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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.”

Katie blog 1

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

JAN. 19, 2015

Semester 40 Orientation Trek

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Lucas Newton, Outdoor Program Manager

Three days of rain, mud, nervousness, laughter, great conversation and warm food.  Welcome Semester 40 to your first introduction to The Outdoor Academy.  This will be the first of many challenges these 28 students overcome during their four months here at OA.

Hearing the students stories when they arrived back on campus, it continually reaffirms the intentionality behind why we do what we do.  If students stayed on campus those first few days, there would be no way for them to get to establish those deeper and more meaningful connections right away.  Throw a challenge at them, in a smaller group and now they have truly experienced something with one another, and have to learn how to rely on one another in this tight knit community.

From cooking meals together, to setting up a tarp in the rain, to summiting Pilot Mountain, all the elements of living well together come to the forefront on Outdoor Programming trips.  Sure, the students were happy to be back on campus warming up near the woodstoves, sleeping in their own beds, but now know they can accomplish so much more.  Every student I spoke to stated they were happy that they did it and completed their first task, because in April on our 9-day trek, it most likely won’t rain as much and will definitely be warmer than it was these past few days in Pisgah Forest.

Other challenges await, including how to determine how 28 students will share one landline phone, cleanliness of shared dorm spaces, food choices, and how to balance class work/choice periods.  The challenges have only begun, and I am excited to see how far each of these students can stretch themselves.

Give thanks,

Lucas Newton, Outdoor Program Manager

NOV. 13, 2014

Trail Tales

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We’re back from our 9-day trek, the students’ longest outdoor expedition of the semester!  We’ve all made it back in one piece, and smiling!  Each of the three groups brought back different stories and memories to share, but here’s a brief recap and some highlights of our experiences.

We set out on Friday and were dropped off throughout Pisgah Forest to begin our respective journeys.  It had been awhile since we had been backpacking, our last trip being Orientation Trek, but everybody seemed right at home as soon as they hoisted up their packs.  They were loaded up with all the food and gear we needed for the first half of our trek.  Over the course of the next five days, the Coyotes, Momcats, and Las Tortugas explored the mountains, valleys, and rivers of Pisgah National Forest.  The weather during our first half of trek was the best we could have asked for, sunny and warm during the day, and clear, starry skies at night.  We waded in chilly rivers, got up early to catch some amazing sunrises, and stargazed while falling asleep.

On day five, some special faculty visitors met each group, bringing in their next supply of food, news from the outside world, and some delicious treats they had made. This second half of trek marked the initiation of the Leadership Phase for the students, where they begin to take on more responsibility.  The routes for the next several days were planned out entirely by the students and the wilderness staff took a step back, allowing almost every aspect of the trip be determined by student leadership.

Working in pairs, each student was given the opportunity to lead the group as Adasehede, keeping everybody on track and keeping up positive spirits.  The groups ventured into new territories, managing to lose and find themselves several times over.  New waterfalls were discovered, back country personalities were revealed, and the idea of “clean” was given a whole new meaning.  All three groups became very close-knit, cohesive, and supportive of one another.

All of this group-wide support was great, because we were all in for a surprise when, over the course of the last two days, temperatures plummeted and a frozen substance unfamiliar to many (snow) made its way into Pisgah National Forest.  This wonderful surprise manifested itself in different ways, from a light dusting in Lower Pisgah, to five inches of powder up in the higher reaches.  The last 24 hours for some were by far the most eventful and exciting, whether it was hiking out into the sunrise or bush-pushing through snowy rhododendron forests just in time to catch a ride back home.  No matter what the experience, all groups came back with great stories to tell and a new appreciation for a hot home-cooked meal.

Grace Brofman, Resident and Wilderness Leader

OCT. 27, 2014

Trek is in the Air

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We’ve been having perfect fall weather this past week. Blue sky days, crisp air and the occasional breeze that sends down rusty orange leaves. But it is time to leave behind our cozy cabins and delicious oven-cooked meals behind and head up higher into the mountains for nine days of trek.

Trek is an opportunity for all of us to truly live to our schools principles of simple living, self-reliance and work ethic. Our days will revolve around meeting our basic needs of food, water and shelter, as well as walking (lots of walking!). We will have everything we need for our time in the mountains on our backs. And we will see, with more clarity than ever, that each person must truly pull their weight in order for our group to function well.

Trek is also the ultimate teacher. Nature doesn’t nag or coddle. If it rains, the mountains aren’t concerned if you’ve failed to water proof your pack or set up your tarp well. And a star filled night or the pink clouds of a sunrise can inspire thoughts and feelings that you can’t quite access anywhere else.

We’ll look forward to sharing our stories when we return.

Arrington McCoy, Dean of Students

SEP. 23, 2014

School of Rock

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After scrambling over 70 feet up the granite face of Cedar Rock, I finally turned around. The view that greeted me, of Pisgah Forest – vibrant green mountains, blue sky, and not a single road in sight – was absolutely breathtaking. Once I regained the ability to take in oxygen, I couldn’t help but yell down to Georgia, who was belaying me, “Can you believe we live here?! This is our backyard!”

This past weekend students were split into two groups for three days of paddling or climbing. My group headed into Pisgah National Forest to climb at some of the Southeast’s best crags. When we left on Friday morning, the group was both eager and enthusiastic, but also a bit nervous. Before we began our climbing adventure Katie Harris, trusted English teacher and Wilderness Leader, took a page from Eleanor Roosevelt challenging each member of our group to do at least one thing that scared them.

Witnessing these students rise to this challenge was perhaps even more breathtaking than the views. I watched students Eleanor and Georgia, who only two weeks ago were nervous lifting their feet off the ground, climb well over 100 feet up the rock putting all their trust in their belayers. I saw Leo and Jessica push past frustration and physical fatigue in attempts to climb tough routes that would challenge even the most advanced climbers. I also watched students grow in their eagerness to support their peers, including jumping up to belay someone, offering encouragement to a struggling climber, or asking how they could be helpful.

Like many of our students, I did not consider myself a climber before arriving at OA, and it is quite possible that the views took my breath away in part because that moment when I turned around I realized just how high above the ground I was. But I’ve realized that is a big part of what OA is all about, finding ways to push yourself past what you thought were your limits, or choosing to give more of yourself to help others.

The reward of this new challenge – an incredible view, the euphoria of accomplishment, a stronger community – are well worth it in the end.

Amanda Wheelock
Resident/Wilderness Leader


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