Summer is the perfect time for new jobs, internships and new adventures. The Sweet Briar College Outdoor Program recently took advantage of exactly that. Director of Outdoor Programs Mikel Mayo-Pitts and five students spent four days on an expedition to the Great Smoky Mountains.
“I was looking for locations that were within a drivable distance that had great hiking, climbing and paddling in close proximity,” Mikel explains. “I have wanted to visit the Smoky Mountains for some time anyways so it was one of the first locations that came to mind.”
Mikel helped with the early stages of planning to figure out the big picture items and the financial side of things. Once a general timeframe and location were established, student leaders Sita Moses ’23 and Renee Taylor ’24 took the reins and planned out camping locations, meals and lesson plans.
The trip included a variety of outdoor activities and lessons. “We really had three parts to our trip: backpacking, paddling and rock climbing,” says Mikel. “Throughout most of the trip we stayed in a base camp and traveled out from there. So days generally started with waking up at camp, making coffee and breakfast, then setting out on our activity.” Two days were spent backpacking, one rock climbing and one paddling.
Nishu Hoque ’25 who attended the expedition shared, “After a strenuous academic year, this trip was rejuvenating, gave me an essence to relax and to simply have fun! We played riddles, hummed songs, encountered wild flowers and a snake while we hiked deep into the mountains. I enjoyed every bit of it, whether Renee was giving a back-crack to Sita (I call her Lakshmi) or Mikel was showing off his smooth hand stand.”
“A very important goal of this trip was to leave the participants with the knowledge and ability to continue spending time outdoors,” explains Mikel. “With that said, there were lots of lessons planned out each day. Fire building, fitting a pack, hanging a bear bag, various climbing knots and much more.”
Mikel has always been most passionate about rock climbing. But on this expedition, the most challenging and also most impactful activity was backpacking. “The first day of our trip had an incredibly unrelenting 6 1/2 mile uphill hike that completely exhausted our group,” says Mikel. “I think we all felt a lot of relief, but also a lot of pride, when we got to camp that night.”
Sanjita Pokhrel ’25 shared that her favorite part of the program and the trip was the opportunity to explore new things. “Such trips also help me better understand that the journey is more beautiful than the destination. When we were hiking the Great Smoky mountains the whole day uphill, we played different games to keep ourselves entertained. So, the journey seems shorter than it actually is,” she says.
“I enjoyed meal times together with everyone,” shared Sita. “I love making food for people and though cooking in the outback presents its own struggles at the end of a long day it was always lovely to sit with everyone and share dinner together.”
This trip was funded by the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), which is interested in helping programs that introduce new audiences to the outdoors. The participants on this trip were completely new to outdoor recreation. It was their first time camping, backpacking, building a fire, climbing, paddling and even being in the water with a life vest. Sanjita explained that it was her first time camping out for three consecutive nights.
“By the end of the trip, we did a review lesson and they demonstrated competency in Leave No Trace principles, setting up a tent, lighting a stove, building a fire, filtering water, digging a cathole, hanging a bear bag, packing and fitting a backpack, fitting a harness and helmet, tying a figure eight follow through, basic climbing technique and footwork, fitting a paddle and lifejacket, basic paddle strokes, what to do if your canoe flips and more,” noted Mikel.
Nishu shared, “I feel the Outdoor Program at Sweet Briar to be very accessible. Since it has all the necessary gear available, it becomes affordable and convenient for students to sign up for their favorite activities.”
At the end of the trip each participant could choose their favorite activity (hiking, paddling or climbing) and the outdoor program bought them gear to continue their outdoor endeavors. Those interested in hiking received a backpack, paddlers received a lifejacket, and climbers were given a harness and shoes.”
The Outdoor Program continues to grow with members with all sorts of outdoor knowledge levels and interests. That is part of what makes the program so special at Sweet Briar College. The access to miles of trails, a climbing wall, lakes to paddle on, vast acreage to camp out on and so much more are also a unique aspect to the program and to campus. “I believe how much input the trip leaders have is what makes our program so special,” says Sita. “We are able to truly explore and support each other. Working for the program I feel as though I actually have an impact on what we accomplish each year.”
Mikel hopes to make the summer expedition an annual tradition.