The Virginia Commonwealth University Outdoor Adventure Program (OAP) has been training students to lead trips in the outdoors since 1982. The program has a long history of creating community, pushing individuals to find themselves and connecting students with the natural world around them. Using the outdoors as its classroom, the OAP cultivates leadership through a 9 month program called Student Outdoor Leadership Experiences, or SOLE. Over the years this program has changed considerably, but one thing has remained constant: the course always ends with a weeklong “expedition trip” planned and led by the students themselves.
The concept of outdoor leadership can be explored in multitudinous different ways. I have spent countless weeks stomping around in the woods with a pack on by back, I have paddled thousands of miles in rafts, kayaks, canoes and just about anything else that floats and I have dangled kids from the side of cliffs and canyons all across the United States. All of these activities have merits and drawbacks and I am constantly trying to find new ways to effectively train staff. I feel that the best training is accomplished through giving people a challenging task to accomplish and getting them out there, actually doing it. It forces people to handle real life situations that they can learn from and apply in the future. Bikepacking has always seemed like a good fit for this. Unlike more traditional outdoor sports, most people have never tried anything like this. It levels the playing field for a large group to experiment and learn. Riding a bike also speeds things up a bit. You can go farther and on more varied terrain. No longer does one simply follow a trail through the woods. Connecting roads, trails, bike paths forest service roads, etc… opens up more opportunities to tackle different issues on the fly. Decisions have to be made more frequently which in turn gives one more opportunities to learn while thinking on one’s feet.
Recently, the VCU SOLE program took on a 150 mile section of the Huracan 300 in central Florida. The route, created by Karlos Bernart, the Singletrack Samurai, is touted as the ultimate off-road endurance experience in the state of Florida. Between desolate swamp crossings, endless forest service roads, stellar single track and the occasional alligator wrangler, this route did not disappoint. It certainly was not the spring break beach vacation that the average college student dreams of; but this group of inspiring individuals challenged themselves and pushed their limits while taking on something completely unknown to them. In the end they learned much more than a week at Panama City beach could provide. Below are a few excerpts from their experience. – Joey Parent, Director, VCU Outdoor Adventure Program.
The first day of biking was probably the most difficult for me personally. I woke up at 5am to drive 3 hours to the shuttle site, the whole way there nervous that the gravel parking lot on the side of County Road 46 I had picked to leave the van might not actually exist, but it was there and things worked out well. As a designated leader that day, I had to decipher the route on the GPS unit, which took me the better part of the day to finally master, comparing the compass to the turns shown on the device. There was a lot of trekking through deep, sandy roads under the hot sun that day. This was especially hard for the group since we had just come from Virginia where it was still winter more or less. Well into the afternoon we came to one of the potential campsites. We had to make a decision to push another 15 miles, after the 30 or so we had already covered before dark, or stay for the night. We decided to keep moving. As the sun set, getting all 12 people to pedal at a decent pace without breaking every 20 minutes was nearly impossible. The last couple of miles were done on a busy road in the dark, something I was not happy about as the leader. On top of that, I couldn’t find the campsite. We rode past it a couple of times before stumbling upon the turn off that lead down a steep embankment and eventually to a fire ring. By this point I was so tired I had to force myself to stay awake through dinner and dishwashing. Getting to finally sleep was the greatest feeling that day, even though we had another early morning ahead of us. – Jessie Powell – Sophomore, Environmental Studies.
Day two of riding began with a much earlier start than day one. I was nervous about getting sick again but excited for the day. During the cool morning, we rode through more single track in a forest made of windy and knobby trees that were delicately draped in Spanish moss. Stickers on the trail markers identified this trail as an IMBA Epic MTB Trail, and these words could not be more true. Cruising through the trails felt like riding through some kind of mystical forest. Even though we weren’t far from suburban central Florida, I felt that our group was isolated. The awareness of experiencing an adventure that the majority of people either aren’t aware of or are uninterested in always gives me a stronger sense of self. Struggling through the trails was a gift that relatively few people will experience. As the temperature rose, my feelings of serenity and fortune fought to stay in control as the sickness snuck back in. Today, the dizziness was more powerful, at one point forcing me to stop moving and sit for a while to regain a sure sense of my feet on the ground. My friends were standing around me in concern, and again, the feelings of uselessness and being a hindrance returned, as did my stubborn desire to push through. The group encouraged me to take it slow and I delivered. Moving at what was perhaps a little faster than a crawl but not quite as quick as old people taking laps around the mall. I pushed my bike through the remaining single track until we made it to pavement and easy riding. The whole time, I was hating my body for betraying me. Self-resentment was at the forefront of my mind for being the person who made everyone wait. And what about the rest of the group? Surely they were struggling too, but I wasn’t able to take care of them in the way they were taking care of me. I wanted to be a leader, not a follower barely capable of following. When we got to camp, Joey and I cleaned up a bit and hitched a ride with a friendly neighbor into a local clinic. – Emily Philpott – Sophomore, Biology.
The third day we biked from Santos to the Ross Prairie campground on almost entirely single track. On this day I had the opportunity to be one of the designated ‘leaders’ for the day. Waking up not feeling too great, most likely due to insufficient hydration (Drink your water people!), I immediately realized just how hard it can be to actively lead a group of people when you’re not feeling your best. It wasn’t until about 15 minutes into the bike ride that I think I truly woke up. I stayed at the back of the group for the first half of the day in order to make sure no one was left behind and at the front with the GPS for the second part of the day. Leading a group through the wilderness is definitely a big responsibility since you are accountable for both the safety and experience of your participants. As a trip leader, even though you are (hopefully) leading an activity that you really enjoy, the experience cannot revolve around your own recreation. It’s all about safely creating the atmosphere in which your participants can enjoy and see the wonder that outdoor adventures hold. Make them see what the big fuss is about! While no one on this expedition had any need of convincing, it was still a great opportunity to see first-hand and react accordingly in a position of leadership to the effects that a multi-day trip can have on even the most enthusiastic. – Kirby Jacobs – Sophomore, Anthropology.
The biking that day was the hardest biking of the trip, and I’d never been mountain biking. It was super fun, but it also hurt my confidence knowing that other people on the trip were better bikers when I was supposed to be leading. Even though the people behind me were very supportive and helpful, I still felt like I was holding the group back. I ended up pushing myself physically so I wouldn’t slow anyone down. This worked for a while, until I completely exhausted myself. Thankfully, I had a co-leader to switch with. I realized, though, sitting on the side of the trail drinking electrolyte water, that pushing myself more would just lead to me slowing the group down even more. Maybe for a little while we’d go faster, but later we’d have to go much slower while I recovered. I also was reminded that just because the best bikers where right behind me, didn’t mean the whole group was. When we stopped for a break, everyone shared their wipe out stories, and I realized I had just created a problem for myself that hadn’t existed. The group wasn’t waiting impatiently for me to struggle up the next hill, they were struggling too. – Julie Rothey – Sophomore, Broadcast Journalism.
Day 4 – Sun rose so we got back on the bikes for the longest day of the journey. Taylor and Joey continued on without the nine of us to complete the trip, while Emily stayed behind at Ross Prairie for the day. They would pick up the van 75 miles away, scoop Emily and meet us at the next campsite, leaving us to our own strategy. I have to say, Adam and Shannon were the designated leaders for the day and they could not have been better for the job. The mixture of Adam’s serious persona and Shannon’s sweet comic relief made the (seemingly) most miserable day of the trip the one where we all laughed the most. Around the campfire after dinner that night we talked about our “plus minus delta” that we always do with Joey, to discuss the high and low point of the day. In that moment, we were serious, a rarity for this group, finally feeling like the true trip leaders that we were becoming every day. After that moment passed, I happily mentioned to my SOLE mates that the day marked my six-year anniversary of being diagnosed as a type one diabetic. I couldn’t have been surrounded by a better group of friends, or had any more of an epic day, to mark this significant milestone in my life. – Cassandra Labowski
We were all put to the test on one of the final days of our expedition when we were left alone as a group without the help of Joey and Taylor, our instructors. This day, terrain-wise, was the most difficult day of the expedition. We started riding on quiet, empty roads in a half-developed neighborhood but then the GPS led us to a large fire road that was piled high with sand and ash. The only way we could make progress was to push our bikes through the thick dark ash and muster through the hot Florida sun. It felt like we were in some post-apocalyptic world because all the vegetation around us was burned red by the intense sun or charred black by the fire used to control. There were the occasional signs of green ground palms and trees untouched by the fires that reminded us that life was still here and that we had not been transported to some other world. Finally, after making it through the thick ash after what felt like miles, we were faced with an even bigger challenge– the GPS directed us through a barbed wire fence into a dense, wet, swampy area. This is it, I thought. This is the moment I will meet eye-to-eye with an alligator. All my years of watching Man vs. Wild and playful wrestling matches with my cousins will finally pay off in this moment. Our shoes were coated in thick anoxic mud as we struggled to find the correct way through the swamp. There was no set path and on either side of us. We were surrounded by shallow swamp water blanketed by bright green leaves floating on the water surface and Cypress trees protruding through the surface. This section was not easy but you couldn’t tell by looking at our group. You could sense it in the air—everyone was amped up with the excitement from the unknown. This was our moment to shine and we seized the moment. It was a strange mix of feeling half like I was in an Indiana Jones film, and half feeling like I was in a scene out of Spirited Away. Finally, after drudging our bikes through the thick mud, we made it out into what we later found out was the Citrus Wildlife Management Area. All around us were animals roaming free in their natural habitats. We rode so closely past them on the road that I felt like I could reach out my hands and grab onto the horns of the bulls grazing next to us. I could only equate this portion to what someone must feel like on a safari. By the end of it when we finally settled under a tree in the Wildlife Management Area main office, we were exhausted but refreshed. Never have peanut butter and Teddy Graham wraps tasted so good and well deserved. – Lizette Carrasco – Junior, Biology
Day 5 By the end of the week, we were all physically and mentally exhausted. It didn’t feel quite right finishing the week off riding without everyone who had started the trip (Emily). Nevertheless, once we got to the last 10 miles of single track, we were riding as if it were the first day again, flying around the sandy corners with all of our gear. At the end we were greeted by the most pleasant of water spigots to shower in, after a long extremely hot day of riding. We then made lunch and brewed a most satisfying pot of coffee. We were done biking and we could let our bodies rest, meanwhile we all felt much more accomplished knowing we had finished our entire ride a day ahead of schedule and that everyone remained safe the entire week. – Adam Baggett – Junior, Mechanical Engineering
Every day of that trip was different, whether it was new terrain, more mileage, carrying our bikes through a swamp, members of the group not feeling well, or having to make food stops. The funny thing was while I was doing it I didn’t think much of it. All I really could think about was pedaling up the next hill, or being thirsty, about how incredible that section of flat road was, or how cool that bit of shade under that tree was. It was monotonous. We got into a rhythm, of waking up, grabbing our headlamps, packing up the bikes, making coffee and eating, pedaling a lot, eating dinner, tidying up camp, and going to sleep when the sun went down. Coming back to normal life afterwards felt strange. I would still wake up before the sun, and almost without thinking about it start doing chores around the house. My road bike felt like lightning on the paved streets, with no heavy gear strapped to the frame. I felt strong. – Jessie Powell – Sophomore, Environmental Studies
The idea that you can have everything you need to survive strapped to a mountain bike, and ride wherever you want is really appealing to me. Coming from never having done any type of bikepacking before to conquering 150 miles of Florida wilderness on a bike was an awesome accomplishment at the end of the trip. I will definitely be doing more bikepacking in the future, and would recommend it to anyone who wants to challenge themselves both physically and mentally; all while riding and exploring areas most people will never come across. – Josh Elder -Junior, Marketing
“I was lucky enough to mentor the new leaders through the planning and execution of their expedition. This gave me a lot of insight into how well bikepacking provides a platform conducive to teaching outdoor leadership. It does this best by increasing the adversity of logistics and decision-making as well as increasing the degree of strenuousness of the activity. When talking with my co-instructor Joey about this, we called it “turning up the heat.” Other activities frequently used to teach leadership skills, for instance backpacking or canoeing, sometimes do a poor job of putting students in sticky situations, creating too much smooth sailing, less frequently giving them chances to make critical decisions or mistakes.
“Having the chance to watch the SOLE students grow over the course of that week was spectacular. I don’t know if I learned that much during my own expedition… This group had to change plans multiple times, learned to make decisions much more quickly and efficiently than they were used to, all while doing an activity that was very new to them. It was an exceptionally valuable learning experience both for the SOLE students and for myself as a leader. – Taylor Welch – Senior, Spanish-English Translation and Interpretation.