May 16, 2011Vol. 41, Issue 6

Outdoor Adventure Leads to Life Transformation

The course’s emphasis in the wilderness experience is on technical applications and implementing these skills in adventure programs; however, the benefits to self-knowledge, leadership, and interpersonal skills are immeasurable, say the students.

“In our everyday lives as students, we are free to do whatever we choose—when to get up, what to eat, and how to entertain ourselves,” says Josh Roden. “In the wilderness, we restricted ourselves to a certain amount of clothing, food, and activity. It was amazing that through that restriction, we got a sense of freedom. My experiences in the snow and wilderness gave me a greater appreciation for the natural world, the food we have to eat, and the water we have to drink.”

In Tahoe, the students were introduced to winter wilderness living skills, including nutrition, minimum-impact camping, snow physics, safety, medical issues, leadership skills, and environmental ethics. They learned to build snow huts, had three days of backcountry ski instruction, and learned to assess avalanche dangers. They received level-one avalanche certification for successfully completing the training.

The snow huts, called “quinzhees,” took them two days to build, were about 7 to 8 feet across, and sheltered four people. What kept them from falling in? “Good engineering,” says one of the students. They stayed in the first quinzhees for seven days, then hiked a mile and a half and built new ones.

After three intense weeks in the wilderness areas around Lake Tahoe, the group, with their professor and proctors, returned to campus for several weeks to rest, learn, and prepare for their second immersion experience in Utah. As well as preparing all of the equipment they needed to take—from tents and sleeping bags to climbing equipment and kayaks—the group planned menus and all of the food they would carry with them for two weeks.

Many of the students described how sustainability concepts became more real to them as they began drawing a direct line between people’s choices and their effect on the natural world. Spending a long period of time in nature, says Sean Altman, increased his desire to help conserve it.

“Spending time in the outdoors and seeing so much natural beauty gave me a deeper appreciation of it,” says Altman. “It made me want to preserve our large, open spaces. It made me want to consider my choices more carefully, both in how I might influence others and how what I do impacts the world around me.”

It was difficult for many of the students to come back and communicate with others who didn’t have the same experience. “It’s hard to express the depth of what happened out there,” says Adrianne Ghio. “It was about self-discovery and learning about yourself. It was about stepping outside of your comfort zone and making yourself vulnerable.”

Jordan Frank, one of the proctors (students from previous trips who serve as experienced instructors), says that he came back from his first experience with more compassion, humility, integrity, wisdom, and love for both the earth and his fellow immersion participants. “The experience somehow just makes you want to become a better person,” he says.

Professor Reid Cross, Kinesiology, who teaches Practicum in Outdoor Education, was instrumental in getting outdoor education as a degree option in kinesiology approved several years ago. It is the first one in California and, as far as Cross knows, the only one west of Colorado.

One of the methods Cross uses in his outdoor education courses is journaling to encourage self-reflection and integration of theory and practice. In the last couple of years, he has expanded this to “video journal writing,” which allows students to tell the story of their connection with nature and wild places with photos, writing, and music.

“Some of the video journals are way beyond anything I expected,” says Cross. “They have actually made people cry with their messages of self-discovery and the importance of wilderness in our lives.”

—Kathleen McPartland, Public Affairs and Publications