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AUG. 1, 2018

The Outdoor Academy: Grit Before Grit Was Cool

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Part I

At about 3am on day four of Semester 46’s five-day Student-led Trek, I woke to rain pattering against my tarp.  The weather had been pleasant so far, but there were ample signs that a change was coming: wispy cirrus clouds, stiffening breezes, a halo circling the waxing moon. Half asleep and half to herself, my co-instructor, McNeill, made it official: “here it comes.”  In a few hours we’d be negotiating a cold, wet, and windy, day on the trail.  But for now I was toasty warm in my bag under my fluttering tarp.  I rolled over, delighted with the prospect of another four hours of sleep.

The leaders of the day, Racheal and Uma, woke us at 7am.  We enjoyed a hot breakfast and broke camp under a heavy drizzle rather than the torrents I had expected.  When the skies finally delivered the anticipated downpour perhaps a quarter mile into our hike, we felt grateful for the morning’s reprieve.  No backpacker prefers cold rain to warm sun, but the mood was positive.  Our bellies were full and we knew the hike ahead would be relatively easy: only six miles, all downhill.

We made great time.  By 11am we were within a half-mile of our planned campsite.  Our tarps would soon be up and, if we chose to, we could wait out the weather in warm, dry sleeping bags.

About 300 meters to the northeast of our campsite our trail crossed Grassy Cove Prong, a gentle stream that drains Ivester Gap into the East Fork of the Pigeon River. Typically a hiker can rock-hop across Grassy Cove and keep her boots dry.  Today, however, there were no exposed rocks to hop; they were submerged under several feet of unusually swift water.  Swollen by the rain, Grassy Cove Prong had gone from the “bunny slope” I have easily crossed dozens of times to a “black diamond” that demanded our respect. 

With the rain and wind gathering strength, we started working the problem.  McNeill and I found a route through chilly, waste-deep water that seemed manageable if we ran a hand line to reduce the risk of a swift-water “swim”.  As we considered other risk-mitigating strategies, McNeill prudently suggested that I jog down the trail to scout the Pigeon, which we would have to cross the next day. 

I returned in twenty minutes with a scouting: “Nope.”   Our campsite was flooded and the East Fork of the Pigeon River was raging.    

An instructor’s role on a student-led trek is to step in only when safety is a concern.  Now that McNeill and I had stepped in to declare that “plan A” was unsafe, we once again stepped back; it was up to the students to devise “plan B.”

Uma and Racheal huddled over the map, gathered input from their teammates, made their decision, and advised McNeill and me of their plan to retrace the route we had just completed.  Instead of the six-mile, downhill day we had anticipated, it would be a 12-mile day, and the next six miles would include a 2000-foot climb. 

It was hard news to deliver, but everyone (including the instructor team) agreed it was the right call.  In preparation for the challenge ahead, the team lunched on peanut butter and jelly wraps and then passed around a bag of Gummy Bears, a treat they had reserved for that moment when it was either richly deserved or desperately needed.  Both conditions seemed to apply.    

The hike back up to Ivester Gap and then out to Sam Knob, our revised campsite, was as tough as we expected, but our trek group was tougher.  Occasional tears of frustration gave way to peels of self-deprecating laughter, gallows humor in the face of torrential rain, 30-knot gusts, and temperatures in the mid 40s.  There was one moment during the early afternoon when the rain seemed to ease up a bit.  I had the temerity to wonder out loud if the worst of it had passed.  On cue, the skies reopened, delivering sheets of rain and inspiring ironic laughter.   Sometimes all you can do is laugh.

Part II

Our children are reminded every day that they are fragile and weak.  Twenty-four hour news cycles contain an inherent “if it bleeds it leads” bias.  Schools routinely pronounce that safety is their top priority (prompting the question: how far down the priority list do teaching and learning fall?).  At home, well-intended parents are perpetually alerted to new dangers and warned that they must shield their children from the mayhem that lurks beyond their protective arms.    

There are two things that should concern us about this seemingly ubiquitous narrative of fragility and weakness: 1) it’s dangerous, and 2) it’s wrong. 

It’s dangerous because if our children believe that they are fragile and weak, then they are.  Worse, they become vulnerable to the first strongman who can convince them that he, and he alone, can keep them safe.  Fear is a despot’s greatest ally.    What freedoms will we surrender in exchange for our safety?  For our children’s safety?   

The fragility and weakness narrative is wrong because, time and again, OA students prove it wrong.  Our soggy, shivering trek group, huddled on the wrong side of Grassy Cove Prong may have been miserable, but fragile?  No way.  We were invincible.  We laughed at our situation, passed the Gummy Bears, and leaned into the wind and the rain. We arrived at our destination cold, wet, and exhausted, but with energy and determination to spare, bursting with pride in our accomplishment. 

Every OA graduate since 1995 can tell a similar story. 

Outdoor Academy students learn so much about the world and themselves during their OA semester that it would be difficult to declare any one thing as the most important learning outcome.  I would, however, like to suggest a contender: Every OA student learns to tune out the narrative of fragility and weakness.  They learn to manage risk, not run away from it.  They discover deep resources of strength and resilience that they always possessed but had rarely exercised before coming to Pisgah Forest.  It’s a lesson that will carry them through driving rainstorms—literal and metaphoric—for the rest of their lives. 

Roger Herbert

The Outdoor Academy Director (Fall 2015-Spring 2018)

APR. 24, 2018


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How do spies encrypt messages so they can’t be easily decoded? How can I measure the height of an object using knowledge of angles and trigonometry? Is it possible to use knowledge of mathematics to create art? How many months does it take to pay off $1,345 of credit card debt if I make a monthly payment of $200 and my annual interest rate is 23%? What is the most efficient way to mill a log into usable timber?

Ask five different OA students and you will find at least five different ways of thinking about each of these problems and perhaps even more methods of finding a reasonable answer. These are the sorts of questions our students are chewing on in addition to learning traditional math concepts like long division of polynomialsor graphing trigonometric functions.

Academics at The Outdoor Academy emphasize teaching students how to think critically and deeply about the subject matter. In mathematics this means more than simply learning a new concept and “checking the box” so we don’t “fall behind” other schools and students. It also means grappling with complex problems and trying to apply our clean and precise mathematical concepts to the messy world around us. We do, however, have a duty to meet the diverse curriculum needs of our students’ sending schools. This is accomplished by coordinating with our students’ math teachers and by individually tailoring our instruction to meet those needs. In addition to teaching the required math concepts we also have a duty to prepare our students to face the difficult problems of the future—problems that often involve both quantification and out-of-the-box thinking.

To address this two-sided coin we use a simple tool in all math courses at the Outdoor Academy—a math journal. Throughout the semester students are given journal prompts where they are asked to address complex problems and articulate their process of problem solving. After an initial attempt, students are given formal feedback from their teacher and informal feedback from peers. The feedback helps students to identify valid lines or reasoning and thinking and, more importantly, where a different line of reasoning or thinking could be used to find a more correct answer. Students are not graded simply on whether or not their answer is correct, but how mathematically sound their approach is and how well they have articulated that process on paper using words, numbers, diagrams, graphs, and tables.

The goal of our math journal is to provide a space for students to not only grapple with challenging problems but also feel comfortable with making mistakes and growing from failure. Over the course of the semester students push themselves to identify complexities or inaccuracies, explore unanswered or unanswerable questions, and even challenge their teacher. While this process can be frustrating for students, it often leads to deep understandings of the topic at hand and a sense of satisfaction when things do finally fall into place.

It is not enough, however, to just hear about it from the math teacher; below I have collected a few opinions from current Semester 46 students on their math journals: 

“It can be a little challenging but they provoke a deeper level of thought than presented in typical classes… sometimes they are really confusing but when they click it’s really satisfying”

“[Our teachers] have very high expectations for our math journals which is shown by how harshly they grade them but I feel the grading does reflect the amount of time I put into it…I liked the last one where we had to write our own word problems and scenarios to pay off credit card debt because it was cool to see how it applied to real life situations.”

“Sometimes they’re fun because often in math they don’t tell you how you actually use it but other times they’re sort of annoying because they take a lot of time and some entries ask me to do something different than the way my brain would usually work.”

“Math journals are a great way to engage with math in a way you wouldn’t with the curriculum in your sending school. They also teach you about things like credit cards that force you to apply your math to the real world instead of textbook scenarios…They can also take a looong time.”

“You learn a lot about stuff you would simply not hear anywhere else.”



-Jeffrey Prado

Mathematics Teacher

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