Wilderness Institute builds strong bonds between students and nature


Ruth Ann Wilbourne rock climbing during Wilderness Institute

Anja Whittington will leave you in the woods! And you'll receive college credit for it.

Whittington, an associate professor in RU's Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, runs the department's Wilderness Institute, an intense four-week outdoor training course designed to utilize experiential learning to promote the development of an individual's leadership skills and ability to work within a group.

The nine-credit course, which is offered in the summer, exposes participants – there were nine this year – to a variety of outdoor adventure activities while developing sound outdoor living skills. "The goal is to train outdoor leaders so they become proficient in all the camp skills you need," Whittington said.

Those skills include campsite preparation, rock climbing, canoeing, biking, backpacking, knot tying and cooking. "They eat, breathe, sleep this," Whittington said. "They don't go home. They don't use their cell phones. They don't talk to their families. This is full-on gone!"

Before stepping foot into the woods, Whittington set aside a few days at RU's Selu Conservancy to prepare her students, reviewing the essential information for the excursion. With the group, she discussed the long journey ahead and attempted to alleviate fears.

Most students, she said, worried about the physical endurance necessary, such as carrying their backpacks, which weigh 50-60 pounds. They also had fears of heights, snakes and spiders.

"You'd think they would be nervous about not being able to talk to anyone on their phones, but they really looked forward to it," said Whittington, who has led Wilderness Institute for the past three years. "This year, they were totally ready to get rid of their phones."


Participants in this year's Wilderness Institute - Front row from left: Caroline Leggett, Mallorie Parsons, Shawn Black, Jenna Huggins, Holly McKittrick; back row: Matt Hendrickson, Ethan Seaver, Ruth Ann Wilbourne, Andrew Epperley

After final preparations at Selu, it was time to venture into the wild.

"And then we were gone, physically gone for 21 days and nights," Whittington gleefully said.

The journey first took the professor and her students for a day of exploring through Tawney's Cave in Giles County. Then, the part of the trip that puts "wilderness" in Wilderness Institute, began at the Linville Gorge area near Boone, North Carolina. From there, the group canoed for hours on the New River to Mouth of Wilson, Virginia.

Participants biked 35 miles on the Virginia Creeper Trail, which took them through Damascus and into Abingdon. From there, they regrouped and backpacked to Grayson Highlands State Park and Mount Rogers, the highest mountain in Virginia.

Students also got a chance for some alone time, overnight, in the woods. This year, the "solos" lasted about 32 hours, and served as a welcome time of solitude and reflection, Whittington said. "They had been together almost 20 days at that point," she explained. "So, it's good for them to get a little time to themselves."

Jenna Huggins made the most of her hours of solitude. "My spot was right near an open meadow area, so I spent a lot of time writing in my journal, doing some yoga and thinking about all I had experienced so far," said Huggins, a Mahwah, New Jersey, native. "At one point, I was surrounded by 16 cows. One came right up to me."

Wilderness Expedition wrapped up with what Whittington refers to as "final expedition," three days and nights in which she and another guide leave the students to pick up camp, find an exit route on the map and then hike out of the woods.

Though it's part of the learning adventure, Whittington said it was "nerve-wracking" for her. "During that time, I'm thinking I hope they're OK. It's getting late. It's pouring rain. It's lightning. I hope they're in their lightning drill," she said. "You wish they could check in, but there's no cell phone service."

While Whittington and the other guide back at base were worrying, the students were steadily completing the final expedition, bonding, finding scenic waterfalls and baking brownies, Huggins explained.

"It was great to just have fun and relax after everything we had accomplished," she said.

Sep 23, 2014