Many Oregon State University-Cascades students choose the school in part for all the outdoor opportunities that Central Oregon offers.
Some even schedule their winter classes to maximize their powder turns at Mt. Bachelor ski area, a mere 20-mile drive from campus.
“The students have it down,” says Julia Conrad, the recreation program coordinator for OSU-Cascades. “They know if it snows more than 6 inches (at the mountain) no one is going to class at a certain time.”
But outdoor pursuits are not a hindrance to a student’s growth — rather, they can be an accelerant, Conrad notes. Time spent in the outdoors with others can foster the important skills of planning, time management, safety, communication and leadership.
The Cascades Adventures program at the school offers student-led outings designed for beginners to experts. Trips include cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowshoeing, stand-up paddleboarding, rafting, hiking, backpacking, cycling and more.
The program has tripled in size since Conrad started in her position a little more than a year ago, as about 180 students per term — fall, winter and spring — took part in Cascades Adventures last year.
That makes for a fairly significant percentage of the school’s enrollment of 1,300.
“We have a lot of first years in the dorms,” Conrad says. “I think just getting them outside and meeting other students is a big part of building those networks for student success. I think those opportunities to get outside and connect is helpful for their mental health, too.”
While the program is no doubt focused on fun, it also offers instructional safety clinics, including how to use avalanche rescue beacons and how to build a snow shelter.
All the student leaders in Cascades Adventures are certified Wilderness First Responders.
A focus of the program is engaging those who are new to outdoor activities.
“We have really just been kind of starting at the foundation and trying to build skills,” Conrad says. “Just trying to inform, get people interested and comfortable. We do a clinic where we build shelters on campus, and then we do a day snowshoe trip and go out and build shelters. And then we’ll do an overnight winter backpacking trip, just so students can start to get their feet wet and start to feel comfortable and confident.”
The program operates about 14 to 18 outings per term and includes 10 to 12 students per outing. Participants are typically transported by van and they can rent gear for cheap through Cascades Rentals. Cascades Adventures is funded through student fees and participants sometimes pay a small additional fee of $5 to $10 per trip.
Downhill ski outings include trips to Hoodoo Ski Area for Thrifty Thursdays, when lift tickets are discounted to $25. Hoodoo has knocked an additional $5 off of that for Cascades Adventures and offers free ski equipment rentals for the group.
The program hosts a First Friday Float — even during the winter — in which students paddle from Riverbend Park to Drake Park along the Deschutes River through Bend. Other outings include cross-country ski trips to Todd Lake west of Bend, and a rafting/hiking trip along the McKenzie River.
“A lot of our trips are very beginner-friendly, which I think is important,” says Megan Larson, a junior from Portland who is a student leader in the program and is majoring in natural resources. “We’ll show you how to strap on your snowshoes, tie into climbing, or how to raft. From there, they can choose to do more extreme stuff. A lot of people at this school come from the (Willamette) Valley or the Portland area, and a lot of people don’t know other areas. So we’ll take people out to the Painted Hills and try to show them more of the different parts of Oregon.”
The students are currently planning that camping trip to the Painted Hills, in Wheeler County, and also a spring break trip to Utah for backpacking and canyoneering.
Lauren Glass, of Seattle, is a grad student in the counseling program at OSU-Cascades. She spent this past summer preparing the Headwaters trips, which offer new students at OSU-Cascades, both freshmen and transfers, the chance to take an outdoor trip during the week before fall term.
“We had rock climbing at Smith Rock, rafting on the Deschutes, and backpacking in the Three Sisters,” Glass says. “It orients students to their peers and they get to have this great experience right from the start. It’s a nice way to instantly be a part of something.”
Glass says that being a student leader in Cascades Adventures is a natural fit with counseling.
“It’s been cool to mentor other students,” Glass says, “and see their development and growth in the outdoors.”