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JAN. 26, 2016

Semester 42 Comes Out Swinging

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Arrington McCoy, Dean of Students

Semester 42 students began their time at The Outdoor Academy with a three-day trek that featured evening temperatures in the single digits. Just days after returning from their bone chilling backpacking trip, a big snowstorm left campus blanketed in white. Needless to say, it’s been an eventful start to the semester.

The four cornerstones of The Outdoor Academy program are: Environment, Intellect, Craft and Community. There’s nothing quite like adversity to showcase that each of these areas are relevant and necessary. Semester 42 students, while fresh to this experience, are already proving to be exemplars of these core values that weave into all that we do at The Outdoor Academy.

Ted, who has been teaching at The Outdoor Academy since it was founded, mentioned last week that this already feels like a very successful semester. His barometer, honed over 41 prior semesters, is student volunteerism, and this group has that quality in spades. As the winter weather approached, we stacked giant piles of wood for our wood stoves, we filled auxiliary water tanks in case the power went out rendering our electric pump useless, and we stockpiled our pantry. And each time one of these additional chores cropped up, hands went up to volunteer to help faster than the blink of an eye.

The beauty of working at a place like The Outdoor Academy is that you get to surround yourself with students who want to be at your school, in spite of–or perhaps more accurately because of–all that they give up by choosing to be part of this program. Students who come to The Outdoor Academy give up their phones, computers, Internet connection and canned music. They give up personal space and agree to live in a cabin with up to ten other people. They give up free reign over the refrigerator, in favor of family style meals. They give up candy. They give up late nights. And somehow, at the tender age of 15 or 16, they already know that what they will gain from giving up these luxuries is sweeter than the luxuries themselves.

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This snowy weekend was a taste of all that is gained by coming to The Outdoor Academy. Students spent the weekend playing games in the snow and sipping tea around the wood stove. When they wanted music, they pulled out their guitars and sang some songs. They ate delicious homemade bread and thick chili family style in the Dining Hall. Most of all, they had space and time and opportunity in this slower, quieter life to start to truly get to know one another. The friendships that they will forge this semester will become the heartbeat of their experience here.

Roger, our Director, keeps reminding students that this experience is ephemeral. In a few short months, we’ll be doing cannonballs into the lake that is now iced over. And the bonds and memories will be deeper and dearer still, which is why on this cold January evening, I am grateful that we are just one week in with this fantastic group of people. The future of Semester 42 feels bright indeed.

Arrington McCoy, Dean of Students

NOV. 3, 2015

Why do we paddle? Why do we climb?

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By Lucas Newton, Outdoor Education Manager

Yes, we are a school, so it needs to be all books, computers and classrooms right? Well, not necessarily, there is so much more to learn outside and from each other that students at The Outdoor Academy take away every semester, and I am grateful for that and this place.

Over the weekend of October 23-25, Semester 41 students left main campus to challenge themselves on the local crags and rivers of Western North Carolina/Eastern Tennessee. The weather was perfect, cool, crisp autumn air, and the leaves were in their peak season, my personal favorite time of year in our beautiful part of the country.

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Sure, there were some difficult moments, some beautiful moments reflecting near a fire adjacent to the mighty French Broad, and with all this, a plethora of community life and educational skills being learned by our students. As students begin to head into the Mastery phase of the semester, we as faculty are pushing them more and more to own their educational experience and we help facilitate this change within the community. What better place to start owning this than on an outdoor programming trip. As instructors we’re there for safety and guidance, but the responsibility of in-camp procedures falls directly onto the students (cooking dinner, setting up camp, facilitating evening meeting, etc.)

The following is a reflection paper excerpt from current OA student and former Eagle’s Nest camper, Natalie Valentine on her recent climbing trip to Cedar Rock:

When I’m on the rock, I achieve inner peace. I get a sort of tunnel vision, and I have no room in my brain for anything other than the current climb and my next move. I wish I could live my life more like I do when I am on the rock, focused and centered, ambitious, and only interested in the task at hand.

I also gain a deeper trust of my peers. I have formed deeper relationships with those who I belayed and those who belayed me. It was incredible to have those conversations on the hike up to the rock, getting to know my peers better. I feel even more connected to my community after this amazing weekend!

I am alright with this learning outcome, void of pencils, books and computers. Stay in the present, reflect on the past, and continually move forward.

 By Lucas Newton, Outdoor Education Manager

OCT. 30, 2015

The Importance of Struggle

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Arrington McCoy, Dean of Students

We are heading out today for our student-led wilderness trek. Students have planned their routes, their menus and their gear for their upcoming five days in Pisgah Forest. As an instructor, I am responsible for stepping in only in an emergency situation, and most importantly, I am responsible for not getting in my students way otherwise. The second responsibility is surprisingly hard to achieve, but the benefits of such a success are profound.

On my first independent camping trip, my bear bag looked more like a mouse hang, I was lost more than I was sure of my position on the map and my camp stove broke—likely due to operator error. It ranks as one of my most memorable trips. And I find myself hoping that on this trek that my students will face their own brand of hardship and snafus and things gone awry.

Our students have the necessary tools to be successful on this trip. They’ve learned the camp craft skills and the navigation skills, and they are adept at working as a team. However, even if they are well equipped, they are not experts in the art of backpacking, and some struggle will no doubt be part of the equation this week.

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Researcher C.R. Snyder astutely points out: “Hope is the product of struggle.”

We implicitly know that the growth and learning that comes from struggle is profound, but despite this knowledge too often schools and organizations are directed to breed the struggle out of their programs. Thankfully the students and families who choose to come to The Outdoor Academy recognize the value of struggle as both a teacher and a gateway to new perspectives on the world. So if the mac ‘n’ cheese is a little charred or we hike the wrong way for a couple of miles this week, I won’t be upset. In fact, I will view those experiences as hope in the making.

Arrington McCoy, Dean of Students

OCT. 19, 2015

Classes in the Field – Fall 2015

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Racheal Duffy, Math Teacher

As the rain pounded the ground the teaching staff scurried about campus preparing food and gear for our highly coveted Classes in the Field.  Students were out on a five-day trek that was to lead directly into a week of camping in the Smoky Mountain National Park in a special area named Cataloochee.  As to be expected, Mother Nature threw us some curve balls but it was nothing Semester 41 could not handle.  Students spent the majority of their trek in the pouring rain with not a star in sight.  After coming back to campus, wringing out, warming up, and spending some time swapping trek stories (that only got better every time they were told) we all headed back out into the woods.  This time, Mother Nature was extremely kind to us and gave us some of the best fall weather we have seen yet this season.

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We wound ourselves deep into the woods, finally settling on a beautiful campsite along a creek.  As we pulled into camp we saw some older buildings and began to learn about who had come before us on this land.  The Cataloochee area is rich with Appalachian history.  Throughout the next week students worked as a community to live simply all the while learning about the people of Cataloochee through song, craft, literature, and discussion.

The students took the OA principle of self-reliance during Day 2 to the letter.  We had spent the first half of the day exploring the area.  Students toured the Hannah cabin where they had the opportunity to build their own miniature log cabin and have it stand the test of the elements.  Later we became archaeologists and tried to map out an area where a town by the name of Ola was by using artifacts and other remains.  After lunch two of our talented students sang some hymns in one of the older churches bringing us right back to the mid 1800s.  After we fueled our bodies and souls with song we continued into the woods.  This is where things got exciting!  Semester 41 chose to find their own way back to camp during our hiking tour of the Cataloochee valley.  Student leaders consulted with each other, compass and map in hand, and led the entire semester through the rhododendrons, down the rocky slopes, and leapt over water right to camp just as the sun was setting.  It was a perfect day with an amazing group of individuals.  I couldn’t have imagined a better Classes in the Field.

Racheal Duffy, Math Teacher

APR. 8, 2015

Survival Games, Appalachian-Style

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Katie Harris, Dean of Academics

Once again, students of The Outdoor Academy read Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain, debating the finer points of crows, heroines, and anti-heroes along the way. Thanks to the hospitality of Gwynn Valley Farm down the road, however, we also experienced some aspects of the protagonists’ journeys first-hand.

We began the day in a cold and drizzly rain, fog settling on the ridgelines. It was uncomfortable. It was perfect. In the rain, students helped plant potatoes, clean a chicken coop, set up a greenhouse, and make wooden draw horses—farm work that character Ada Monroe struggled to master.  While these ill-fated students toiled, their other classmates enjoyed a pleasant morning underneath a shelter, painting the breath-taking landscape of Gwynn Valley with watercolor—a leisurely pursuit in keeping with Ada’s education as a lady of Charleston, South Carolina. 

Eamon Espey taking a swing on the draw horse.

Eamon Espey taking a swing on the draw horse.

After a lunch together, we took a visit to Gwynn Valley’s corn mill and then headed up the hill into the woods. Students were then challenged to take on the many obstacles that stood between the novel’s other protagonist, Inman, and his beloved Cold Mountain. From foraging to animal trap-setting, we learned that very few of us stood a chance of survival in the woods for days on end. There are simply not enough calories available in the plants of the forest for sustenance, and animal trapping requires years of skill. And all of this while wearing damp woolen clothing…

It is astounding how much hard work and endurance was required of the people of Appalachia in those days. I find it no coincidence that Thoreau observed during this same time period that so much of men’s actions revolved around the getting and keeping of heat: “The grand necessity, then, for our bodies, is to keep warm, to keep the vital heat within us. What pains we accordingly take, not only with our Food, and Clothing, and Shelter, but with our beds, which are our nightclothes, robbing the nests and breasts of birds to prepare this shelter within a shelter, as the mole has its bed of grass and leaves at the end of its burrow!” 

We returned to campus exhausted and rain-soaked at the end of the day. I felt especially grateful for the warm dinner awaiting us in the Sun Lodge, and though a few weeks have passed since our field trip of sorts, I still carry an awe for that older way of life in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Katie Harris, Dean of Academics

JAN. 26, 2015

The Homing Sentiment

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Katie Harris, Dean of Academics, English Teacher, Wilderness Leader

This past week in English class, I opened with a challenge to the students: define home. The decision is timely; twenty-seven young adults have left their homes to join The Outdoor Academy for a semester, and many of them will be away from home for the longest amount of time they have ever experienced. Home takes on a new meaning.

It is no easy task, once we all agree that home is more than the physical dwelling we return to on a regular basis, we agree that home is some sort of abstract concept inherent in the human psyche. We’ve also been reading what Edward Abbey, Rick Bass, Mary Oliver, and Daniel Wallace have had to say about the topic. I appreciate the following words by the outspoken Edward Abbey:

“Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome—there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment. Theologians, sky pilots, astronauts have even felt the appeal of home calling to them from up above, in the cold black outback of interstellar space.”

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Of course, The Outdoor Academy often becomes included in (not a substitute for) the word “home” by the end of the semester for many students, and it is one of the reasons a semester away from home can prove so valuable. The members of Semester 40 are growing their definition of home into something larger. They are learning how to put down roots in a new place and how to try new and uncomfortable things that eventually become familiar and comfortable. Our Admissions Director Lindsay Martin put it best when she shared with our Semester 40 parents on Opening Day that it is our goal to grow students’ comfort zone while also giving them the confidence and empowerment to venture beyond that zone.

In the meantime, here are a few ideas from Semester 40 that have emerged in discussion, presented in the form of a list poem:

Home is the scratches and dents that are memories,
the one solid thing we have.
It’s being on your own, however you want, controlling your space;
It’s being around friends and family, a sense of belonging.
Home is where I grew up,
what shaped me,
where I feel safe,
where I get my energy,
where I belong no matter what,
when I am in new places, when I am in familiar places,
where I can be myself and what I want to be.
It’s being free—to do whatever I want.
It’s being at peace, the balance between comfort and discomfort, safety and danger,
a connection that can’t be lost. 
The more at home I am with myself, the more strength I have.

Katie Harris, Dean of Academics, English Teacher, Wilderness Leader