This past weekend, Semester 49 students were treated to blue skies and new experiences during The Outdoor Academy’s first Paddle-Climb of the fall. On Friday morning, half of our students geared up with harnesses, ropes, and helmets before setting out for the crags at Looking Glass, a destination climbing area just up the road from us in Pisgah National Forest. The other half donned PFDs and grabbed paddles before starting their whitewater paddling instruction, first on our campus lake and later on at a local section of river. Students then swapped spots on Sunday, the climbers went paddling, and the paddlers went climbing.

On Friday morning just before students jumped on the bus to head out to the crags, a student expressed to me concern about her first rock climbing experience. “What will it be like? Is it really high up? Do I have to keep going if I’m scared or tired? What if I’m not good enough to finish a climb?” I also heard concern from a student who was tentative about the prospect of hopping in a canoe and hitting the water.

After some reassuring reminders from another faculty member about “challenge by choice,” the group set off, and I wandered down past the lake to see paddlers hooting and hollering as they got used to the wobbly sensation of kneeling in a whitewater canoe. With the shouts echoing up the hill, I made for the office to take care of some work.

Later in the day, whilst prepping pans of lasagna, I chatted with students as they filtered back into the Sun Lodge from their day trips. I was interested in how things went for the new climber who’d shared trepidation about the prospect of hanging off a rope on the side of a cliff.

“I loved it! It was so awesome!”

I was thrilled to hear from her and from faculty how successful the day’s outing had been for her. She faced the fears she carried up to the crag with her, decided to say yes to trying something outside of her comfort zone, and ended up having a blast. Not only was the experience a fun one for this student, but whether or not she realizes it, the day at Looking Glass represented learning in the sense most celebrated here at The Outdoor Academy. True growth occurs not by doing what is comfortable or familiar; rather, it is in these moments of decision about how a student is going to face a challenge—be it on the rocks, river, or in a classroom—that they set a tone for their learning. And it’s not just about a skill that she might or might not pursue after OA is over as she heads back to her sending school. It’s about building the confidence to endeavor and persevere in the face of challenge, a lesson that will last a lifetime.

My reflections on this central element of the OA experience were further bolstered by the scene on Saturday, when we made our annual trip as a school to the Mountain Song Festival at the Brevard Music Center. This bluegrass, roots, and Americana festival has been drawing crowds and big-name acts to the area for over a decade, and it is always a packed house. OA students trade a shift on the volunteer crew helping festival-goers sort their trash, recyclables, and composting, for entry to the festival and an afternoon after their duties are complete spent lounging in the grass listening to some incredible acts.

This year, however, was a special event, as one of our Semester 49 students actually took to the stage with his band to kick off the day’s music. Dylan, who participates in a program called Junior Appalachian Musicians, plays mandolin in Creekside Crawfish, a collection of teenage (and younger!) virtuosos who snagged a spot on the bill alongside string music legends like David Grisman, Del McCoury, and Brevard’s own Grammy-winning Steep Canyon Rangers. It was incredible to think about what it would take to stand on that stage and play in front of thousands of people—particularly as a teenager. The time spent learning and practicing to hone one’s craft and the immense courage to step out under the lights, introduce your bandmates, and then deftly launch into a highly-technical piece of string music in front of a crowd accustomed to hearing the best in the world…I found it staggering.

As I watched some videos of the Creekside Crawfish’s performance the next day, I again reflected on the value of challenge in helping young people develop the courage and confidence to face anything the world throws at them. Whether it’s a rapid on the river, a tough essay question, or those moments backstage just before stepping out in front of a thousand discerning music fans. It is a wonderful feeling as an educator to work at a school that truly believes that providing young people with challenges and supporting them through those challenges will help pave the way for their futures.

A tricky climb on a steep cliff, a turbulent section of whitewater, or a tricky debate in Environment Seminar all play the same role for our students. Sure, they learn some new skills and content knowledge in participating in these activities, but the true benefit lies much deeper in them. We are helping them learn to face whatever it is out there beyond the boundaries of our campus that the world has in store for them.

As I finish this piece today on the eighteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and consider the complex and confounding problems that we have sewn for this next generation to sort out, I cannot help but take solace in the fact that places like The Outdoor Academy exist. From what I have seen from OA students, they are up for it.


By Glenn DeLaney, Director of  The Outdoor Academy