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SEP. 19, 2014

Rendezvous on the River

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“Two trains leave stations 180 miles apart on the same track heading towards one another. One is traveling 40 mph, the other 30 mph.  When will they meet? Where will they meet?…”

Challenging American high school sophomores with this type of question has prevailed through the decades. Last week at OA, our students explored it in full experimental mode and answered these questions: Do textbook systems of equations actually work out in real life?  Can we apply the properties of substitution and linear combination to our local river with OA students paddling as our variables?

In OA fashion, instead of trains, we took to the French Broad in canoes. The problem we focused on was this… If two boats start a certain distance apart, one team paddling upstream and the other downstream, how long will it take them to meet?  How far will each boat travel before they meet?

The day opened with students creating their own hypothesis of this rendezvous location by observing the river current, staring and ending locations, and standing where they thought two boats, traveling towards one another would meet.  This hypothesis forming was followed by lots of practice of fractions using physical objects: boats, paddles, humans, and whistles. This prepped students for figuring out the average rate of downstream travel and upstream travel for the student body of Semester 39.  It was quite exciting to watch pairs students use their strength, calm minds, and determination to paddle tandem whitewater canoes upstream against the current with an audience timing them. The current was so strong that a few pairs even found negative rates of upstream travel, which only made our calculations more exciting! At lunch, Jess taught the community a very fun, upbeat rowing song from South Africa and another equally beautiful sailing song. A small group of students bravely stepped into the middle of the circle to lead the whole community in song.

Then, we were all back into the math problem at hand. Students broke out into class groups and used matrices, substitution, and graphing to solve the system of equations we had derived earlier in the day. The students discovered that the distance and time that would pass before the two boats met found with all three of these methods of math was only one second off from when they ran the experiment on the river themselves!  Their accuracy in data collection and their consistency in paddling was incredible.

While celebrating the students’ tenacity in working almost an entire day on solving a single problem, we readily discussed the different variables that can influence data collection. Some of these variables include: student energy levels changing the strength of their stroke, river currents changing over the course of the day, or a boat taking a curved versus straight path up the river! Despite these possible variations, Semester 39 was extraordinarily close to their calculations as they paddled towards one another in real time, and surprised both themselves and faculty with both their paddling and mathematical skills.  It was a rendezvous worth the trip!

Laura Krauss
Math Teacher, Wilderness Leader




SEP. 18, 2014

Standing Down the Coyotes

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“Hoooooooowl!”  we called into the foggy air.

“Hoooooooowl!” came the immediate answer several feet above us.

“I see one,” Katie M. whispered.

Over the edge of the hill, a furry gray face appeared: coyote. I turned and looked down the trail at the long string of Semester 39 students, silent and very still.

Long bodies, thick gray tails, unmistakably wild, these coyotes were among some of the healthiest I’ve ever seen. It is unusual to hear a pack during the daytime on our campus ridgelines, but as the students and I sat around a fire in discussion, we were interrupted by the sound of the wild. We greeted them in like kind and were rewarded for our efforts in hearing their calls back to us, seeing them run up and down the ridgeline, before disappearing into the rhododendron.

This was during our first Cornerstone Day—an academic interdisciplinary experience each Friday that honors our four cornerstones of Intellect, Environment, Craft, and Community. In our efforts to explore what it means to live well, these cornerstones are at the heart of what we do. And Cornerstone Day is at the heart of what classes at OA are all about—experiential education, connectivity, collaboration, community.

On this day, we took our cue from Thoreau’s famous passage that begins with the words, “I went to the woods because…” We went on a silent hike, pondering why humans go into the wilderness. We encountered several authors and scientists wandering the forest, also struggling with this very question (cameo appearances by our own staff dressed in character as Abbey, Dillard, Darwin, Thoreau, Colinvaux, and Walker). After these surreal meetings, we spent time in discussion, staff and students alike, about what draws us to nature, time and time again. But the most powerful part of the day for me was the most unexpected—a visit from the pack.

As we discussed this question of why we go into the woods, I was reminded by the coyotes that no matter our expectations and plans for personal ventures into the woods, nature will have the unexpected to offer us, moments beautiful and glorious, disturbing or scary, but always moments that lift us outside of ourselves for a moment — and into an awareness of the wider world around us, largely unknown. It is a gift to greet that world, or stand it down, with your own pack.

Katie Harris
English, Dean of Academics

SEP. 17, 2014

Reflections from Paddle-Climb

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The students from Semester 39 have embarked on their first of three-whitewater paddling and rock climbing weekends.  This was a chance for students to experience their first taste of stepping outside their comfort zone, paddling the local French Broad River and rock climbing at famous Looking Glass Rock in Pisgah National Forest.

The reason why we paddle and climb at the Outdoor Academy goes much deeper than simply being something fun to do.  Open boat whitewater paddling provides students a chance to communicate and work with their partner in the bow or stern, relying on them to catch eddy lines, and not tip their canoe.  Historically, Cherokee used tulip poplar trees to make dugout canoes they utilized on the French Broad River as a source for trading and travel, so we are also connecting students to a deeper understanding of the rivers and land around them. Rock climbing creates a space to develop teamwork, communication, and trust. Students, who are belaying each other literally have their peer’s lives in their hand, and they must trust one another to catch them if they “fall.”  Students can relate this to their social and academic world at OA whenever they have to catch their peers, keep them climbing higher, and hold them accountable for their actions.

Living in a community takes a lot of work and intention, as Semester 39 is coming to realize!  How students turn the stress they feel on top of a rock face or paddling a large rapid into comfort will be critical not only to their success here at OA, but life in general. Wilderness instructors at OA help students process and harness this power. The stresses of this adventurous weekend included overcoming a fear of heights and a lightning storm that quickly came upon the paddlers, requiring them to get off the river and into lightning position for over an hour!  As students are able to overcome these few instances, there is no telling what they will be able to accomplish while at OA.

We will continue to push our students outside of their comfort zone and work with them to connect to the land in which we recreate.  Stay in touch for updates on more weekend long trips, where the rock faces will be much taller and the rapids will be much bigger, similar to how we build up the semester for the students.

Lucas Newton
Outdoor Programs Manager

DEC. 23, 2013


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Many alumni use their OA experience as the topic for their college application essay. Here’s one great example from Hannah Helmey, Semester 34:

I can pinpoint the moment it truly dawned on me: while struggling to carry my weight and a forty-pound backpack up a mountain while leading eight other people, I felt discouraged, nervous, and frustrated. The mountain towered over my exhausted body, barely held up by puny, cramping leg muscles. I remembered what I had been told about leading a group in an extroverted world, and I strove to harness my own quiet power. To do this I would have to throw off the yoke of fear and self-doubt that had shadowed me for too long.

Like so many stories, it started with simple boredom. I was tired of monotony. I craved adventure, excitement, an escape from the suburbs. Opportunity arose in the form of the Outdoor Academy: a semester-long boarding school located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. The idea had hovered in the back of my mind for years, but only in the summer before my tenth grade year did I seriously consider attending. On the drive back to Atlanta after a trip to the mountains, I watched the old Appalachians fade into a blue haze before the land eventually flattened out, and I knew I wanted to stay. The Outdoor Academy, or OA, is based on experiential education and teaches wilderness, leadership, and community skills while providing a rigorous education. My decision to go was based on a love of nature, a desire to meet like-minded people, and to have a unique academic experience. Of course, choosing to pack up and leave home for four months was one of the hardest decisions I have made, but it is one I have never regretted. The choice was fraught with fear and confusion, and it made me realize something I had never before noticed: I was a coward. To make real progress, I would need to step out of my comfort zone. I did, and in the process learned about my unknown capacity for bravery, wildness, and leadership.

I arrived at OA a frightened girl, and by the end had grown into a resilient, capable young woman. Whether it was through trying new foods like kale or fresh rabbit, rappelling down a cliff face, or speaking up in class, every day provided an opportunity to test my endurance and learn about my own abilities. The ceaseless encouragement by my peers and faculty mentors allowed me to see various truths I had never known: others could see the potential I was blind to, there was no need to hold back for fear of judgment, and it was better to live free and slightly embarrassed than weighed down by heavy regrets. There is an obvious bravery in climbing mountains and confronting one’s peers, but courageousness can be seen in smaller things too—dressing up for no occasion, running down a hill screaming at the moon, and squishing one’s toes deep into the mud. For some, letting loose is a skill that has to be taught. To accomplish life’s great achievements, the little moments are just as essential as the big.

The next step in my self-discovery was to embrace the inner wild. Each generation continues to seek and invent new thrills—through cars, roller coasters, or the Internet. Many do not realize that the greatest thrill—and the greatest peace—can be found in Earth’s natural landscape. I saw herds of elk roaming, ran barefoot through the woods, and spent a solitary day and night at my own creek-side campsite. These experiences stripped my life to its simple core. Under the pines and rhododendrons of those misty hills, I felt the truth I had blinded myself to before. To be wild is to be free.

Summiting that mountain led to the discovery of my own leadership abilities. At the top, I recalled the fear and cautiousness that had plagued me before, and I promised myself I would not be scared anymore—scared of my friends, my education, my future, and, most importantly, myself.

NOV. 21, 2013

Buffalo Cove

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This past weekend, the students ventured outside of the more familiar Pisgah Forest and up into the windy mountain ranges of the “high country.” Their destination: Buffalo Cove Outdoor Education Center, nestled deep in the hollers close to Boone, North Carolina: a place where pens and paper serve no purpose save to record and remember ancient techniques that have been passed down for countless generations. Leaving their calculators and books back at OA, the students instead laced up their boots, threw on some warm layers, grabbed their sharp knives, and prepared for what would become a truly wondrous and eye-opening experience.

For their entire tenure here at The Outdoor Academy, the students practice living and coexisting in a community with each other, and this past weekend, they learned even more of the skills necessary to coexist with the natural world all around them. With only a knife and a few other tools, the students learned primitive techniques for constructing shelters, tracking and trapping animals, building fires, and cooking without stoves. At Buffalo Cove, the students were not be allowed to use a lighter to start a fire, but instead were required to use the primitive method of “fire by friction.” This approach to fire building uses only the friction created from an ancient piece of technology, known as a bow drill, to start a coal, which is then used to ignite separate pieces of wood. This was only one of the many exciting challenges students faced this last weekend. Other tasks included tracking their peers through the woods, cooking venison stew over a fire, and building trails as part of a work crew.


In an era where our continued dependence on fossil fuels is unsustainable, we, as inhabitants of this earth, must once again learn how to live in harmony with our natural world. It is crucial for new generations of young adults to learn the effects fossil fuels have on our environment and to also learn the hard skills and techniques required to live and exist with as little impact as possible. This I believe, more than anything else, is probably the most important education one can ever receive.

Justin Baker
Music Teacher

NOV. 19, 2013

Giving Day Approaches

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At The Outdoor Academy we enjoy joking around quite a bit, but there is one thing that we take very seriously: Giving Day. The last full day of the semester is Giving Day. During one of our first meetings together in September as a new community, each person, students and faculty alike, drew a name from a bowl. This represented the person that would receive a very special, individualized, hand-crafted gift from you. Once we pulled the name of our giving day recipient from the jar and burned it onto our minds, it is tradition to then eat that piece of paper so that no one will ever have a chance of finding out who it is. This mission is top secret!

As I sat there chewing on my piece of paper, I began to feel very anxious about that distant date. I am one who is very artistically challenged. Gifts that people have made in the past include knitted scarves or hats, pictures with homemade frames, carved stools or spoons, and hooks made at the forge. What in the world was I going to make? I decided I would focus my efforts on getting to know my person and perhaps the perfect gift idea would reveal itself in the process. Who is it, you ask? That’s classified information.


That once distant date is now fast approaching. Many of the students’ choice periods and free time is spent crafting that special creation. Around campus you can see stained glass projects, yarn destined to be hats and scarves, and wooden spoons that started from a block of wood. Some days you can even smell the forge. Everyone has been busy learning a new skill or perfecting a natural gift. I cannot wait to see what everyone has made for each other, but this comes with the sad realization that the end of semester 37 is also fast approaching. However, I am thankful for the few remaining weeks we have with these students.

Jen Hilterman
Math Teacher