Escape the ordinary with Outdoor Adventures

Sedona is a highly visited hiking spot and NAU's Outdoor Adventures group takes trips there, Nov. 27, 2018.

In the college setting, it seems as though the primary focus is on getting the right education, followed by minimal attention to getting enough sleep, finding a job and then balancing all that with a social life.

However, NAU offers a unique program to students called Outdoor Adventures. The Outdoor Adventures department provides opportunities for students to explore places they may not have been before, or places that may seem daunting to the lone explorer.

Catie Miller, program coordinator for the Outdoor Adventures challenge course and climbing wall, described an early backpacking experience when her outdoor skills were tested. Despite its difficulty, she was able to accomplish the feeling of success through grit and determination, which she cultivates in her students today.

“What we do — taking people into the outdoors — is something that is transferable to everything,” Miller said. “While people are having an amazing and magical experience backpacking, on a river trip or even rock climbing, it may not be until a couple weeks, months or years later that I find students come to fully realize the lessons they learned from that trip.”

The department hosted its first all women’s trip to Sycamore canyon wilderness area in April. The planning and execution of the women’s trip was done by senior Annelise Wright, an intern for Outdoor Adventures.

Wright described her connection to the trip, including why she chose an all women’s program as her special project. Wright said she was looking to create a space where women could come together and be themselves in a judgement-free environment.

Wright’s capstone research paper was about the gender gap in outdoor recreation, and her goal to have the women on the trip share skills with one another to bridge that gap.

“The gender gap in outdoor recreation is still prevalent, but getting better,” Wright said. “What has shown to help with the gap right now is women’s programming.”

The women’s backpacking trip lasted three days and two nights, and 13 women participated. Wright also wanted the trip to be focused on teaching women Leave No Trace principles and other outdoor ethics to inform them of proper preservation techniques. The Leave No Trace initiative is an effort to keep the environment clean during outdoor recreation. The idea is to be conscious about one’s footprint, that no one would be able to tell that a person was ever there.

“Learning and teaching outdoor ethics, more specifically Leave No Trace principles, is one of the best ways to encourage others to take care of this planet and to take care of the areas they’re recreating in,” Wright said. “It’s not just factual information that this kind of education provides. It also provides the perspective as to why it’s important for the sake of preservation on the land.”

Danya Matulis, a trip guide and basecamp manager for the outdoor department, attended the women’s backpacking trip. She expressed how empowering the trip was, with too many good memories to pick a favorite. Although she said bonding, learning and growing with the other women on the trip made the experience memorable, she was stoked to have refined her outdoor cooking skills.

In addition to helping students overcome challenges and learn new skills, Outdoor Adventures creates a sense of place and community.

“Taking students to places like the Grand Canyon or Humphreys Peak really connects them to the local environment,” Miller said. “That sense of place is important because it creates the feeling of home — that Flagstaff is home and NAU is home.”

The outdoor community at NAU is built around people who love to explore and try new things.

“Outdoor Adventures at NAU creates an organic community outside of the social norms that typical college students partake in, like going to parties and being stuck in the library for six hours,” Wright said. “The adventures students go on take them to a place where there are no phones or distractions, no drugs or alcohol and no homework or jobs. Without all those worries, organic connections and friendships are made.”

A 2014 study done in Japan and published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine found that people who spent just 20 minutes outside each day felt less anxious and more happy overall.

In the study, participants took short walks in urban shopping centers and nature paths, then their moods were recorded and compared. Their blood pressure, heart rate and heart variability were also measured. While the results showed evidence for increased happiness when outside, the research also revealed that the nature path walkers had significantly lower heart rates and higher heart rate variability, indicating more relaxation and less stress.

Matulis has firsthand experience with nature therapy and chooses to spend her free time outdoors. She said she sees the direct benefits to her soul. Matulis also encourages others to do the same, whether they take a short walk or long hike.

“Every time I find myself in nature, I am calmer, more at peace and less stressed,” Matulis said. “After a trip, I come back with a wide grin on my face and a happy heart.”

Participants said there are lessons to be learned by taking part in Outdoor Adventures — lessons that could provide a sense of worth, place and community to college students.

“Lessons I’ve learned from my outdoor experiences include the importance of taking time for yourself, living in the moment and utilizing the sources around you to accompany you throughout life,” Matulis said. “Being outside does not cost a thing or require any equipment — one just has to get up and go. So soak up the sun, take a deep breath and live a full life.”