After about a five-year hiatus, the “Wilderness Education” course at Western Carolina University returned this spring, giving 10 students the unique experience of learning in a wilderness environment.
The expedition-style course is designed to give students the confidence and proficiency to design and implement a minimum seven-day wilderness expedition. They are encouraged to develop their own teaching and leadership style, and their personal philosophy about backcountry ethics, said Andrew Bobilya, associate professor of parks and recreation management.
After a full day of workshops at WCU that centered on preparing the necessary gear and food for their journey, the students were taken to the trailhead at Steels Creek in Pisgah National Forest near Linville Gorge on May 12 to begin their nine days in the wilderness. The adventure included rock climbing and rappelling and a two-day journey without instructors that ended at the base of Mount Mitchell, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River. Afterwards, each student received “outdoor leader” national certification from the Wilderness Education Association.
“It was the longest wilderness experience that I’ve personally had, so it was really good to just kind of get used to being out there for longer than a few nights,” said sophomore parks and recreation management major Caitlin Hines of Waynesville. “If you’re uncomfortable, you really have to learn how to make yourself comfortable. It was really helpful to have a longer experience because there was more time to practice the skills and not just learn them for a day or two, but to really have to apply them – like keeping your food safe, conserving energy while traveling, and making your own food.”
The course began at WCU more than 22 years ago and was originally taught by Maurice Phipps, a parks and recreation management professor who now is in phased retirement, and Paul Petzoldt, founder of the WEA. Over the years, it became increasingly difficult to find faculty who had the time to lead the course, resulting in it no longer being offered, Bobilya said. He took on the role this year as the course returned.
“There’s a lot of excitement around campus about the opportunities and about the focus in the areas of outdoor pursuits and adventure programming,” Bobilya said. “People are very interested in how we can capitalize on the access that we have to such great natural resources around us.”
Prior to the expedition, students met once in March and once in April for pre-trip meetings in which they got to know each other, while also learning about clothing, equipment and physical preparation. In addition to learning backcountry camping skills during the journey, each day a different student was chosen to be the leader. The leader would develop a lesson plan on two topics to teach the other students, while also navigating the day’s course and choosing when to eat, when to take a break, and where to pitch camp. The leader also received feedback from the others.
The students learned how to overcome obstacles such as a situation that occurred on their seventh day, one that included lots of mileage and continuous rain. They arrived at the spot they planned to pitch camp for the night, only to find it was occupied, forcing them to find another location.
The students put their newly learned skills to the test during the final two days and two nights as they spent the last leg of the expedition combing the Black Mountain range without instructors and ending at the base of Mount Mitchell.
“It’s really a culminating challenge, a chance for them to shine, so to speak,” Bobilya said. “They also feel a freedom, versus earlier in the course where there’s more structure. There’s a lot of feedback and processing the experience. To be left alone for a few days in some fairly strenuous terrain – it’s just a great chance for them to test themselves.”
After the students rejoined Bobilya, the entire group climbed to the top of Mount Mitchell before ending its journey with a meal at the Mount Mitchell State Park restaurant. The students returned to WCU feeling a sense of accomplishment, Hines said.
“Just to get to the end of it, it was like, ‘Wow, I really can do this,’ ” she said. “By the end of the trip, we were on top of Mount Mitchell and everyone was crying because we were so happy we were there and it was so beautiful. It was such a huge accomplishment, and to know that you finished it by yourselves, too, you felt really, really successful. And you have a skill that you can apply to life, too.”
Bobilya’s satisfaction came from the unintended lessons the students learned.
“The students tended to talk in great detail about how wonderful it was just to get out into nature and spend time away from their cell phone and computer,” Bobilya said. “They were in awe of the beauty in our region. Many of them grew up around here, but no one on the trip had been on a backpacking trip that long and many of them had not been to the Linville Gorge area. We just kept hearing comments like, ‘I can’t believe this is just two hours down the road from campus. I can’t believe this is North Carolina.’
“There was a lot of personal growth for the students in areas that I think both they and the instructors were surprised at. It was just a chance to slow down and step back and live with a small group of people for 10 days in the wilderness. It was really sweet.”