Pristine local harbors. Dense Eastern forests. Granite ridgelines. These are the places Avalon Natural Connections uses as its classroom. Your own two feet, your hands, your capable mind. These are tools that will help you discover your ties to the natural world, as well as your own strengths, during our two-week experiential program.

“Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” -Joseph Campbell

Our ethos in Avalon Natural Connections is that we sometimes need to disconnect from our busy, scheduled lives in order to unlock and connect with the leaders and strong individuals waiting to emerge in all of us. The natural world provides us with the perfect backdrop to explore what we truly value; through exploration we can return home to a more grounded version of ourselves.

Successful candidates will demonstrate an earnest interest in exploring the outdoors (regardless of experience) and in learning about their own leadership potential in a unique and cooperative setting.

The program was created in 2007 by Avalon Nature Preserve director Katharine Griffiths and local educators Doug Elliot and Steve Gessler. While Avalon Natural Connections has evolved during the past decade, our mission has remained constant-a deep commitment to help teens connect with the natural world surrounding them.

Week One: On-Island

During our first week, participants will spend the bulk of their time on the water. We will spend our first day forming connections with our new-found friends through a rigorous orienteering program in the park. This bonding day is always a group favorite and will give you a chance to learn and explore the topography and trails of Avalon Nature Preserve.

The remainder of the week will take us adventuring through our varied local waterways. While our island can certainly seem overcrowded and confining at times, being waterbound certainly has its advantages; Brookhaven has hundreds of miles of shoreline and we will take you exploring in several of our favorite harbors. With our focus on water safety and padding instruction, we will help you gain confidence and proficiency in your own abilities to go out on your own aquatic travels. Participants will have the opportunity to develop both kayaking and stand-up paddling proficiency. Our hope is that you will not only learn to explore our waterways, but that you will also be inspired to become stewards in protecting these local natural gifts.

Week Two: Off-Island

While Avalon firmly believes in being grounded to our familiar landscapes, we also recognize the intrinsic value in travelling away from our places of comfort to challenge ourselves and enrich our lives.

Week two will take us to the granite state of New Hampshire to hike and ramble through the spectacular White Mountains. With the highest peaks on the in the Northeast, the Whites will allow you to explore deep forests, boulder-strewn mountain sides and spectacular ridgelines. A short five hour drive from the Port Jefferson ferry brings us to a landscape that is both breathtaking and challenging. Staying in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s hiker lodging, we will set out each day to new hikes and adventures.

While participants need not have any hiking experience, they will certainly need to be physically active in the months leading up to the program, as typical hiking days will range between five and ten miles. We will spend time discussing proper hike planning, group dynamics, appropriate gear, map skills and other essential things to keep in mind when heading out on trail.

T.S. Eliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” As you return to Long Island from your mountain travels, Avalon is sure that you will come to see your own environment with new appreciation and respect.

Use the form to apply for Avalon Natural Connections



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What are the important dates for this program?

  • Online application opens: March 1
  • Online application closes: March 31
  • Shortlist letters mailed: April 15
  • Interviews: TBD
  • Acceptance letters mailed: TBD
  • Program dates: July 6-18

What gear do participants need?

Participants will need varying gear depending on location.


  • Comfortable clothing
  • Shoes that you can be active in


  • Swimsuit
  • Shoes that can get wet
  • T-Shirt
  • Shorts
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat


  • Sleeping bag liner – 3 season is fine
  • Sleeping pad – we suggest a therma-rest or something similar (available at REI, EMS or Dicks Sporting Goods)
  • Hiking boots/shoes (preferably broken in to avoid blisters)
  • Day pack
  • 2 pair shorts, I pair pants (preferably a quick drying material)
  • T-shirts
  • Socks (preferably a light weight wool – not cotton)
  • Fleece pullover
  • Wool hat
  • Lightweight waterproof jacket

Where can I purchase the gear needed for the program?

Gear needed for the program can be found online and in-store at the following retailers:

Meet Steve

Steve Gessler has been teaching high school science since 1999. He is an avid conservationist and outdoor enthusiast. Mr. Gessler has been teaching Earth Science and AP Environmental Science at Smithtown High School East. At school Mr. Gessler is the leader of the Earth & Outdoors Club, a club devoted to hiking and outdoors activities centered around environmental awareness.

In 2007 he co-founded the Natural Connections program along with Katharine Griffiths and Doug Elliot.

Meet Doug

Doug Elliot has been teaching and coaching in the Three Village Central School District for 27 years. Doug co-founded our Natural Connections program with Katharine and Steve over a decade ago and has enjoyed sharing his passion for the outdoors with Avalon’s campers.

An avid hiker and paddler, Doug’s travels have taken him far and wide, but he has never lost his true connection to Long Island’s natural landscapes-a connection he strives to foster in all of our Natural Connections participants. You may even hear him play his bagpipes when we travel to the mountains!

Meet Katharine

Katharine Griffiths is the director of Avalon Park and Preserve in Stony Brook, NY. Originally from Canada, Katharine has spent the last 20 years working on the design, construction and maintenance of the park. She has served on numerous village and community environmental boards and enjoys the challenge of balancing conservation efforts with economic and development needs. Katharine is an avid traveler and has hiked extensively though New Zealand, Australia, Africa and the Himalayas. She hopes to inspire young minds to travel and be active members in their communities.

Email Kathy