Life Lessons from the Great Outdoors

Photo by Heather Peterson

Story by Julian Cochran

In May, 43 students embarked on a choice of one of four outdoor Cavalier Capstone adventures I proposed and designed in collaboration with Ryan Carlson — the founder and director of Black Mountain Expeditions, an outdoor adventure company based in Montreat. The capstone offered students the choice of backpacking, mountain biking, rock climbing or whitewater kayaking. The group departed Durham Academy early on Tuesday morning after Memorial Day and spent four days in western North Carolina on their varying adventures, returning to DA on Friday evening.

The students on the backpacking program spent all of their time in the backcountry exploring parts of Pisgah National Forest while hiking on a section of the Art Loeb Trail near Brevard, and the other three groups alternated between time in camp to train and learn about their various activities and leaving their home base to explore the multitude of outdoor recreation areas in the greater Pisgah National Forest area. Black Mountain Expeditions uses Camp Merri-Mac in Montreat as home base for all of the experiential education programs they run, so that was the training location for DA students who were in camp for the first day or two of their program.

Kayakers had time to learn how to maneuver and roll their kayaks in the camp’s swim lake. Rock climbers practiced knot tying, belaying and climbing technique on several of the camp’s climbing walls and towers. Cyclists learned about proper pre-trip bike maintenance and techniques for navigating single-track trails while also utilizing some of the various camp trails for a less-challenging first run on their bikes. On the last two days of the program, all groups were out in the field actively engaged in their chosen activities.

Photo by Jackie Lauricella

The goals of the program were simple. Carlson and I wanted to design capstones that were curriculum-rich experiences for all participants, with the main goal that the students who went on the trips would push outside of their comfort zones while learning lifelong skills about how to plan and safely execute outdoor recreation trips on their own. Groups had students from various grades, so almost all students had the opportunity to work with classmates with whom they might not have shared classes or social groups before the capstone.

All students spent at least one night in the field away from camp, which tests participants with sleeping outdoors on the ground and cooking food on a shared stove. The whitewater paddlers had to learn how to combat any anxiety about navigating rapids for the first time, while the rock climbers addressed any fear of heights head-on. The cyclists pushed each other to maximize the fun, while also understanding that the best trips are those where everyone comes home safely with great memories. The backpackers learned about meal planning, route finding, how to live comfortably in the outdoors carrying only the essential items on your back and the seven principles of Leave No Trace important to any backcountry adventure.

The outstanding weather positively impacted every group’s program. Gorgeous blue skies, low humidity, no rain and cool, crisp nights made for an outstanding week. DA athletic trainer Jackie Lauricella, trip chaperone for the rock climbing capstone, best summed up the week: “The outdoor capstones were all the fun of sleep-away camp while being able to hone in on a challenging skill. I found myself immersed in gorgeous views, good people and adventure, and I could not have been more grateful to have the experience.”

Senior Brandon Caveney added, “The program was a meaningful learning experience that more than broke the monotony of the classroom and was a ton of fun for me. Our trip leaders were amazing! For example, one of my instructors went to the U.S. Olympic trials. Getting to learn about mountain biking from that person was a great experience.”

For the May 2020 outdoor education capstones, we will add a fifth track — fly fishing. We hope students and parents will continue to see these capstone offerings as an important part of the development of the whole student at the Upper School.

1/4 Balance
1/2 Drive
1/4 Resilience