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APR. 10, 2018

OA Students Hammer Out Change in Hendersonville

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As we walked down into the schoolyard, all wearing orange blaze vests, we found ourselves surrounded by a wave of cheering. We were thanked profusely for coming out, celebrated, and even apologized to, because we shouldn’t have needed to be out there in the first place.

On Saturday, March 24, 22 OA students, along with our three Residents, participated in the “March For Our Lives” in Hendersonville, NC. Although the motivation for the march stemmed from frustration and anger about gun violence in our world, the march itself was an exciting and positive experience. The night before we had made signs, with messages such as:

“No More Silence, End Gun Violence”

“Bury Guns, Not Kids”

“Thoughts and Prayers are Not Enough”

We marched from Hendersonville High School to the historic Courthouse on Main Street. When we arrived at the Courthouse we stood on the steps and faced out towards the older generations, chanting with them until our throats were raw.  The event organizer then invited us to an open-mic time at Sanctuary Brewing Company, a gathering space with a stage. She encouraged us to share our thoughts with the crowd of at least one hundred people. Eight OA students accepted the invitation and spoke.

A wide range of topics were discussed, a poem was read, and a couple of songs were sung. The owner of Sanctuary ordered us a bunch of pizzas, which were heartily eaten by the twenty-five of us. After that we bid farewell to our marching companions, completed a few interviews with reporters, and headed home. We returned to our little OA bubble with an incredible new experience in our memories.


-Ruby Gates and Meagan Wick, OA Semester 46 students

MAR. 27, 2018

Building Community at OA

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Building Community at OA

Community is one of the four foundational cornerstones of The Outdoor Academy. Merriam-Webster’s first entry defines community as, “a unified body of individuals: such as people with common interests living in a particular area.” It is true that students and faculty at The Outdoor Academy live together in a common space and share many common interests.  However, the community we seek to build at The Outdoor Academy goes far beyond this first definition. It is not just that we have chosen to live together for a semester, but how we strive to live with one another, that makes our community at The Outdoor Academy special.

The second entry in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary suggests that community involves, “joint ownership or participation.” At The Outdoor Academy, we ask everyone to participate fully in the process of building our community. Each semester is unique, and students and faculty are joint-owners in creating their shared experience. To this end, we dedicate Monday evenings to community building. After sitting in fellowship and enjoying one another’s company over a special meal, we head to Cheoah—one of our Arts facilities—for Community Meeting. We start by sharing our gratitude and end with sharing our hopes, but in between, we share our needs. This is a chance for anyone in our community to speak up and voice a concern or a solution. We use this time to figure out how to live together better.

For some of our students it’s intimidating to share their opinion in front of their peers and teachers. For other students, it’s hard to listen carefully to others while waiting their turn to speak. Some opt to stay silent, and forfeit their influence on community decisions. Sometimes Community Meeting feels frustrating, because we continue to bring up the same topic and don’t feel like we’re making headway, or we don’t hear from a diverse range of voices. I think Community Meeting is one of our most important traditions. It’s an introduction to civic engagement and an important opportunity to practice communication and conflict transformation skills such as forming a thoughtful opinion or cohesive argument, listening to understand rather than respond, and providing constructive feedback and solutions.

We build community at The Outdoor, not only through the daily acts of living together in one space, or through the enjoyment of sharing the things we hold in common, but by caring enough about one another to work through conflict, to hold each other accountable for being our best selves every day, and to continue figuring out how to do this together even when we fall short. In practicing community building here, we are equipping our students with critical skills for building community wherever they go.

-Kaela Frank, Resident Wilderness Educator

MAR. 22, 2018

Buffalo Cove

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One of the most unique and transformative experiences during an Outdoor Academy semester is a three-day work trade at Buffalo Cove Outdoor Education Center.  It’s an especially powerful event because it is a trade of skills and services.  For half of their time, OA students break into work crews to help maintain and improve the Buffalo Cove campus.  For the other half, members of the Buffalo Cove faculty introduce OA students to primitive camping skills and a most memorable meal. 

It’s amazing how much work 30 committed people can accomplish in a short period! During Semester 46’s excursion to Buffalo Cove, one of the work crews hauled logs out of the woods and used draw knives to strip the bark. Soon these logs will become the rafters on a barn that’s under construction. Another work crew worked along the road and trails, cleaning out drainage ditches and clearing blow-downs. The third crew hauled HUGE logs out of the woods, which were then turned into a game called Jedi X, an epic game involving balance and hitting a swinging ball. 


Following work crews, our students gathered for a conversation with Nathan, the owner of Buffalo Cove, whose association with OA dates back to Semester 1 and whose daughter is an OA alum (Semester 44).  The topic of our conversation was something we think about a great deal at OA: where does our food, especially our meat in this case, come from? After the discussion, Nathan demonstrated how to humanely slaughter some rabbits and then taught the students how to skin and field dress them. The rabbits then stewed all afternoon while students chose if they wanted to learn about primitive shelter building or how to blend in and move stealthily through the woods. Afterwards, we shared a meal of rabbit stew, reflecting on the intense experience of watching where our meat came from and giving thanks for the animals that were nourishing us.


On our final morning at Buffalo Cove, students chose from classes on how to build wet-wood fires, make primitive traps, and create fire by friction. All the students came back feeling excited and empowered about the skills they learned.

Another successful trip in the woods! 

-Brian Quarrier, Outdoor Education Manager

FEB. 12, 2018

There’s Always Something Stirring Around Here

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Although it is seemingly quiet these days in the woods around campus and we often think of winter as a dead time, the natural world in our southern mountains never really goes quiet. Few mammals actually hibernate here, really just some bats, since their extremely high metabolism forces them to shut down when their insect prey is unavailable. Bears, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, mice, and even groundhogs may sleep through a cold snap, but they are up and about again during any warm spell. True hibernation in the endotherms (warm-blooded mammals) requires a drastic lowering of the heart rate, respiration, and metabolism and our winters are just too mild and short to call for such measures.

Life is definitely different for the ectotherms whose internal temperature reflect the ambient conditions. These reptile and amphibian species must have some adaptations to cope with those sub-zero days. Snakes are barely functional below 50° F and seek out deep dens (or the barn) to find stable temperatures. The Eagle’s Nest frogs and snapping turtles have burrowed into the mud at the bottom of the pond. One of our few terrestrial frogs, the wood frog, can be frozen solid for months due to antifreeze compounds like propylene glycol and glycerol in their systems. In this torpid state, its breathing and heartbeat actually stop, defying the definition of the word “alive”. Normally, the formation of ice crystals means death for cells, but these frogs have sidestepped that particular fate, with as much as 65% of the water in their bodies crystallized into ice. When warmed, they immediately go about the business of finding mates, none the worse for wear. Not surprisingly, scientists are interested in borrowing this adaptation for the cryopreservation of living human organs for transplant.

Certainly, not all of our summer Appalachian birds leave during the winter. Our feeders are full of chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and finches. Some of these birds are northern migrants, but many have only migrated down the mountain into our protected Little River valley. They have a short trip back to their breeding territories in the spring. And some birds, like the kestrel, a tiny falcon, come from colder northern habitats to spend their winters hunting here. Even most of the insects aren’t really gone or dead. Many species overwinter as larvae or even as adults and can occasionally be found out and about. Every rock you turn over in the Davidson River in February will be crawling with mayfly, damselfly, stonefly and alderfly larvae. Our yellow jackets colonies, so numerous and feared in the summer, are represented by young queens, the only survivors of the swarms we run from in panic in August. They have been fertilized by males in the late fall and will spend the winter in barn attics or under the bark of a dying tree, ready to start new underground colonies in the spring.

Well, I guess what I’m getting at is that there is always something stirring around here, even in the depths of winter. I’ve heard spring peepers call during every month of the year; Great Horned owls calling for mates in December, fox tracks in the snow, spotted salamanders eggs in March, copperheads sunning in February; groundhogs eating greens in a frosty pasture; and springtails—tiny, hopping insects—leaping on snowy rocks in a frozen river. The natural world doesn’t ever really stop, so don’t let the cold slow you down either – get out there with your binoculars and magnifying glass.

-Ted Wesemann

JAN. 31, 2018

What is Integrity?

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What Is Integrity?

Roger Herbert, Outdoor Academy Director

A scheduling error during Semester 45 presented us with an opportunity to add an eighth meeting of our Ethics Seminar, which typically consists of seven gatherings.  How would we use this “extra” time, a rare and precious commodity at The Outdoor Academy?  We decided to grapple with a word that is so central to ethical discourse that its meaning has become imprecise, its usage sloppy.  Integrity.

What is integrity?  What does it mean to be a “person of integrity”?  What constitutes a “failure of integrity.” The discussion proceeding from these questions was so rich, so provocative, that we have added this topic permanently to the OA Ethics syllabus.

Our discussion focused almost entirely on defining this important but fuzzy term.  We started with etymology.  Our English word “integrity” comes from the Latin integritas, meaning wholeness or unity.  This prompted more questions.  Since unity implies the possibility of disunity, what are the parts that together constitute integrity (or apart constitute a lack of integrity)?

Semester 45 offered an intriguing answer.  Integrity, they hypothesized, entails a unity between our actions and our values.   A person of integrity acts in accordance with what she values.  She fails to act with integrity when her actions contradict her values.

Social psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman agree.  In their seminal work, Character Strengths and Virtues (2004), the authors define integrity as “A regular pattern of behavior that is consistent with espoused values.”

But Semester 45 challenged their own (and Peterson & Seligman’s) definition.  “What if a person values power over others or racial supremacy or violence for its own sake?”  Does acting in accordance with those values constitute integrity?  Certainly not.  Clearly our definition must account for the quality of values embraced. Peterson & Seligman contend that a person of integrity acts in accordance values that are “sensitive to the needs of others.”  Semester 45 improved on this.  A person of integrity, they argued, embraces values that do not interfere with the capacity of others to act in accordance with their values.

Still, Semester 45 concluded that their definition was incomplete.  They cited the “Ring of Gyges,” Plato’s allegory in which a shepherd (Gyges) finds a magical ring that gives him the power of invisibility.  Rather than using the ring for good, Gyges leverages his new powers to kill the king, steal his treasures, and seduce the queen.  Without the possibility of being caught and punished, Gyges saw no reason to act with integrity.

Drawing on Plato, Semester 45 concluded, that our definition of integrity had to include an element of motivation.  Persons of integrity act in accordance with their values not because they fear punishment, not because they fear public censure, but because they embrace their values as ends unto themselves.  A person of integrity’s motivation to act morally, in other words, is intrinsic, not extrinsic.

To conclude, I will summarize Semester 45’s conclusions regarding integrity:

Persons of integrity 1) act in accordance with their values, 2) embrace values that do not interfere with the capacity of others to act in accordance with their values, and 3) do so regardless of public acclaim or reproach.

Pretty cool what can be accomplished at OA with an “extra” hour.

NOV. 30, 2017

An Outdoor Academy Trek: The Before and After

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Step 1: The Gathering

1 a. Clothes

  • Hiking clothes (most often shorts and an active T, but sometimes hiking pants and a long-sleeve active T)
  • Long underwear top and bottom- wool is my favorite for anything longer than a day or two (synthetic gets a little smellier)
  • Fleece pants and top
  • Another insulating layer (or 2, I get cold really easily so I don’t skimp here)
  • Rain gear (not just for staying dry- also great for sitting on wet ground at camp, keeping bugs off, and that incredible feeling and sound of walking with swishy pants)
  • Hat, gloves, buff, undergarments
  • Camp shoes and hiking boots
  • SOCKS (I maybe go overboard here, but I like socks for hiking, socks for camp, and a pair of socks that lives in my sleeping bag for guaranteed dry feet while I sleep)

1b. Sleeping

  • Sleeping pad
  • Sleeping bag (having more than one, the biggest thing I think about is temperature, but because one is down I also consider sleeping situation and weather)

1c. All the other stuff

  • Toiletries (toothbrush and paste, glasses/contact care, some extra Dr. Bronners)
  • Water bottles
  • Headlamp & whistle
  • Journal and pens
  • Knife
  • Compass & map
  • Book
  • Dice for FARKLE (the best dice game EVER)
  • Mug, bowl, spoon (my personal success rate of remembering this is about 50%)

1d. At this point I usually do a lap around my room and rummage through my outdoor gear and usually find one or two things I forgot or think might be fun.

Step 2: The Separating

The challenge: to bring exactly the right amount of stuff so you are prepared but not carrying everything you own. This is also a good time to separate out into a separate pile the things you will be putting on your body the morning of the Trek.

Step 3: The Waiting

At this point I usually pack the first layer of my pack (sleeping bag and some clothes) and then just throw everything else on top of it. On the morning of the trek I know I will get together with my expedition mates and divide up food and group gear, so it’s not worth packing well before I have all of that.

Step 4: The Shoving

Anyone who has been on a Trek with me has heard me say “if you are not working up a sweat while you’re packing your pack, you’re probably not doing it right.” There are acronyms to help you remember good rules of thumb, but good pack packing is all about filling all of the space your pack has to offer by getting things in EVERY nook and cranny. Keep all of your stuff inside the pack, and it probably shouldn’t be super unevenly weighted.

Remember- the first rule of any outdoor pursuit is “look good feel good,” and there is no better way to feel good than to have a good looking pack.


Some questions I like to ask myself before heading out include:

  • Am I ready for my classes when I return?
  • Is my living space something I will be happy to return to?
  • Have I talked to my family to let them know I’ll be gone for a few days/weeks/months/forever? (I really like being in the woods)
  • How am I feeling about this trek?
    • What is making me nervous?
    • What am I excited about?
  • What’s my plan for the morning? Is there anything else I can’t pack until then?

3/5/7/400 days pass full of laughter, tears, mountains, rivers, stars, rain, and mac & cheese


Clean Up:

Before a trek can really wrap up there are a few things that need to be taken care of.

The Scrubbing:

This is the most exciting part of clean up when you get to pull out the bag of leftover rice and beans from dinner on your first night and the avocado that you found at the bottom of your pack when you were emptying it out. It’s when you get to really get in there and scrape out the peanut butter that got into every nook and cranny of the Nalgene container lid. The best part about kitchen duty is that you get first dibs on a shower because Mark keeps his kitchen too clean for your stanky, grimy, trek bodies to be in there.

The Drying:

A key component of taking care of our gear is hanging all gear made of cloth up to dry all the way before we pack it up again and shove it in the gear room. Luckily we have a very complex system in the New Lodge: a bunch of ropes as drying lines. All the ground cloths get sprayed down and hung up with the tarps and rain flies, while tents get set up so air can flow through them and really dry every bit.

The lugging:

Since we leave our packs and sleeping bags in the New Lodge to save dorm space, every makes the final trek from the New Lodge back to their living spaces with their “happy sack” (aka trash bag) full of personal stuff back to their living spaces so it can be put IMMEDIATELY in laundry bags to be washed ASAP.


The moment everyone has been waiting for: the warm shower, the apple and tea, the unique comfort of clean dry clothes. There’s an excitement of being reunited with your friends from other groups to hear their stories and share your own (knowing that even though it’s not a competition and everyone’s experience is awesome, yours was obviously the best). Returning from a journey that was challenging provides an opportunity to really appreciate the simple pleasures of a front country life.

– Marisa Melnick, Math teacher, Medical Coordinator & Wilderness Instructor