Take it Outdoors

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Jeff Bias

Jeff Bias is a sophomore from Racine, Wis.,and Offord is a senior from Coon Rapids. This is an experiential team building program that uses both high and low ropes to provide a series of individual and group challenges.

Jeff Bias Bryce Offord Evan Parkhouse Anglea Ahrendt Graham Parson and Jessica Madelyn 

Remember when you were a student stuck in a classroom on a beautiful day and begged your professor to a llow your class to study outdoors?

Well, what if the outdoors wa s your classroom all the time?

Consider it "education as an adventure," said Ivan Bartha, director of St. Cloud State University's Outdoor Endeavors program. "It's amazing the restoration that occurs through participation in recreational activities. Literally, recreation means re-creation, the abilit y to restore one's body."

And besides restoration, there's so much more involved. A recent story in the Harvard Business Review examined how outdoor activities — hiking, biking, paddling or swimming — helped enable students to actually practice different leadership and communication skills.

"Anybody can benefit from outdoor activities," said Bartha, who cited a poll that shows 70 percent of St. Cloud State students participate in campus recreation programs. Many chose some form of outdoor recreation whether it be snow-kiting on Mille Lacs Lake in the wintertime, rock climbing at Quarry Park and Nature Reserve, Waite Park, in the summer or taking advantage of the rich natural resources found locally.

"There's a strong rock-climbing culture in Central Minnesota," Bartha said. Some of that is due to the St. Cloud State climbing wall which opened in 2005 in the Student Recreation Center. Central Minnesota's premier climbing facility has more than 2,100 square feet of climbing surface and offers 12 climbing stations. It is home to the area's only instructional youth climbing program and the Women That Rock! Program devoted to expanding the pool of female climbers.

And when rock climbers want to take their skills outdoors, they can do so at Quarry Park and Nature Preserve. The climbing area began as a partnership with Stearns County Parks, initiated by former St. Cloud State professor Mark Wagstaff. Wagstaff and his students assessed Quarry Park and helped develop the anchor systems and climber permit system. About 17 mapped routes have been identified and graded by local climbers.

The Mississippi River, which flows through St. Cloud State's backyard, is a playground for high-quality but lesser known outdoor activities.

"Canoeing, kayaking and whitewater activities are important activities on the Mississippi and Sauk Rivers," said Bartha, who added that to many this may be unnoticed because of our lack of appreciation of what the rivers have to offer.

The University and the river will be in the spotlight this fall when St. Cloud State hosts the 2011 American Canoe Association Midwest Canoe and Kayak Collegiate Championships Sept. 2-4. This is the first time the championships will be held in the Midwest, Bartha said. He hopes to attract teams from as far away as Ohio and Montana.

Closer to home, Lake George is perhaps the best example of Outdoor Endeavor's involvement with recreation and community engagement. Where the City of St. Cloud once rented paddleboats for use on the inner-city lake, now Outdoor Endeavors rents them along with canoes, kayaks and, for the first time, stand-up paddleboards. It also conducts special events, instructional paddling programs and is part of the Wednesday night Summertime by George program. The operation is run as a collaborative effort between St. Cloud State University, the City of St. Cloud and the St. Cloud Rotary Club.

As big as the paddlesports are around St. Cloud State, perhaps one of the best-kept secrets, Bartha said, is the opportunity for both road and mountain biking. And not only is biking good for an individual, it's good for the community. "On all levels, an increase of biking increases every other major health, planning and economic impact in a community," he said.

As an example, look no further than to the City of Minneapolis, where Mayor R.T. Rybak has "set the bar high," Bartha said. "It's staggering to see what bicycling has done for the City of Minneapolis." A designated Bike Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclist, Minneapolis has shown what good community planning can do for including bicycles as a priority.

Bartha believes that bicycles hold huge potential not only for the environment, but as a learning and teaching tool. "There are twice as many bicycles manufactured worldwide than automobiles. The average bike consumer invests up to $1,000 in their bike." Another statistic that Bartha finds incredible is that there are five independent bike shops in St. Cloud, a metro area of 167,000.

And even though much has been done, so much more could be done. Bartha points to the parkland around St. Cloud State area as having the potential to be one of the best mountain biking trail systems in the state. He's working with the League of American Bicyclists to designate St. Cloud State as a bike-friendly campus. His goal is to work with local banks to establish a program where students can qualify for a one-year, interest-free loan to purchase a quality bike from a local bike shop.

Some activities are more strenuous than others. Take the Husky Challenge Course as an example. This is an experiential team-building program that utilizes low and high rope course elements to provide a series of individual and group challenges. It helps develop group communication skills, improve conflict-management skills and build trust while having fun.

And then there's all the good work being done at Kathio State Park where the State of Minnesota and St. Cloud State have a "memorandum of understanding" which has existed for some time and has wide-reaching benefits. "We provide a connection between St. Cloud State and Kathio State Park to not only provide recreation instruction and activities, but also to provide a learning opportunity for students from across the campus, " Bartha said.

One of those opportunities took place this spring when Kyle Arola, as part of his master's thesis, planted 800 white pine seedlings. Arola will study the 400 1-year-old trees and 400 2-year-old trees. "There will be several parameters looked at — tree age, budcapping, distance from road — to see which trees are the most successful at becoming established," Arola explained. "The trees can experience mortality from deer browse, drought, insects, and disease; when I encounter a tree that has died I will take note of the cause. This study will be used as a park-specific management plan for the restoration of white pines in the future."

One person who has seen the benefits of many of these activities is Michael Schoenecker '09. As an Outdoor Endeavors student worker, Schoenecker led large groups on team-building trips through high-elevation courses and planned, marketed and co-led leadership training trips in Montana and Arizona.

"One of the greatest things I have learned in my life is to observe and to value every situation," Schoeneker said. "Working at Outdoor Endeavors and being in such a learning-friendly environment has helped me more than I could have ever imagined. The people working above and around me are the ones who make that whole recreation department at St. Cloud State so valuable. From my first day working at Outdoor Endeavors I learned the value of communication, responsibility and the value of learning from others."

Schoeneker said the trips "taught me something much greater, group learning and group participation propels your communication skills to a whole new level. Anyone can talk to a group, but not everyone can teach a group skill that will help them the rest of their life."

- Story By Mike Nistler '79 | Photographs by Neil Andersen '96

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