Sweet Briar named Top Adventure College among small schools

April 25, 2017 | Jennifer McManamay
Hikers cross a high meadow

Sweet Briar director of outdoor programs Kate Macklin ’13 and Koda form the rear guard at Cole Mountain, a popular day hike in Amherst County.

Sweet Briar is the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic’s Top Adventure College among small schools, say readers of Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine who voted in an online contest.

The College was second overall in this year’s polling, said the magazine’s digital editor, Travis Hall. A news release today named Western Carolina University the Top Adventure School winner for the fourth year in a row. The contest, in its fifth year, is sponsored by ENO.

The March Madness-style tournament began March 6 with a round of 32, pitting large schools on one side of the bracket and small schools — those with fewer than 5,000 undergraduates — on the other side, according to a story announcing the contest. The magazine selects colleges and universities “for their outdoor clubs and curricula, commitment to outdoor and environmental initiatives, quality of outdoor athletes and programs, and opportunities for adventure.”

The winners of each division face off in a “David-meets-Goliath championship to determine the region’s best outdoor school.”

Students caving

Katie Ferguson ’17 (back) and Corin Diaz ’19 spelunking at Island Ford Cave.

In a testament both to the strength of the Sweet Briar Outdoor Program and the devotion of the College’s much smaller but extraordinarily enthusiastic student and alumnae base, David nearly slew the giant. Alas, WCU is a worthy opponent, and deserving of congratulations on its great run.

The starting point of outdoor exploration at Sweet Briar is its 3,250-acre campus on the eastern slopes of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Often ranked among the most beautiful in the country for its historic architecture and rolling terrain, the campus is also a natural laboratory for biology, environmental science, archaeology and history. Writers and artists find inspiration here.

Among the fields and forests are 18 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding; lakes for paddling, fishing and swimming; eight designated natural areas; and primitive camping sites including a very cool chestnut log cabin built by students in the 1930s. Students, faculty and staff can reserve the Outing Cabin for a restful or contemplative getaway at no charge.

Off-campus adventures are close by, too. The College is within 30 minutes of the George Washington National Forest and federally designated scenic areas. Cole Mountain, a high meadow with a 360-degree view in Amherst County, and The Priest, neighboring Nelson County’s 4,063-foot peak, are just two nearby points along the Appalachian Trail that offer spectacular day or overnight hikes.

“Being so close to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the AT allows us easy access to hiking and backpacking trails,” says Kate Macklin, director of outdoor programs. “The James, Maury and Piney rivers are right in our backyard, local crags and bouldering areas abound, and limestone caves dot the western regions of the state.”

All of it is accessible to students on their own or through the Sweet Briar Outdoor Program. Established 32 years ago, the program provides instruction, organized trips and equipment rental. Gear is provided at no additional cost for Outdoor Program trip participants, and for nominal fees to those striking out on their own. Most trips are beginner-friendly, and the Student Government Association underwrites costs to make them affordable to all students. There’s even a hiking class each semester students can take for half a credit.

Kayaking white water

Balcony Falls on the James River is the go-to spot for beginner whitewater kayaking sessions or to paddle when classes are done for the day.

Macklin tries to offer a Wednesday evening outing most weeks and at least one excursion per weekend. Weekend trips might be hang gliding at Jockey’s Ridge in Nags Head, N.C., or whitewater kayaking on the Rappahannock. Some adventures go farther afield: rock climbing in West Virginia, whitewater rafting in Tennessee, or backpacking in the Grand Canyon and paddling the Colorado River.

One of the program’s strengths, Macklin says, is the “quantity and quality of programming we provide with limited resources.”

Another is that it is student-driven. Student instructors organize and lead most trips and they determine programming.

Trip leader Katie Ferguson, a senior biology major and chemistry minor, has been involved in the program since her first year at Sweet Briar.

“We try to offer as many different types of activities as possible and we are always looking for suggestions from students. After all, we are here for them,” she says. “This semester, we offered a beginner mountain biking day trip based on student comments in the fall.”

For Ferguson, who is from the North Carolina shore community of Hampstead, the Outdoor Program was a difference-maker in choosing Sweet Briar. Coming from the beach, rock climbing and caving seemed like foreign adventures. She wanted to try new things. The opportunity to work in the program and learn to be a leader was exciting, too.

“You learn how to be responsible for a large group of people in an unknown environment, while being prepared for the worst to happen,” Ferguson says. “Yet, regardless of all that, your job is to help everyone have a fun time as you teach them new skills and techniques, so they can hopefully go out and do this on their own.”

Fumin Li smiles

Fumin Li ’15 finishes a climb at North Carolina’s Pilot Mountain in 2014. Happy smiles are a natural byproduct of a sense of accomplishment.

Sophomore Corin Diaz was a trip leader on a recent rock-climbing excursion over spring break. It took her and her fellow adventurers to West Virginia’s Nelson Rocks — where a via ferrata climb crossed a 150-foot-high suspension bridge.

It was an opportunity to overcome fear.

“As an Outdoor Program instructor, [the trip] helped me grow as a leader,” Diaz said. “As a person, it gave me lots of challenges to overcome and transform them into character growth.”

It’s common for participants to return from a trip feeling a “deep sense of self-confidence and camaraderie,” Macklin says.

“Students step outside of their comfort zones and push themselves to try new things, take the more challenging trail, run the harder line through a rapid, and put themselves out there in executing a new skill. Whether or not she is successful, she learns.”

That sort of experiential learning is part of the program’s mission, which includes making connections to academics. Among other departments, creative writing, environmental science, music and history have all partnered on co-curricular outings or workshops, on campus and off.

“The Outdoor Program definitely complements our academics,” Ferguson says. “Not only do we often lead cross-curricular trips with Sweet Briar faculty — an anthropological hike with Dr. [Lynn] Rainville, a reflective writing retreat with [Professor Nell] Boeschenstein, etc. — I also unequivocally believe that exploring and adventuring in nature for even just a couple of hours helps students rejuvenate and relax, so they are more alert and attentive in class.”

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