Middle Park High’s Adventure Ed: lessons only wilderness can teach
Sky-Hi News contributor
Some lessons cannot be taught in a classroom.
Like what to do when a raft high sides onto a boulder in the middle of a rapid. Or how to set up a campsite for over 20 people while causing minimal environmental impact. Or that a classmate whom you’ve known for years, whom you passed every day in the halls at school, could become one of your closest friends.
These are the kind of lessons high school students participating in Middle Park High School’s Adventure Education program learn.
“It was a life-changing transformation,” said Suzannah Mikol, a 2011 MPHS graduate who is now a senior at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why. There is something really special about being in the wilderness with a group of people. You see yourself and others in a different way when you are separated from everyone you know and everything you have in your everyday life.”
Mikol is referring to her experience on the junior river trip, a six-day, five-night trip down the Green River through “DesoGray” (Desolation and Gray Canyons). It’s an 84-mile stretch through BLM-managed land in Eastern Utah. The river meanders through sections of flat-water and down 50-plus class II and III rapids. This year’s trip launches May 17.
Mikol was involved in other clubs like drama while she attended Middle Park High. But the Adventure Education Program left a lasting impact on her.
“It was my first real experience rafting … it was the first time that I had spent a lot of time alone in the wilderness. You have to grow in that environment,” she said.
Grand Foundation Support
Middle Park High School’s Adventure Education Program has been running river trips since 1973. East Grand’s program may be one of the longest running school-staffed programs in the state, although the Colorado Department of Education does not compile statistics on such programs.
Three dedicated school district staff members lead the program, with help from over 15 additional teachers and staff sponsors. Dozens of community volunteers offer support as well.
Volunteers donate countless hours on the water and behind the scenes, but supplemental funding is also needed to cover all the costs of equipment and permits. The goal is to keep the program attainable for all students who want to participate.
Last year, the Adventure Education Program was the secondary beneficiary of the Grand Foundation’s annual fundraising Gala held each May. The $6,000 grant paid for a new 4-stoke motor, new tents, and rain gear to check out to students on the trips. Prior to that, Grand Foundation funds replaced the fleet of aged rafts.
“We think adventure education is great for our kids,” said Megan Ledin, executive director of the Grand Foundation. “They are getting out and being a part of nature. It’s everything that our county embodies.”
With the pull of indoor entertainment in the form of electronics and gaming so strong, Ledin feels it is more important than ever to get students outdoors. A 2010 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that youth ages 8-18 devote seven-and-a-half hours a day to electronics and entertainment media. Adventure Education helps kids break that dependency.
“Healthy lifestyles for children are a huge part of the Grand Foundation,” Ledin said.
Students have the opportunity to participate in three different Adventure Education trips. The sophomore river trip is an overnight rafting trip on the upper Colorado River every September. The students participate in team-building exercises and complete a compass course.
The sophomore river trip lets students and sponsors gauge if the experience is a good fit for them. Mikol was certain that it was.
“Sophomore trip is to give you a taste of what junior river trip is like. After I went, I was even more drawn to forming this group of people alone in the wilderness for a longer period of time.”
Once Mikol left for college in New York City, she thought her days on the river were over. But she decided Manhattan wasn’t right for her. Mikol transferred to Colorado College and became a raft guide the following summer.
“I realized I had to have experiences where I could be in the woods and be alone,” she said. “It really kind of changed my trajectory.”
Mikol went on to guide on the MPHS sophomore river trip three times. After her first trip she decided to add education to her Spanish major.
“That was the first time I saw the other side. I saw that it was doing for the students the same thing that it did for me,” she said.
The junior river trip and the canyoneering trip, which is open to all grades, are scheduled for May.
Traditionally, there are two junior river trips for up to 36 students. This year, only one trip for 24 students could be scheduled. There are a few students still on the wait-list hoping for a spot.
The reason is twofold: One, the spring school calendar is packed with sports competitions and myriad tests from the mandatory PARCC to the ACT college entrance exam to Advanced Placement (AP) tests. That leaves only a one-week window in which to schedule the trip.
Secondly, the regulations and competition to use public lands are increasing. The Adventure Education staff is looking for creative ways to keep their students in the wilderness. Simultaneous trips are one possibility. The staff is also applying for a commercial river outfitters license through the state. That license may open new doors for future trips.
Mikol hopes that the program stays a priority in spite of some of the challenges.
“If it’s not the No. 1 thing at Middle Park High, it’s up there. No other school that I know of comes close to what Middle Park Adventure Ed creates. They need to see how important it really is,” she said.
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