by Jill Nisbett, 2007 OE W.I.L.D. Semester Student
Why the W.I.L.D. Semester?
I made my final decision to participate in the WILD Semester as I was spending my first summer working as a sherpa (trip leader) at La Vida, Gordon's outdoor expedition program in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. At that time, I was extremely new to the outdoor education world, but immediately found that I loved it. I really wanted to invest myself more in the field of outdoor education, so it seemed logical and exciting to think about spending an entire semester learning about something that meant so much to me. I was especially excited about our trip through the Wilderness Education Association (WEA) and all that I would learn through it.
The Trip Itself:
As part of my semester, I had an incredible opportunity to participate in a WEA trip in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. I was so excited for this trip for many reasons; one reason was that I wanted to improve the outdoor skills I already had and also learn some new ones. I was also looking forward to spending time out west, an area of the country where I had never hiked before. As a person who loves the outdoors, I have a thirst for adventure, and was anxiously awaiting what our expedition would bring our group.
Our instructor team consisted of three people: Mat Erpelding, our head instructor who works for the WEA, and our two apprentice instructors, Nate Hausman, who teaches two of our classes this semester; and Matt Loy, the RD of the program. These guys put so much work into designing a course that would set up us students for success. They worked tirelessly to make wise decisions, helped us with our assignments, and also taught some incredible classes on different outdoor skills, human skills, and educational skills. These lessons helped to prepare us for some key tasks of our trip--leadership days and our own teaching topics.
Going into my leadership days I felt both nervous and excited. I was nervous because my abilities would be stretched and I was still unsure as to how far and in what ways that would occur, but I was excited because there is something about a challenge that makes me want to rise to the occasion and put forth all my effort to make it something valuable. My leadership days turned out to be some of the most challenging days on the trip. One co-leader and I got lost and had to make a difficult decision as a result; on my other leadership day, my co-leader and I faced some challenging weather conditions and also had to make some major decisions throughout the entire day. However, I learned some priceless lessons from these experiences that I will carry into future outdoor leadership responsibilities and into other areas of my life as well.
In addition to doing two leadership days, each student was also responsible for teaching a twenty-minute lesson and an hour-long lesson. Since being a good teacher is key in effective outdoor leadership, these lessons were major learning experiences. I surprised myself on my teaching days; I had a lot more fun teaching than I expected and probably learned more than I actually taught. I learned so much about ways to improve my communication and teaching skills and also found that by teaching a lesson, I learned that material really well. If I had to do my lessons over again I would change a lot of things, but I also look forward to future opportunities where I might be able to do so.
Outdoor skills are foundational in successful and safe outdoor leadership, and were things we practiced every day on our trip. Mat, our instructor, constantly stressed the importance of navigation skills. Our group became proficient in identifying our location on a map based on our surroundings and would often use just a map as our guide while traveling off-trail. We also learned to use a compass with the purpose of finding a bearing and triangulating. Leadership days provided us with real-life experiences to practice and hone these skills.
From this trip I have taken away lessons in decision-making, risk management, and intentionality. Decision-making is one of the key points of the WEA curriculum; if a leader understands his or her own abilities as well as those of the group, and the situation at hand, then they can make accurate decisions to avoid unsafe situations, or safely get a group out of unsafe conditions. Risk management ties into decision-making because it is a way in which decisions are carried out. On my trip, risk management was broken down into a concept of site management, and our group learned an entire philosophy of how to maintain control and safety in a variety of different situations. Another key lesson was intentionality. Our group was constantly challenged to consider why we were doing things; in doing so we learned to keep our leadership dynamic, rather than getting stuck in a rut of doing what we always had done.
Our group came into the trip having already lived together for about three weeks. There were some close friendships within the group, but many of us did not know each other beyond surface-level. Throughout our days hiking on the trail, shared experiences with our cook groups, and working together through challenging circumstances, our group came to function at a really high level. Prior to the last week of our trip our instructors gave us the task of planning out the last six days of our itinerary; at this point our group was able to take even more ownership of the trip and practice some of the skills we had been learning. Throughout the entire trip we developed a lot of trust, and our common ground of faith strengthened our community.
After our WEA course was officially over, we got to spend two days doing a rock climbing camp, where we learned to set up top-rope anchors. I had previously done a lot of belaying at rock climbs, but had never actually set up the anchors before. At our climbing camp we got to climb on some of the anchors we had put into the rocks and learned some rappelling techniques, too. The skills that we learned at climbing camp are foundational in pursuing more knowledge about many different aspects of rock climbing and are essential for outdoor leaders to know.
by Andrea Reiley, 2007 OE W.I.L.D. Semester Student
Strength is Found in Community:
The WEA trip is an amazing opportunity to live as one with nature, but also to learn how to live as one with others within a community. The primitive and sometimes uncomfortable living situation presented in the outdoors often succeeds in drawing a group closer together. Our group was fairly close to begin with, but more in a superficial way, and throughout trip I could distinctly see us drawing more into a tight-knit community. I know that the trip caused me to look to others for strength at times, and now I look at them in a different light. The WEA trip draws out the strengths and weaknesses of each individual and this allowed me to gain a greater respect for each person.
Great Lessons Were of an Abundance:
At one point in trip, during my first of two leadership days, we stopped along the trail to do an amazing site management lesson. Our head instructor, Mat Erpelding, had found an amazing boulder field and took the opportunity and time to teach us experientially the ins and outs of site management. Safety, I learned, should always be the number one priority of a WEA trip, and site management is understanding the hows involved with making a trip safe. We videotaped two different scenarios within the boulder field and just had a good time learning first hand about this important topic.
We got a lot of snow and wild weather systems while in the field, but despite the discomfort and challenges caused by these, they taught me a lot. It's really difficult to make it almost a month in the woods without going crazy, and inclement weather makes it even more difficult, but it also caused the group to draw closer together. I witnessed a very purposeful care for others when the challenges were high. People really started to look out for each other and check-in with real interest and care. Weather conditions may not have been ideal, but they caused our group to become more ideal in our treatment and consideration for each other.
Food was something I was really worried about coming into trip, but my fears quickly subsided when I saw the rations we would be carrying into the field. I never pictured baking being easy and a relief while in the field, but it proved to be just so. The entire group surprised me as we successfully made bread, pancakes, brownies and many more delicacies. I never thought I would be sitting in the middle of the woods flipping pancakes, but it happened and kept us fed and happy.
Most importantly We Had Fun:
Yes, it was an academic course and learning was always happening, but we all found time to have some fun and get in a good laugh. There were opportunities to explore and see new sights, and we just enjoyed being in each others company. I found it such a relief to be with people who were understanding and willing to laugh about stuff as well. Singing at night was one of my highlights and I loved the attitude of the group and how they wanted to find joy in every situation.
by Tricia Chan, 2007 OE W.I.L.D. Semester Student
The WILD Semester (formerly known as the Immersion semester in Outdoor Education) was an experience of a lifetime. Throughout this program my fellow immersioners and I learned a mixture of technical skills as well as history and philosophy of the outdoor education field. Combined with an adventure to Wyoming, a beautiful house in Gloucester and a bomber group of 12 students, it created unforgettable memories.
To kick it off, orientation began at the La Vida base camp in the Adirondack Mountains. While getting to know each other and the program, we took advantage of local resources like Jay Mountain, the Adirondack Loj, the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, and the infamous Lumberjack restaurant.
Throughout the semester we had the opportunity to learn from many key figures in the outdoor education field. Orientation included a workshop by Jack Drury, the author of our textbook, The Backcountry Classroom.
After the Adirondacks, our next initiative was moving into the Immersion house, located in Gloucester, MA with its own dock right on the Annisquam River. We lived, learned, played, danced, and cooked all in our very own mansion. Outside we had a tidal river, kayaks, a sandbar (at low tide), a fire pit, a pear tree, and our own beach to explore. Low tide was always an adventure.
After a few weeks settling into the house and preparing for the trip, we were off on our expedition to Wyoming's Wind River Range!
Our expedition took place through the Wilderness Education Association (WEA), a leading organization in training professional outdoor educators. Our instructor Mat Erpelding (Merp) and his two apprentices Nate Hausman and Matt Loy, guided us on our 24-day expedition, teaching and sharpening our technical, educational, human, and management skills as outdoor educators in the making.
The WEA trip focused on an 18-point curriculum, covering topics like weather, geology, decision making, judgment, navigation, trip planning, health and sanitation, travel techniques, environmental ethics, basic camping skills, and even backcountry baking! The students were responsible for two teaching topics each, given during our leadership days on trip. Our classrooms were far superior to any library room.
At the end of trip we had a three day rock camp in Sinks Canyon where we learned the logistics of setting up rock climbs and rappels, and then got to climb.
After trip, we settled back into our Gloucester house and resumed our other classes. During a workshop with Project Adventure, we learned advanced skills and techniques of challenge courses, including aspects like facilitation, course maintenance, and safe rescue of climbers up on the high ropes course.
Though the trip was over, we continued to have adventures throughout the semester, whether it was skiing up in Maine, Frisbee on the sandbar, soccer down the road, baking experiments with Zack and Karen, Christmas tree decorating, or badminton out in our yard.
Our group was a collection of very different students; some with experience leading wilderness trips already, some completely new to the field, some with definite interest in being outdoor educators, and some not so sure. We all had different reasons for entering the semester, but that difference only added to the program. The semester introduced us to a wide range of outdoor education opportunities, and was flexible enough to cater to each student's interest.
The community that grew out of our intentional living and learning situation was amazing. I feel overwhelmingly privileged to have been a part of such a unique program. I leave the semester with a clearer understanding of my role in outdoor education, a desire to put into practice new knowledge, unforgettable memories, and a lot of good friends.