Outdoor Recreation Program Connects People to Nature — and One Another
And they’re off! Associate Professor Mary Lynn Realff (right, second from front) steps out with Stamps President’s Scholars (SPS) for a wilderness trek in Montana last year. This year, she is going to Canada with another group of SPS students.
Last summer, Outdoor Recreation Georgia Tech (ORGT) offered a number of Saturday morning hikes just for employees. More have been scheduled for this summer, but these aren’t the only ORGT opportunities for faculty and staff with a sense of adventure.
With the exception of some students-only expeditions, ORGT activities and resources are available to all members of the Georgia Tech community — alumni and sponsored guests included, said David Knobbe, assistant director of Outdoor Recreation at the Campus Recreation Center (CRC). “They just have to be bold enough to walk through the door.”
And he means that literally, since all transactions — whether it’s signing up for an an “adventure” or renting equipment — must be done in person at what’s called the Wilderness Outpost, downstairs in the CRC.
Everybody Pulls Their Weight
Floor-to-ceiling shelves in the Wilderness Outpost hold everything from carabiners for rock climbing to wetsuits for whitewater kayaking, but the most valuable commodity in stock is expertise. Two full-time staff members — Knobbe and Outdoor Recreation Coordinator Matt Marcus — along with almost 200 trained student and alumni volunteers are at the ready to share knowledge and lead trips.
Knobbe sees a distinct Georgia Tech intensity in the volunteers’ commitment to providing “world-class experiences.”
“I like to say that what we do isn’t rocket science, but our volunteers tend to be rocket scientists, and that makes all the difference,” he said. “If anyone dares to use terms like club or fun, we push away from that. Our department’s true purpose is to help our student volunteers build leadership, communication, and problem-solving skills that complement their Georgia Tech degree.”
Trip options range from beginner to advanced, and activities that call for some degree of know-how require a “pre-class” — training and orientation sessions that are typically scheduled for a weeknight before the trip and last from one to three hours, depending on the sport.
“Participants meet the staff, learn fundamental skills, and basically get an understanding of what’s going to happen on the trip,” Knobbe said. “And yes, people must sign waivers and demonstrate some level of fitness for certain activities.” Prerequisite trips are required for some advanced excursions.
Knobbe stresses that many trips are not easy, nor are they designed to be. “This is not like, ‘We’re going to Six Flags and they’re going to take care of us,’” he said. “Everybody pulls their weight, and you really become part of that team that is together taking themselves.”
A Great Kind of Synergy
Sign-up for a trip typically starts 30 days out, and most trips fill up fast. Costs vary, but because a generous endowment from David D. Flanagan (a 1976 industrial engineering graduate) underwrites student participation, faculty and staff pay twice as much for trips and equipment rental, which is usually priced per excursion. Sometimes, all participants need are proper shoes and a brown-bag lunch, Knobbe said. ORGT takes care of the rest.
Although faculty and staff are welcome to participate in most trips, “relatively few” take advantage of these opportunities, Knobbe pointed out. Still, some expeditions in partnership with campus organizations deliberately seek out faculty and staff participation.
Last year, Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Mary Lynn Realff was invited to take her involvement with the Stamps President’s Scholars to new heights as a faculty guide for an ORGT wilderness trek in Montana. She’d been a Girl Scout and was no stranger to local hiking trails, but this would be her first time “backpacking.”
“I practiced for a month before I went on this trip,” she said.
She started with an empty backpack and gradually built up to the 35 pounds she knew she would be carrying.
She also attended several required meetings in advance of the trip but didn’t see the time commitment as a barrier to participation. “The barrier was more mental, being 50 years old and thinking, ‘I’m going to carry everything on my back for five days in the wilderness?’ A lot of people were surprised that I would even consider that!” she said.
Would she do it again? “Absolutely,” she said. “I think I got a lot more out of it than I gave.”
Realff considers herself “pretty approachable,” but the wilderness setting gave her a way to interact with students that she had never experienced before. “There was time to really get to know each student,” she said. “And there were all these conversations, everything from singing tunes to deep conversations about what’s important in life, things like that — and having fun at the same time.”
Realff recommends that other faculty and staff give ORGT a try. “It doesn’t have to be five days in the wilderness,” she said. “You can try some of these smaller trips and see how wonderful it is.”
Knobbe agrees that ORGT is a great way to connect with others in the Georgia Tech community, especially students.
“I think students learn immensely from having faculty and staff present,” he said. “In the same way that students see faculty in a different light — maybe a more human light — faculty come away with a greater appreciation for students, who they are, their ideas, and what they’re doing. It’s a great kind of synergy when we get them out in the field together.”
For more information, go to www.crc.gatech.edu/orgt or visit ORGT in person, 2 to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 2 to 5 p.m. on Fridays.