dr. Bud Williams M.A. ’66, whose LinkedIn profile, if he had one, would include facts like: member of the Penn State championship gymnastics team, Rhodes Scholar runner-up, West Point coach, and professor.
Harvey Chrouser ’34, Wheaton College’s longtime athletic director and football coach, hired Williams in 1963 to coach and teach, but also to create a program that would build the character of young men—something Chrouser was involved in during his time in the Navy during World War II. He’d also been hearing about a United Kingdom program called Outward Bound, aimed at giving “young seamen the ability to survive the harsh conditions.”
“These two things came together in Harv’s mind,” says Edith Koehler Williams M.A. ’97, Bud’s wife of 51 years. “Harv was the visionary and Bud was the facilitator, and this is how they worked so well together.”
In Pickens’ year, 30 Vanguard participants backpacked through the woods of Ontonagon, Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, after first spending a few days getting conditioned in the swamps and trails at camp. A few days into the program, Pickens says he got the impression “that the main objective was to get us tired, hungry, and wet permanently.”
But Bud had deeper designs, says Edith.
“He wanted to help build the character and steadfastness of men through a wilderness adventure, so they could find themselves as a person. If you’re out in the middle of the woods and you’re in a stressful situation, you really find out what you’re really like.”
By 1974, just five years after the program had launched, 110 students had signed up for Vanguard—and for the first time, women were admitted. Dr. Eric Gustafson and Kirk Weaver, both of whom graduated in 1978, remember that summer well, especially since the bus they rode up from Wheaton College to HoneyRock ended up tipping over on its side on Highway X, a winding road that threads through the Wisconsin lakes. Miraculously, no one was hurt, save for a few bumps, bruises, and scratches.
“We were pulled out of this bus through the windows, loaded into the back of an old HoneyRock truck, and driven a mile and a half to where the trips always start, for all I know, and we started wading through swamps up to our neck in the lake and then ran about a mile into camp,” Gustafson says.
If that experience offered clear evidence of the Lord’s protecting hand, it also set the tone for the trip. Gustafson knew then that Vanguard was not going to be a walk in the park.
He was right.
The next morning, they set out on a three-day trip to hone their orienteering and canoeing skills. After that, they headed out on a 103-mile bush-whack from the Wisconsin border to the Porcupine Mountains at Lake Superior, where they were hardly ever on trails or roads. At times, they rock climbed and rappelled. At other times, they canoed. The amount of food was very limited.
At one point during the trip, each Vanguard participant would go off on his or her own with just a sleeping bag, a poncho, some string, three matches, and a Bible for a three-day fasting “solo.” The first night of the solo was so wet and cold that Gustafson still calls it the most miserable night of his life, “which means I’ve had a pretty good life,” he says, laughing.
The entire experience, he says, taught him he could do hard things, which served him well at Wheaton College and later when he pursued a Ph.D. from Purdue University. It also gifted Gustafson with a lifelong friend in Weaver, who led Vanguard trips from 1974 to 1976. The pair roomed together at Wheaton for three years. In 1981, they summited the Grand Teton together. To this day, they get together every few years for a hiking trip.
Kate Maxwell Mackey ’82 sees her 1978 Vanguard experience as one way that God prepared her for future trials, including burying her first husband, seeing a child through surgery for a life-threatening heart defect, and caring for her second husband when he went blind.
After weathering a solo in which a violent thunderstorm shook the tree roots in the ground beneath her, Mackey says: “You really do have a sense that you can figure out how to get through anything. I look back and I really see the determination and the clear message that God is with you through everything.”
HIGH ROAD ERA: 1981-2005
In the 1980s, Ken Kalisch, whose love for the outdoors was forged on family camping trips in Colorado and who had led Vanguard and other wilderness trips at HoneyRock for years, succeeded Williams as program director.
“I love outdoor adventures because they are a means of personal learning, growth, and renewal for me,” Kalisch says. “While the Scriptures teach me much by regular reading and reflection, so does the ‘Book of Nature’—God’s first revelation. I learn much about him by observing his created works, great and small, and witnessing his interactions with creation. Also, outdoor adventures strengthen my spiritual character and faith as I experience the challenges of wilderness living and overcome them.”
As the program became more and more a signature experience for incoming freshmen, Kalisch described how his goal and “joy” was helping others know the love of God, their own selfishness, their unknown inner strengths and physical capabilities, their need for human community, and the value of solitude and silence through the challenges of wilderness trips.
On each 16-day trip, student groups were tasked with reaching a specific spot along the shores of Lake Superior, but getting there required lots of individual responsibility and group collaboration, whether backpacking or canoeing, mountain biking or rock climbing. There was still a solo portion, still a marathon into camp, but it was renamed High Road to reflect the program’s mission to use wilderness expeditions as the means to develop the character and faith of young people, who would then be morally and spiritually equipped to engage and challenge the world they were entering.
At one point during Lisa Maxwell Ryken ’88’s High Road experience, her leaders broke them into small groups and pointed to a place on the map that they needed to reach on their own. The only rule: Don’t cross the river. But Ryken’s group looked at the map and agreed, “‘If we don’t cross the river, it’s going to take us forever to get there,’ so we promptly crossed the river, and we promptly got unbelievably lost.”
After wandering around for a while, they started noticing some orange markers on the trees. Eventually, a United States Coast and Geodetic Survey benchmark helped them pinpoint their location on the map—and they still ended up beating the other group back to the rendezvous point. Ryken laughs at the memory, adding that the spiritual lessons in that situation were rife.
Students took the hard-won lessons they learned back to Wheaton and into their lives afterward. “If I could do three weeks in the wilderness, then I could handle whatever college was going to hit me with,” Ryken says. “It gave me a sense of fortitude.”
For Andrea Nelson Le Roy, who led numerous High Road trips in the 1980s, one of those lessons included an appreciation for simplicity. For instance, she says, after carrying everything you needed on your back and having a lot of communal items, from housing (a tarp) to food, it became very clear that “You don’t really need a lot of stuff,” she says. “You don’t really need the fanciest, the nicest, the best.”
After a long, sweaty day of hiking with a High Road group one summer, she still recalls how sweet and refreshing the water from a natural spring tasted. “It was so good, and it was so cold, and I just remember feeling such satisfaction,” Le Roy says. “This is just awesome.”
PASSAGE ERA: 2005-PRESENT
After 30 years serving at Wheaton, Kalisch moved on to a position at Montreat College in North Carolina, and Wheaton’s High Road program started evolving. Students were changing. Although leaving home for college has always been a major life transition, studies were showing that 18-year-olds were less equipped to handle the change.
With an aim to reach as many students as possible at such a crucial time in their lives, HoneyRock Director Rob Ribbe ’87, M.A. ’90 and Program Manager John Vandervelde ’00, M.A. ’10, led the charge of revamping HoneyRock’s first-year student transition experience.
In addition to rebranding it Passage in 2005, which aimed to communicate that traveling from home to college was a rite of passage, Ribbe and Vandervelde also got more Wheaton faculty involved to mentor students. Abbey Lange Yoder ’12, who now works for the College’s admissions office, had a psychology professor, Dr. Terri Watson M.A. ’86, as her group’s mentor. Remarking that her group would congregate in Dr. Watson’s cabin to continue deep conversations or just have fun, Yoder says, “It was very evident that every faculty member there had a deep level of care and desire to make a smooth way forward for students.”
Another change was the addition of Passage “tracks.” Those students who wanted a challenging 10-day back-packing experience could still get it on the Wilderness Track. But for students who were less familiar with the outdoors, particularly for students from “urban environments where even just going to Wisconsin was a huge step,” there was the option of a camp track (“Northwoods Track”) that would include a one-or-two-day campout and a ropes course, but also granted access to electricity and showers, Vandervelde says. Later, Urban and Equestrian tracks were also added.
The Northwoods Track appealed to Jamie Warkentin McHale ’11, who enrolled in Passage “to meet friends.” She recalled watching one of the girls in her cabin grappling with fear on her ascent to the ropes course. All she had to do was clip her carabiner into the safety mechanism so she would be fully secure, but she was immobilized by the seven obstacles in front of her on the course. With the encouragement of her group below, McHale’s cabinmate hooked her carabiner and finished all seven of the obstacles.
But witnessing this led McHale to think about her own obstacles, from missing family to making new friends to getting good grades. As she watched her cabinmate, she realized: “There’s only one thing I have to do: Grab hold, trust Christ, and just go from there.”
This realization is exactly what Passage aims for its participants to experience, according to Rachael Cyrus, who became Passage Program Manager in 2015: “In the past, it was more about pushing students’ limits; today, it’s about pushing them to their limits and revealing to them support systems,” namely God, friends, upper-level student leaders, and faculty.
As evening fell over the last night of Passage 2018, the students gathered to hear Cyrus offer some parting remarks.
“You all have grown as individuals and as a community ... your personal bubbles are smaller, your voices are louder, and the relationships between you are stronger. Tonight is about reflecting on the whole of this transitional experience—from arrival until this very point.”
She then invited the students to process silently up Ski Hill, their path lit by lanterns and flanked by their student leaders. At the top, their voices joined together to sing “How Deep the Father's Love for Us” and Wheaton professor Dr. Thomas Boehm shared some thoughts about the students’ transition to college. The students then lit individual candles as a symbol of their commitment to community and spiritual habits over the course of their first year at Wheaton.
If the walk up Ski Hill was somber, the walk down was celebratory with faculty lining the way, clapping, cheering them on, and welcoming them to Wheaton College.
Selected Readings from the 50 Years of Vanguard, High Road, and Passage Programs
Man’s Search For Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy
by Viktor E. Frankl
Your God Is Too Small: A Guide for Believers and Skeptics Alike
by J.B. Phillips
Mark of the Christian
by Francis A. Schaeffer
Why Am I Afraid to Love?
by John Powell
Embracing the Love of God
by James Bryan Smith
Wheaton Passage: Introduction to Spiritual Formation
by Rachael Cyrus, Barrett McRay, and Rob Ribbe with readings from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rachael Cyrus, Jeffry Davis, Creasy Dean, Jeffrey Greenman, David Zac Niringiye, Christine Pohl, Darby Kathleen Ray, James Bryan Smith, James K. A. Smith