Early last spring, out on the late-season snowpack that glazed the Three Sisters Wilderness, a group of a dozen backcountry skiers had toured in for a week-long expedition. The guides had pitched camp and were working hard to set the tone, whipping up that trusty elixir of enthusiasm and organization that keeps trips humming. The food was on-point, the itinerary dialed-in. All in all, a textbook day for mountain guides.
Happiest of all was Tim Peterson, associate professor of the Outdoor Leadership program at Central Oregon Community College (COCC), acting as an observer and consultant for the group. In fact, the “expedition” wasn’t really a paid expedition at all, but rather a simulated ski trip comprised entirely of his students, most playing the part of guests. “By lunchtime, I had this thought — I don’t need to be here,” Peterson recalled. “They’re so into it.”
Getting students to that place — where interpersonal ease, strong leadership qualities, outdoor ethics and technical know-how all run seamlessly together — is the mission of COCC’s Outdoor Leadership program, the oldest program of its kind in the state.
Designed in the cohort style, the training starts in the fall and takes place over three successive terms. Open to 24 students, the group often splits into two teams of 12 for activities. This tight-knit size fosters teamwork while allowing for personal growth. Students lean on each other, they lift each other up, endure together, and explore together.
The cohort phase is combined with a year’s worth of prerequisite studies — completed in advance — to earn an Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer degree, one of COCC’s more popular and versatile degrees. Students go from learning algebra one year to alpine climbing the next. It makes for a well-rounded, rigorous model.
When the cohort first gets underway, they gather everyday — rain or shine or pumping-down snow — on a woodsy ridge beyond the library on the Bend campus. Here, in the “outdoor classroom,” amid a small clearing ringed with young conifers, a portable whiteboard is the only hint of a traditional classroom.
The curriculum immerses students in subjects like ecology, resource management and risk psychology. They learn how to facilitate group experiences, how to survive in the wild and how to administer first aid in the backcountry. Some options allow for a specialty focus, on, say, teaching rock climbing or leading mountain bike trips.
Students get their first taste of being true leaders at a weeklong outdoor school for local elementary schoolkids at Shevlin Park. It requires devising classes and managing the school, with basic ecology and Leave No Trace themes as the primary lesson plans.
Excursions, of course, are instrumental to the program. These include the mock expedition — where students make the itinerary, take care of the logistics and manage the group — plus a full billing of outdoor trips. At places like Todd Lake and Meadow Camp, they’ll practice paddling techniques, study avalanche zones and deploy climbing anchors. Ongoing discussions on things like wilderness ethics and land stewardship are threads that continually run through the lessons.
The hands-on, out-in-the-elements aspect of the education has a way of connecting with students. “I’m not really a school person,” shared Evonne “Vonny” Dobson, on a recent bright spring day at the outdoor classroom. “I never really knew what experiential learning was.” The program, she discovered, was a way to bring out her strengths, help her succeed. She’s now considering recreational therapy as a career path.
Most graduates, according to Peterson, launch straight into careers with entry-level positions (though for some, this is a second or even third career). For this year’s students, those opportunities include working for the U.S. Forest Service, Zion National Park, Bend Park & Recreation District and guiding rafters down Pennsylvania’s turbulent Lehigh River. The ability to travel and take on new challenges seems to rank high among grads.
So does making a difference in the world. Up in Wrangell, Alaska, Jonas Crabtree works as an expedition coordinator for a wilderness therapy program. Crabtree finished the COCC program in 2014, went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from OSU-Cascades, and now oversees intensive, two-month oceangoing canoe voyages. “We are a big team with one mission — helping youth succeed,” he said. “It’s challenging, yet rewarding.”
That theme is inextricably linked to the outdoor ed world — it has such transformative powers. Kelsie Meithof, a new grad, discovered that the physical and mental hurdles of the program helped her push aside her anxiety issues and persevere. “The Outdoor Leadership program is unique because it isn’t just about learning things,” she explained. “The program is about learning yourself.”
For these outdoor leaders, the skills they build and the strengths they harness will stand them in good stead on any mountain ledge — real or symbolic — that they encounter in life. It’s an expedition of a lifetime.
For more details, visit the Outdoor Leadership program at COCC or call 541-383-7700.