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When more than 90% of the student body at the University of Minnesota-Duluth shows up to play outside, the college’s Recreational Sports Outdoor Program must be doing something right.

The program is celebrating its 40th year this summer and is far ahead of many other colleges and universities for inspiring people — any people — to get into the outdoors.

The program encompasses an expanse of fitness offerings, sports clubs and particularly outdoor excursions. Those include scores of opportunities for UMD students, community members and youth groups to experience the natural world. Climbing, skiing, kiting, biking and paddleboarding are among the activities.

Associate director Tim Bates said the program initially was seen as fluff to higher academia at UMD. But it has morphed for the good of the institution, community and individuals. The participation percentage is determined through a two-year student survey. Sometimes it even tops 90%.

“It’s one way that we know that we’re impacting more students than is typical for an institution of our size,” he said.

Bates described campus culture as active. Many students attend UMD because of outdoor and recreational opportunities. Students not previously inclined toward outdoor involvement catch on quickly. He cited research that shows recreational and outdoor programming fosters academic success and improves mental health for students at any level. But college students are often involved for social connections that snowball into further success.

A few days before starting at UMD years ago, Josie Syverson signed up for the university’s “freshman sampler” trip to a YMCA camp near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Before that, she had little outdoors experience. But she bonded immediately with that first camping adventure and the people.

“It was actually people who I met with that freshman trip who continued to be my best friends, my roommates, people I still stay in touch with to this day,” she said.

Syverson is now a family practice physician in Benson, Minn., the town where she grew up. She and some of those friends see each other on a regular basis, taking their kids camping or on outdoor activities they can do within the limits of having small children.

From that first week, she began looking for other opportunities the program offered. She hiked, winter-camped, ice climbed and helped administratively. She had never backpacked before, but the gear rental program at UMD taught her what she needed without the cost of purchasing it all. Other activities were half-day courses.

By Syverson’s account, she and her husband, Paul, began dating in eighth grade and coincidentally attended UMD. He’s a large-animal veterinarian and also didn’t have much outdoors experience before college. But he took to kayaking and canoeing right away. Following their freshman year, the two joined the core staff to help coordinate and co-lead the trips for freshmen. They also earned their Wilderness First Responder certifications during the depths of winter. It was a fun, valuable piece of medical training.

“On my applications to medical school and residencies, it just added to it perfectly,” she said.

The academic grind as pre-med and pre-vet students were high-intensity regimens. Study breaks with friends in fresh outdoor air offered them necessary stress relief and a complement to their coursework.

“If we didn’t get outside, it would have been hard mentally and physically to go to college,” she said. “I would much rather go out and cross-country ski or hike than be on the treadmill in the gym.”

Syverson said that after graduation, and as soon as they reduced some college debt, they started an alumni fund through the outdoor program. It’s primarily to help provide trips for kids and others who might not be able to afford it.

Resource first

Bates attributed much of the program’s success to a goal they’ve had from the start — to be viewed as a community resource, not just an educational institution. Their website, umdrsop.org, was established as a “.org” in the mid-1990s mainly to communicate with non-UMD people. Along with offering outdoor trips and activities, the department contracts with other organizations to provide professional training at places such as outdoor youth camps.

“The interplay between higher education and the community, I think, is a really important one. A lot of our professional staff [who]) are program coordinators, they sit on boards and work with partners to provide outreach expertise, outreach educational experiences, so that the broader community can move forward,” Bates said.

UMD climbing coordinator Lucas Kramer is a board member of the Minnesota Climbers Association and president of the Duluth Climbers Coalition. He serves as the northern tier representative for Minnesota Climbers. Kramer said the majority of rock climbing that people seek is along the North Shore. As representative, he’s on the front line of climbing access and other climbing issues in northern Minnesota.

Duluth Climbers Coalition is a citywide organization that he helped found. Kramer said the city of Duluth requested to work with the organization to establish Quarry Park for rock and ice climbing. They also installed a disc golf course, hiking trails and a trail verified for Americans with Disabilities. It’s a community park anyone can use within 10 minutes of campus.

“The students can access what is considered a regional and even national, destination-level, climbing experience,” he said.

Kramer also emphasized the importance of spending time outdoors. He said that decisions people make are often dictated by their connection to where they live. Climbing is just one of the tools that can challenge people’s growth and help them discover those connections. Without them, decisions they make and behaviors they practice are fundamentally different.

“We may care less about long-lasting effects of what we do,” he said.

Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.

Virus affects program

The COVID-19 pandemic is standing in the way of Minnesota-Duluth outdoor program’s push to build active lifestyles and connect people with nature. Associate director Tim Bates activities with students were lost the second half of spring semester, and UMD has since closed all in-person programming through the end of June. Much of the staff training they do for other organizations like youth camps has been cancelled, too.

As a result, the outdoor program is relying on short-term, close-distance outings that afford physical spacing such as standup paddleboarding and hiking.

Bates said that those who the program normally serves may or may not be getting outside, but he hopes they are—wherever they’re currently living.

“They’re scattered to the wind,” Bates said. “A lot of times people need that extra social connection through an organization to get them outside.”

Fall semester is the next time extended outdoor trips are in the works.