When Colin Wilson ’11 arrived at Willamette his freshman year, he brought along his backpacking backpack, sleeping bag, hiking boots and camping gear — everything he needed to begin four years of outdoor exploration.
To his dismay, he soon realized the Outdoor Club’s two trips per semester would not satisfy his thirst for adventure.
“I had one of those Willamette learning moments where I realized that complaining about it and waiting for someone else to fix it was not going to solve the problem,” Wilson says.
So Wilson devised a detailed plan for an overnight backpacking trip and pitched the idea to the Outdoor Club’s president, Gabriel Tallent ’10.
“Gabe looked at me, he looked at my plans, and he said, ‘You seem a lot more motivated and enthusiastic about this than I am. Do you want to be president?’”
By the end of the day Wilson was the new president of the Outdoor Club, which he renamed the Backpacking Club. Over the next three years, Wilson’s dedication would bring the club to incredible new heights — with membership skyrocketing from less than 10 students to more than 100 active members.
“In the beginning, it kind of felt like kicking a boulder, trying to get this stone rolling. Kicking a boulder and breaking toes,” Wilson says. “But I kept kicking that boulder, and things started happening.”
Exploring the Pacific Northwest
The Backpacking Club is one of six student organizations that fall under the umbrella of Willamette’s Outdoor Program.
Located in the Montag Center, the Outdoor Program connects students with the rich and varied array of outdoor opportunities in the Pacific Northwest. Through guided outings, gear rental and leadership training workshops, the program makes it easy and affordable for students to leave the stresses of college behind for a day or a weekend.
“We are here in Oregon, where we are two hours from everything you could possibly want,” Wilson says. “We’ve got mountains, we’ve got ocean, we’ve got rivers, we’ve got lakes to scuba dive in, we’ve got Smith Rock to go climb at. We have everything.”
Bryan Schmidt, director of campus recreation, says the program offers something for everyone — including hikes at Silver Falls, ski and snowboard trips to Mount Hood, whale watching, snowshoeing at Crater Lake, white water rafting, horseback riding, archery, rock climbing and more.
"The mission of the Outdoor Program is to satisfy the needs of the entire Willamette community, from those who don’t want to get wet and dirty, to those who don’t want to get clean,” he says.
Innovation Through Student Leadership
Like the Backpacking Club, the Outdoor Program has undergone a radical evolution over the past three years, rising from just a handful of outings to more than 70 trips per year.
In 2012, Schmidt analyzed the staff size, budgets and program offerings for campus recreation departments across the Northwest, and he was amazed by the results.
“Not one other small institution offers what we offer. Not even close to what we have,” says Schmidt, who oversees Willamette’s 29 sport and outdoor clubs. “We are up there competing with some of the largest institutions, like the University of Oregon with 42 sport clubs, yet we are doing it with a fraction of the budget.”
So, Schmidt asks, how does Willamette offer so many outings with just one professional position in all of campus recreation, while most schools of the same size have three to five professionals overseeing the outdoor program aspect of campus recreation?
The answer: Student leadership.
“We aren’t all talk when we say students are a big part of what we do. They are what we do,” Schmidt says.
From planning trips, to writing budgets, to meeting with administrators, to managing gear rental — students do it all.
Students have also developed innovative ways to restructure the Outdoor Program to help clubs better utilize the support the university has to offer.
“Clubs have always been really tied to their student leaders, and you frequently see a boom/bust cycle, as dedicated students graduate or go abroad,” Wilson says. “Though many students at Willamette are passionate about the outdoors, passing off the skills and tricks for running trips through the university framework isn’t easy.”
To address this problem, Wilson devised a plan for a student leadership training program, which he implemented in 2011 through a six-month post-graduate internship with the Outdoor Program.
Preparing for the Unexpected
Nicki Bailey ’13, who coordinates the Outdoor Program, says the leadership training program prepares trip leaders to deal with the unexpected, in order to create a safe and fun environment on every outing.
“So much of outdoor education is that something is going to go wrong,” Bailey says. “How the leader handles a situation and how the group handles it is different than on campus, where there is always someone you can call to help you figure out a problem.”
Wilson says his involvement with the Backpacking Club and Outdoor Program is what defined him as a Willamette student, and he knows that student leaders will continue to take the program to new heights.
“The Willamette experience is about learning to make the most of everything you have,” Wilson says. “We are always on tight budgets and tight space, but the things we do on a tight budget and tight space blow people away.”
For more information about Outdoor Program outings and gear rental, visit the program website.