LOW AND BURBANKS, N.H. – Jed McGill had never seen a moose up close before; neither had Nate Skvorak. But two weeks ago, that was the payback for the Windham High School Outing Club’s backpacking trip up and over Mt. Madison’s snow-covered peak.
That’s what $1 million gets you.
Three years ago, Windham High’s Outing Club won a $1 million federal grant for its outdoor program, nutrition curriculum and unique adventure physical education class that involves rock climbing, kayaking, biking and fly fishing.
The 2009 Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) grant allowed the school to take the outdoor and fitness programming it had developed and expand it tenfold.
This fall, the last of the federal money was spent on a treasure trove of sporting equipment that makes Windham’s gym look like a state university. Next summer, according to science teacher and outdoor club director Jeff Riddle, the real fun begins.
“This summer we are going to go on detailed, multisport expeditions. My ultimate goal is a natural history and cultural history multisport expedition across Maine,” Riddle said.
It’s been a dozen years in the making, but the club is ready to take a step toward big-mountain action.
When Riddle arrived at Windham 12 years ago to teach earth science and coach cross country, he added the outdoor club to his course load, which left little time for outdoor fun. So he proposed co-teaching an “adventure physical education” course that involved rock climbing, kayaking, fishing and hiking to ramp up the outdoor exposure he could offer students.
Those interested in a club that went hiking, camping and rock climbing now had the opportunity to explore these activities and skills in a class.
As a result the outdoor club, now with 50 active members, grew in popularity.
But Riddle wanted to give the students more, so when the PEP grant was suggested in 2008 he already knew what he wanted: trailers full of road bikes, kayaks, fishing gear, tents and backpacks.
The grant paid for, among other gear, eight tents, 12 expedition backpacks, 12 sleeping bags and 30 pairs of Nordic skis and boots, as well as 14 fishing kayaks, 18 sea kayaks, 30 life vests, 30 wetsuits, 13 road bikes, four inclosed trailers and a $70,000 climbing wall. The last was an add-on to the $30,000 wall Riddle had built through a fund-raising effort.
It made possible outings like the backpacking trip in the White Mountain National Forest two weeks ago, which was taken by six students and guided by Dom Lambek, a teacher who volunteers his time to the club.
“The most rewarding part of that hike was seeing the momma moose and the baby. They came a lot closer than I expected. But she was cautious because of the baby,” McGill said.
McGill’s first experience on a long hike was last year’s 10-mile trek up and around Baldface Mountain in New Hampshire. McGill said then he didn’t know what to expect, or if he’d like trudging through the snow.
“I wanted to do it again,” he said.
The club also has given a dozen students roles as trip leaders who plan adventures around hiking, fishing, kayaking, skiing, rock climbing and cycling. McGill became a cycling division leader last year. Now he wants to lead the outing club onto mountain bike trails.
Jack Brockelmanc, a junior, said he gets his homework done earlier so he can make the outing club nights after school.
“Last year I came to every climbing night. If this climbing wall wasn’t here, I wouldn’t go climbing. But it’s hard not to try with it right here at school,” Brockelmanc said.
This year, Brockelmanc is a climbing leader with junior Josh Richardson, one of the most avid among the school’s climbers. Riddle said the two came to him before the club meetings started to ask to take an inventory of equipment well before that work began.
The club has inspired others.
Nate Skvorak, a junior hiking division leader, now wants a career involved in outdoor leadership or guiding. He already had a love of the outdoors from time spent with his family at Moosehead Lake. The outing club showed him it could be a way of life.
“With the club, we do really big hikes. I’ve learned a lot about the gear, that’s a big part of it. The club has really good gear. It’s hard to know what you need. And it’s expensive. But I’ve acquired a lot of it, piece by piece,” Skvorak said.
Because of that equipment, any student can learn to road bike, fly fish, sea kayak, backpack, camp and rock climb.
“When you look at it from the outside, it seems a big-time commitment, the meetings and the events, but it’s changed me a lot,” said senior Alyson Shannon, a three-sport athlete who leads the club’s kayak division.
“And Riddle is a great inspiration. He teaches us about leadership, to find the natural highs in life, to reach our limits.” Shannon still recalls topping out on an intimidating rock ledge in Fryeburg when learning to rock climb.
“There are people better at it than me, but I did what I didn’t know I could do,” Shannon said.
There could be more of that at Windham High in the next year as Riddle expands the club’s programming.
The club president, senior Zoe Hall, dreams of rock climbing trips in West Virginia. Brockelmanc wants to climb in Red River Gorge in Kentucky.
“I’d like to make a lot of trips happen. I’d like to do a big backpacking trip through the Whites,” said Hall, who climbs competitively.
Riddle laughs out loud when he hears the students’ ideas and goals. But his outdoor leaders are not laughing.
“I’d like to go out West. Or to Alaska. Mr. Riddle just went there. That would take some work (to fund). But we can always dream,” Skvorak said.
Such aspirations are precisely what Riddle hoped the PEP grant would inspire. And like his students, Riddle dreams big.
“What about a trip that involved hiking Mt. Katahdin, biking down to the ocean and having the kayaks waiting for a sea kayak trip? Why shouldn’t we do that?” Riddle says.
And while a dozen busy climbers in his adventure physical education class have left the gym for the day, high above Riddle the club’s sign silently answers back:
“Get Active. Get Fit. Be Well.”
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: