One of the many special things about Ohio University is its location in the Appalachian foothills. The idea of being one with nature is what attracts many people to Athens, Ohio.
Due to the natural beauty of the local area, it is only right for OU to have a department dedicated to exploring this beauty.
Outdoor Pursuits, according to its mission statement, “is the adventure recreation and education program of University Well-Being and Recreation, providing students, faculty, staff and the community with opportunities for healthy outdoor recreation, leadership development, experiential learning and environmental awareness.”
From March 11-18 during spring break, Outdoor Pursuits is taking a group of eight students on a backpacking trip on a section of the Appalachian Trail, the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the U.S.
They have begun in Georgia, and will cross the North Carolina border and finish about an hour from Franklin, North Carolina.
Cody Lennon, the director of Outdoor Pursuits and assistant director of outdoor recreation and education, has been leading backpacking experiences in the backcountry for over ten years now.
“As Outdoor Pursuits we have the freedom to go wherever we want to in the country,” Lennon said. “There's something really special about the Appalachian Trail that I think that people in this region are especially prone to understanding.”
Outdoor Pursuits often hosts trips on the Appalachian Trail. For their spring break trip last year, the group ended in the same spot on the trail in Georgia where the upcoming trip will begin their journey this year.
“Being able to use some of these closer resources like the AT (Appalachian Trail) are a great opportunity for Ohio University students to take some pride in living in Appalachia,” Lennon said.
Caeley Grady, the graduate assistant for outdoor trips and rentals, is one of the guides for the trip. Grady is familiar with much of Southeastern Ohio and the Appalachian Trail and has been a backpacking guide in New Mexico for the Boy Scouts of America.
“My hopes are people building a community and meeting new people, not even just with the Ohio University students,” Grady said. “A lot of people tend to start the trail right now and so building community with even other people who are from around the country to tell them about Outdoor Pursuits and what we're doing here.”
Throughout the trip, the backpackers are hiking during the day and then setting up camp at night. They will be learning the fundamentals of backpacking such as cooking, navigating and setting up their camps.
“This trip (specifically) gives people the opportunity to learn some new skills, make new friends and see a different part of the country that they probably wouldn't have been able to do on their own, all the while challenging their mind and body,” Lennon said. “We really believe that incorporating all those challenges in one setting like this can do wonders on one's journey to well-being.”
Everything that a participant would need for the trip is provided by Outdoor Pursuits with the $475 program cost. By not having to worry about having the correct equipment, participants are able to fully absorb the experience and what they are learning.
“We really try to be as inclusive as possible with these trips and we try to give the participants as much as we can so that they feel like they're going to be successful, whether that's educating them on the gear that we're going to issue them and how it works, or how to read a map or whatever that might be,” Lennon said. “We want to make this as easy as possible for somebody who's never been backpacking before to step in and feel confident out there.”
The planning process for this trip began in December, with a beginner level kept in mind.
“I wanted it to be able to be a little bit more geared towards the beginner and building up to something like a little harder towards the end of the trip,” Grady said.
Lennon said there is no doubt that Outdoor Pursuits is an inclusive, tight-knit community. Many people who go on the trips continue to be involved with the program.
“I think it's really cool to see some of these folks that sign up for these trips end up later being some of our best employees and I think being introduced to outdoor programming by starting in an outdoor program really fosters this appreciation and ownership of just trying to create transformational experiences for other people,” Lennon said.
One of these people is Emelia Adams, a sophomore studying environmental science and sustainability, who serves as the recreation assistant with Outdoor Pursuits and is a guide on the spring break trip.
“I was going on a trip for about a month with the university and it was with the recreation program and so I learned how to backpack through them and through the (recreation) department here at OU,” Adams said.
Despite this trip being planned by a recreation department, participants tend to be in science-related majors like plant biology and environmental studies. Another notable trend in participation is that the students are mostly women or woman-adjacent, as Grady said, with only one hiker identifying as male.
“I just hope that everybody can feel comfortable and welcomed,” Adams said. “That's another thing that we really strive for.”
Adams is looking forward to providing a valuable experience for the group.
“It's really cool that I get to kind of facilitate their experience and be a part of that and that growth curve that they're gonna have,” Adams said. “I know being in the outdoors and being in a backcountry setting is life changing.”
According to Adams, being in the great outdoors can put a lot in perspective for someone.
“Going on trips like these make all of your other problems so much more miniscule because you're in a survival setting where you have to work a lot harder for your basic needs,” Adams said. “I think it can put people in a lot of perspective.”
Lennon feels the same about the impact that trips such as these can have on someone.
“I think once you've taken the time to really simplify all of those tasks, you start to have a better relationship with yourself,” Lennon said. “You start to feel like you know, I can do this, I can grasp the problems in my life, because once you've removed some of the complexities that society has put on us, everything's just right there.”
Spending time in the wilderness has more than just a physical effect on people, especially when there is a community aspect to it.
“That's what we do, I think as recreation professionals, it's more than the activity,” Lennon said. “It's more than just backpacking or just climbing, it's way more about the community and creating a space for people to come in and try something new and to challenge themselves.”