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Outdoor education: More to it than getting outside

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(Editor’s note: Shaina Maytum is a teacher at Glenwood Springs High School).

By Shaina Maytum

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Special to The Sopris Sun

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Last week I took my Glenwood Springs High School outdoor education class on a three-day adventure to Granite Lakes, located in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness far above Basalt. As anyone who has spent time in the outdoors knows, it takes as much work to prepare for a three-day trip as it does to prepare for a 30-day one. With the gear, the paperwork and transportation, the only things that really change are the quantity of food and number of clean T-shirts.

However, anyone who has spent time in the outdoors also knows that as soon as you take your first step onto the trail, all of that melts away. Time stops, if only for a day. That observation remains true even when you’re trekking with 20 reluctant teenagers.

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It never ceases to surprise me how little outdoor experience many of the students in our valley have had. Quite a few go skiing at the resorts, and some do a bit of exploring with their parents, but fewer than half the students on our trip had ever been on an overnight backpacking trip, and some students on the trip had never spent a night sleeping outside.

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It is amazing how much can be accomplished in even a two-night trip. Hiking the five miles and 2,000 vertical feet to our campsite was humbling for most. I was amused to come around each corner to see students sprawled on the trail, unwilling to believe that if they just gone a tiny bit slower they wouldn’t have to stop every 200 feet. I was touched to see students who had mostly been in the background of the class stopping to wait for those at the end of the line, looking back after every switchback to make sure they were still there.

From the first night to the second, students went from the chaos of trying to cook pasta on backcountry stoves to creating burritos together, complete with vegetables AND heated tortillas. We all ate together, and the petty conflicts of the day melted away as bellies filled with beans and eyes filled with wonder at the setting sun.

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We cleaned up camp for the night, and sat in the last light of evening reflecting on a day of fishing, hiking and a two-hour solo sit under the bright blue early-fall sky. We had only had passing thoughts of the stress and anxiety inevitably awaiting us at home, and students had spent the day untethered from their ubiquitous cell phones. We were grateful.


Gratitude is what students expressed that night, and in light of a recent car accident that rattled our school community, they were particularly primed to do so. One student said that he was grateful for making so many memories. Another said she was glad to have camped out – for the second time in her life. Many students said that they want to get into “this kind of thing” with their friends and family, dreaming of the kinds of good boots and big backpacks they would one day buy. One particularly insightful girl stated that she was grateful that we had wild places such as this one to even go.

Aldo Leopold, who many consider the father of the U.S. wilderness system, once said, “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are 40 freedoms without a blank space on the map?” And for this, for the young people I will continue to take into the wilderness, and for myself and all of us, I am grateful.

The importance of outdoor education in the context of a large public school cannot be overstated. Outdoor experiences, plus knowledge gained in class, allows students and teachers to get to know one another as people, facilitating relationships and friendships that can last a lifetime. Through outdoor education, students develop increased confidence, leadership skills and a greater capacity for self-reflection. They additionally develop a profound sense of belonging in this valley we call home, leading to an ethic of environmental stewardship. In the end, it is not really about the outdoor experiences (powerful as they are), but rather about an ability to function in our world as thoughtful, involved, compassionate citizens.

The Sopris Sun is soliciting stories from teachers in our valley’s schools. Our goal is to help people better understand the challenges, humor, joy and accomplishments that teachers experience as they educate our community’s youth. With support from the Manaus Foundation, we will pay $200 for every story that is selected for publication. Stories should be about 400 to 700 words. Please include your name, phone number, email address and school. Stories should be titled, “Teacher Story” and sent to: or The Sopris Sun, P.O. Box 399, Carbondale, CO 81623. For more information please call Debbie at 970-379-0214.

Published in The Sopris Sun on October 20, 2016.

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