A Mid-Year Check-In With the Outdoor Program

Back in September, we spoke to SVCS Outdoor Program Co-Director Travis Vandenburgh about the work that went into pulling off a successful week of Fall Campouts in the midst of COVID-19. Now that it’s February, cold weather has set in and the pandemic continues, so we checked in with Travis once again to hear his reflections on the Outdoor Program thus far and his hopes for the rest of the year.

Q: How have the winter outdoor trips been so far?

Travis: The 8th grade trip was on tap last week, and we ran two days of classroom avalanche instruction and one day of field instruction at Sagewillow. We are going to continue to run one trip per week. The Upper School is running three Wednesdays of trips in February. We’re dealing with a lot of cancellations and trying to find ways to reschedule.  But we planned for such events and set up the calendar to weather the many changes that are coming our way. 

The first winter trip that we ran was the 7th Grade trip—two single-day trips, consecutively. We launched out of the Baker Creek parking lot with one day of ski touring and map reading, and the next day the kids participated in an orienteering contest on the skis, applying some of the techniques they had learned the day before. That trip was wildly successful, and we had great weather. The kids were just so excited to be outside together. If we can just get out, in a different environment, that’s huge. 

Q: Has the Outdoor Program had to make any further adjustments in the past few months in response to COVID-19?

Travis:  We had an incredibly successful Fall Trip cycle; we ran trips for all classes, modified, yes, but still very worthwhile experiences. As we headed towards winter, we looked forward to running the program as we had in the past. There are a couple of things that make winter programming unique. Much of winter outdoor programming actually happens indoors because of the day length. During the fall and spring, the days are long and we’re outside, so that makes a big difference in what we can offer. We had to acknowledge that snow caves and yurts were not going to work because of social distancing requirements, so we made the decision to pivot away from overnight programming. Transportation and overnights continue to be the pinch point for us, so we pivoted to keep things local. In the fall, parents played a huge role in transporting kids out into the field. The winter road surfaces precluded us from making that ask and feeling good about that risk. Running one grade per week, on average, has given us relief with staff and vehicles.

Q: How have students dealt with any changes to their outdoor trips?

Travis: There was a little bit of disappointment at the Middle School level, not being able to run the week-long trips. The winter outdoor programming is pretty challenging for kids, so they are generally okay with crawling into bed at home and not sleeping in a snow cave. Kids are thinking: I can do this, I can do this for one day. I can come back to reset in the afternoon or evening. That came to fruition with a number of students who were able to reset. We’re paying attention to that as we structure trips going forward. How valuable is the overnight piece? By and large, kids are just excited. There’s something about being outside with your class and your teachers and advisors and doing something different. There’s novelty in it, which was really fun for them to experience. 

Q: What do you envision the Outdoor Program looking like in the coming months?

Travis: That’s something that’s coming into focus for us right now. We’re trying to make some thoughtful decisions based on where we are now for our spring programming. I would say we’re in a fingers-crossed mode right now, hoping to run what we normally do in the spring but being prepared to pivot and provide local day programming in the spring if needed. The lessons we teach in the backcountry are certainly at play in our thinking right now. We’re resilient and trying to plan for the worst and hope for the best. The parents and the students having that same mindset allows us to run outdoor programming this year. Now people understand that even if we can get out for one day, that’s great, let’s go. We’re incredibly proud of the resiliency and flexibility of our students, parents, and teachers and design experiences that make sense for that particular week. This resiliency and flexibility, which we try to teach in the outdoor program, helps us manage ourselves for any additional future challenges.

Thanks for speaking with us, Travis! We’re excited about all the possibilities for trips in the upcoming months.