Morning breaks, and students crawl out of their tents to wolf down slices of bread with pasty meat and cucumbers on top. Piotr, a student leader, announces, "This is the last of civilization. The next stop will be in the wilderness." The soon-to-be-freshmen smile, and some whisper in excitement. This is an adventure.
On the edge of Poland's pristine woodlands, 25 students load into kayaks. Ironically, most have never kayaked before -- or camped. Przemek (PSHEM-ik) Ciołak is one of those students. He received a college-acceptance letter from Łódź University, along with an invitation from a Christian group he'd never heard of to go on a kayaking and camping excursion with other incoming freshmen from five universities.
Przemek, who attends church with his family, but admittedly didn't think that much about God, was intrigued by the notion of exploring his country's backwoods. Plus he thought he might make friends.
However, he was cautious.
"I wanted to go so I could meet people from my university," explains the 18-year-old. "It can be dangerous though; there are many sects, cults, here in Poland."
Concern Over Cults
Since 1989, the country has experienced major social upheavals in its transition from communism to a free-market economy.
Unemployment has led to poverty in some parts, and formerly held beliefs are being questioned and rejected by Poland's young people -- a small segment of which have embraced Satanism and other alternative religions.
This prompted politicians to try to eliminate all such cults, lumping evangelicals in with the Satan worshippers.
One government report defining cults lists "Christian groups that believe they are finishing Jesus' mission."
Credibility on Campus
Yet the organization that planned the kayaking expedition had earned some credibility in Przemek's mind because the invitation had come from his university.
However, the electronics and telecommunications major was still skeptical. So he decided to investigate this group known as Ruch Akademicki Pod Prąd, the name for the campus ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ in Poland.
Though commonly just called Pod Prąd, the full name means "Student Movement Against the Tide."
He visited Pod Prąd's Web site and viewed pictures of college students from previous kayaking trips rowing and splashing, eating and talking. Nothing appeared weird to him -- only fun.
"Many students think Protestantism is a cult," explains Bartek Serkowski, a Pod Prąd staff member in the city of Gdańsk.
Bartek himself accepted Christ 12 years ago when a Pod Prąd staff member knocked on his residence-hall door and presented the gospel to him. "Now, that method is ineffective in Poland," says Bartek, adding, "People think that is cultish."
Staff member Przemysław Lewiński developed something out of the ordinary to interest Polish college students in the good news of Jesus. Przemysław, who earned his degree in outdoor recreation, established the kayaking trips down the Wda ("Vdah") River.
"The students want to be active, so we want to fulfill this need they naturally have," he explains, adding, "The need of knowing Jesus is usually hidden deeper in their hearts. It's much easier to help people explore this need when they are in nature and kayaking."
So Pod Prąd worked with five universities in Poland to get the news out to incoming freshmen. Even if students don't attend, Pod Prąd's letter helps to erode any unfounded connection to a cult among students.
Przemek, the student, was convinced. With dreams of being active, exploring, he rode a train more than seven hours just to join the trip.
On the first day, he and 24 other students (20 freshmen and five upperclass Pod Prąd student leaders) stake claim to a small plot of land to build his tent. After a propane-cooked chicken, rice and vegetable dinner, Pod Prąd staff members instruct the students on how to paddle a kayak.
At 9 p.m. everyone gathers around a campfire to play get-to-know-you games, like "I've Never..." The students laugh as they tell of things they've never done before, like drive a car, or swim in the Baltic Sea, or use the luxury of an automatic dishwasher, or visit the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, the Polish capital.
Midnight quickly approaches. The students don't care. They can zip themselves into their tents at any time. They are still getting to know one another as they roast kielbasas and toast bread over the fire.
A new day breaks, and they load into the green boats. Occasionally they pass a fisherman or even a dairy farmer, but nobody exchanges smiles with the strangers, for in Polish culture the only reason to smile is if someone spots a friend.
The students smile and laugh with each other.
After kayaking nearly half the 11 miles scheduled, they take their first break. Przemek and his new friend Marta row their kayak to the shore, then scale the muddy incline. Once on top, he bops a volleyball around with others, and then eats his lunch.
While he eats, he talks with his peers. He's making lots of friends.
Some of those friends are in his assigned discussion group -- one of five clusters led by the five Christian student leaders. Every day before or after they kayak, they gather and talk about preparing for college, about studying and about God.
Przemek's group leader tells them about the time he was just a churchgoer who didn't have a personal relationship with Jesus. He explains how he met Jesus and how knowing Him has influenced his life.
Przemek listens. He's intrigued. He knew this kayaking trip would include content about God, but he just didn't know it would be like this.
"We talked about God and our relationship with Him. If there is no God, our lives are going bad. It's good to hear that, because many of us didn't think that much about Him before," he says.
On day three, the group plans to kayak 33 kilometers -- roughly 21 miles. They row and row and row. They paddle under a condemned bridge probably destroyed during World War II, but nobody comments. They're used to seeing castles, churches and villages in ruins, dating back to when their neighbors on both sides -- Germany and Russia -- invaded their country generations ago.
Przemek's cell phone rings. It's his girlfriend. But he has to keep up since he's already at the end of the line. So he doesn't answer.
They paddle past a dam. Arm muscles burn, and just when some think they cannot go on much longer, they kayak for another kilometer or two or three.
No one ever complains, though. It's part of the adventure.
Przemek admits he didn't know the kayak trip would be this much work, but he says, "I love the challenge."
Kayak and Karaoke
A small group of guys, instigated by two of the student leaders, begins singing Polish '70s music as they go around a bend. Soon all the kayakers within earshot are chanting to the tune.
In one kayak, Wiola, a Pod Prąd staff member, talks with a student about the time when she met Jesus personally and asked Him to be her Savior. The student listens as he paddles with her and asks how Wiola can know God in such a way.
Though the staff members prepared specific times to discuss God by the campfire, they delight in every chance to talk about Him comfortably.
Finally they reach their destination -- sort of.
They dock the boats on the shore near a dam. After 21 miles of pushing through relatively still waters, they must now walk a mile to reach their campsite.
No one cares -- it's part of what makes it fun. And they are just glad to be done for the day, looking forward to more games by the campfire.
On the last day of the trip, the students fill out a survey about the excursion. Przemek only expresses positive feelings: He met friends, learned to kayak, and talked about God in a not-uncomfortable way.
He's now going to college, but not alone. He knows 20 other students who are questioning the same things about God: "I am very, very happy and optimistic. I have never seen these people before, and now I have new friends. I feel like a family, a huge family."
Przemek didn't make a decision to follow Christ yet, but he's thinking more about Him. He is determined to attend the Pod Prąd meetings at Łódź University.
After all, he wants to see his new friends, see the pictures of the trip, and learn more about this man named Jesus.