by Josh Baker & Molly Ames Baker|
Co-directors of Outdoor Education
What appeared to be a roving advertisement for a rainwear manufacturer approached through the early morning layer of lake mist. The mist was the sort that seemed driven by a flock of geese as it wisped and whipped its way along the water's surface; the band of people growing ever closer was the finest of kinds -- the kind with whom you would want to spend eight days in the woods, or perhaps, four years at college. Quiet laughter, gentle collisions, and occasional "shhh's" traveled to shore as the canoes came in.
This final day of Wilderness Adventure had been greeted first with the morning's breakfast of raisin and cinnamon-charged pancakes and then with mixed emotions. The day was a benchmark of sorts, both exciting and dreaded; for though the first day of the first year at Colgate was fast approaching, the trip was nearing its end. The group, White Canoeing, would soon blend in with 690 other first-year students, be swept away with orientation, roommates and RAs, and try to figure out which door of Lawrence opens onto the Quad.
Of the 157 participants in Wilderness Adventure '96, a pre-orientation program sponsored by Outdoor Education and the Dean of First-Year Students office, approximately one-third claim some type of previous camping experience. For the other 100 or so students, Wilderness Adventure serves as an introduction to "the great outdoors," or perhaps more accurately, an immersion into it; the groups of ten incoming students and two upperclass trip leaders spend seven nights out -- the first and last camping at the nearby Beattie Reserve and the middle five in the Adirondacks, either backpacking, canoeing, or both.
By reconnecting with the natural world, the participants are able to connect with each other -- in a different sort of way: learning how to light a stove (and then cooking dinner on it), consulting the map and realizing the lean-to is not just around the corner but more than a mile away, or sharing stories under the stars. These connections are the kind that, for many, make the transition into college life easier. As Lisa Mayhew '00 remarked, "I learned so much about myself -- my drive and determination and bouncing back from a hard day. I also learned how to live in the wilderness with people I've never met before. I have something in common with them and know I can always go to them if I need to." Mayhew is now one of nine students involved in the Outdoor Education Staff Training program, which began shortly after she returned from Wilderness Adventure and will continue until the end of the school year. At the completion of this intensive classroom and field-based training, Mayhew will have the opportunity to become an Outdoor Education staff member and lead one of next summer's Wilderness Adventure trips.
During the course of the training, Mayhew and her cohorts (a.k.a. trainees) will be hiking, backpacking, canoeing, winter camping, snowshoeing and telemarking, as well as rock climbing and caving in an effort to develop their technical skills in these areas. More importantly, these experiences will create opportunities for them to learn about their own judgment and decision-making skills, their strengths and weaknesses, and their roles as outdoor leaders.
Completing staff training requires a huge commitment of both time and energy -- including the sacrifice of midterm, winter and spring breaks to go on backcountry trips -- but it has many rewards. Now in his second year as a staff member, Kurt Meyer '98 reflects, "Some of the most memorable high points of staff training for me were times when I realized the significance of what
I was doing. In addition to the pure enjoyment that I received from doing the activities that we pursued, I got a real feeling of accomplishment from doing something worthwhile. The combination of the two made for a life-changing experience."
Besides leading Wilderness Adventure, Mayhew also will have the chance to lead Outdoor Education courses offered to the student body for physical education credit. Approximately 500 students take advantage of Outdoor Education P.E. courses during the academic year; some register as a means to meet the four-credit graduation requirement, while others participate to learn new skills, meet people, have fun, or "get away from it all." The course offerings are as numerous as the destinations: Hikes and Hamilton, Kayak Rolling, Outdoor Survival and Cross-Country Skiing, to name a few -- on Trainer Hill, at one of the many nearby state forests, or in the Adirondacks.
Leading P.E. courses entails more than the activity and the location, however; it involves teaching a curriculum as well. For any given course there is a basic set of objectives to be covered -- such as how to tie a figure-eight knot in rock climbing, the importance of carrying three independent light sources when caving, or the 10 essentials to be packed for a day hike. Just as important as teaching the basics, staff soon discover, is challenging yourself to go beyond -- adding your own style and passion -- to make the curriculum come alive.
Colleen Brogenski '97, a geology major, is passionate about caving and through her passion (besides developing a fondness for bats) she has become versed in the geology of cave formation; Greg Loehmann '99 has an avid interest in astronomy; Alexia Kelley '98 has studied algae and stream ecology. It is this blending of personal interests and knowledge with the standard curriculum that enables moments of teaching to happen as well.
During a hike at the Beattie Reserve (newly established on Bonney Hill, just two miles from campus), Amy Williams '98 points out the distinctive bark of the Eastern Hophornbeam tree and students take note. She also mentions that the hop played a distinctive role in Hamilton's history, with much of the land in the Chenango Valley used for hop farming in days gone by. A connection is made, a metaphor is constructed and curiosity is awakened.
When a survival course meets on Trainer Hill, Kat Weibrecht '98 and Chapin Brackett '98 are quick to make sure that the nearest source of vitamin C is recognized -- the red pine. Come midterm exams, someone from this class is sure to be found taking solace in a cup of tea made from the red pine's needles. One need not look further than the embroidered front of junior Jeff Holmes' fleece jacket to recognize the mantra of an outdoor educator: "Learn to Teach, Teach to Learn." If a common mindset were to be defined among the Outdoor Education staff, it may well be generalized in his thought: "Even as staff I haven't stopped learning. I am always continuing to grow and learn more about myself and others. I may have the ability to pass knowledge onto others through teaching, but I am the real student, always learning and growing toward a better sense of who I am."
Besides a desire to learn and to share, there is another facet to those who are attracted to Outdoor Education that may best be illustrated in the words of Thoreau -- "to suck the marrow out of life" -- to experience things firsthand and hands-on. Most often this involves some sort of adventure in the outdoors. Chad Jemison '97 confesses, "All right, I'll admit it, the emphasis that Outdoor Ed places on experiential learning, the sense of community that it creates, how it fosters respect for nature . . . oh yeah, and occasionally we're forced to go outside and have this thing called FUN -- but we kick and scream the whole time, so don't get any wrong impressions. It's really an all-encompassing basis for how I have approached my life and education here at Colgate."
Testament to this spirit is Julie Lambiotte '97, who, come graduation, will be leaving Colgate but not outdoor education. After leading three Wilderness Adventure trips and more than 11 P.E. courses she plans on pursuing a job in the field. "Through this program, my apprehensive excitement for my first camping experience (WA 1993) has evolved into an intense connection to the outdoors and a passion to share this with others, for the rest of my life. OE has provided me with indescribable friendships, invaluable life lessons and mountains of laughter. It is a place where nothing is impossible, learning is continuous, and teaching is aspired to."
It is by no mistake that Lambiotte will be able to apply many of the skills developed and experiences gained in Outdoor Education to the "real world." One of the tenets of experiential education is the notion of transfer -- taking what you learned about trust when belaying in a rock climbing course, or the need to monitor each other for signs of hypothermia when winter camping -- and generalizing it to your everyday life. Things such as patience, communication, "reading" the other group members and putting yourself in someone else's hiking boots all come to mind.
Learning the difference between yarrow and Queen Anne's Lace on Trainer Hill, how to front point crampons while ice climbing and why being proficient at the infamous j-stroke is so essential when canoeing all attract people to Outdoor Ed, and while experts we are not, introducers we are. The expanding of horizons, getting to know more people, and simply being outside in nature -- this is the stuff of which Outdoor Education is made.
When all was said and done, all rationalizations aired, all maps and guidebooks consulted, the fact remained that the group was lost. Lost in a good way, mind you, for the trail still extended in front of them. Unfortunately, it also branched off in three other likely directions. The training group had been out for three days in North Carolina's Pisgah National Forest, enjoying themselves immensely, when all of a sudden reality came into play.
Experience being the best of teachers for this sort of learning, it proved to be the last time the group was lost on this trip -- but not the last time the giddy feeling of being lost entered their minds. Maps were, from that trail junction forth, more prominently displayed and consistently checked for the remaining four days, and all campsites were found with seeming ease.
The final morning of the trips' three-day solo experiences brought with it snow and an all-day campfire at the base camp; toes warmed, stories sung, and snowballs launched. The return to the van (and civilization) proved predictably melancholy; but just before regaining the trailhead they had left seven days ago, a final "Wooa Dawg" echoed; these nine folks were now staff, and it was truly time to teach to learn and learn to teach.
Colgate Outdoor Education is housed in the Base Camp facility (a.k.a. the old ski haus) which is also home to the Outdoor Equipment Rental Center (OERC), the Resource Library, classroom space, and offices for two full-time administrators.
Programming can be divided into five main branches including staff training, wilderness adventure, physical education courses, team building and outreach events such as the Base Camp Series -- a lecture series featuring speakers with a specialized interest in and knowledge of the outdoors.
The most recent expansion in programming was this year's implementation of the Backcountry Leadership Training (BLT). Designed to complement the existing yearlong staff training program, BLT is a semester-long training for upperclass students who have previous outdoor experience.
In an effort to meet the ever-increasing and varied interests of the student body, Outdoor Education is currently in the process of developing plans for the construction of a low-ropes teambuilding course at the Beattie Reserve as well as an indoor climbing wall in Huntington Gym.
The mission of Colgate Outdoor Education is to provide the community with experiential opportunities that emphasize safety, environmental awareness, and technical skills while promoting personal growth and group development through rediscovery of the natural world.