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Love of the wild: Graduate student blends adventure and science through outdoor recreation programs

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Katie Schmidt guides kayakers over Hollywood Rapids on the James River. (Photo courtesy of Katie Schmidt)

Katherine Schmidt, a graduate student in Virginia Commonwealth University’s environmental studies program and a wilderness guide, is bringing her zeal for science, adventure and education to VCU-led outreach for the public, college students and school age youth.

Schmidt leads outdoor recreation initiatives made possible by a partnership between the VCU Rice Rivers Centerand the Outdoor Adventure Program, part of VCU Recreational Sports.

These initiatives include the addition of two new summer camps to Rice Rivers Center’s programs for children, courses in wilderness first aid that focus on first-response techniques in remote areas, and opportunities for VCU students and the public to explore nature through organized programs.

Schmidt has had a robust career in outdoor education and recreation. As an undergraduate student, she worked as a rafting guide and climbing wall manager for the Outdoor Adventure Program. After receiving undergraduate degrees in Spanish and chemistry from VCU in 2013, she merged her interests in science and the outdoors working as a wilderness first aid instructor. Schmidt translated a wilderness first-aid handbook from English to Spanish to promote diversity and safe outdoor exploration. She has traveled through parts of Central America and the United States introducing adults and children to hiking and mountain biking.

Now that Schmidt is back at VCU, she’s bringing her knowledge of the environment, recreation and working with children and adults to her new professional role. Schmidt said she aims to foster passion and appreciation for the environment.

“I was fortunate that I grew up playing in the forests of the Pacific Northwest and the tides of the Puget Sound, developing a love of exploring and protecting the environment at a young age,” she said. “I now have the opportunity and privilege to educate and inspire people about the natural world in a beautiful setting with an incredible team and could not be happier.”

Adult learning

Greg Garman, Ph.D., director of the Rice Rivers Center, said collaboration with the Outdoor Adventure Program is a natural fit.

Both groups are passionate about rivers.

“Both groups are passionate about rivers; the Outdoor Adventure Program for the recreational opportunities rivers afford and the Rice Rivers Center for important ecosystem services,” Garman said. “Both programs are committed to educating folks about the importance of rivers. The Outdoor Adventure Program uses river-based experiences and the Rice Rivers Center uses conservation science to reach diverse audiences from students to policymakers.”

The collaboration reflects this balance between recreation and education. Outdoor Adventure Program trip leaders monitor safety and lead recreational and wilderness first aid activities at the Rice Rivers Center, while faculty from affiliated programs will contribute expertise to educational initiatives. The Inger Rice Lodge, which offers overnight accommodations, will be available for some multiday programs.

“We are trying to get people to enjoy and use Rice Rivers Center for all that it is, not just a research center,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt will offer training in wilderness first aid, part of the Outdoor Adventure Program’s Wilderness First Responder program, at the Rice Rivers Center next month. The 72-hour course will cover how to handle injuries sustained outdoors and other emergencies.

By appointment, the center is also available for adult day retreats, which could include canoeing and other recreational and social activities. Shortened versions of the hiking, paddling and explorational activities offered by the Outdoor Adventure Program will take place at Rice Rivers Center for VCU students.

“We can do the outdoor programming in a controlled setting for people who don’t necessarily want to be totally immersed in the wilderness but still want to be outside,” Schmidt said.

School-age learning

VCU Rice Rivers Center. (Photo courtesy of Rice Rivers Center)
VCU Rice Rivers Center. (Photo courtesy of Rice Rivers Center)

The Junior Journey on the James overnight camp and the Rice Rivers Center Nature Camp will give middle school students an opportunity to explore the James River and learn about its natural history, how the waterway shaped regional human history, and research at the center.

During the overnight camp, Schmidt and other trained Outdoor Adventure Program staff will lead students on four-day paddling excursions on the James River from Osborne Park in Henrico County to Shirley Plantation in Charles City County with overnights at the Dutch Gap Conservation Area, Presquile National Wildlife Refuge and Rice Rivers Center. The students will learn about river ecology and cultural history, and venture from the main route to explore tidal creeks. Junior Journey on the James is based on a college course offered by VCU Biology and Life Sciences faculty and the Outdoor Adventure Program. During VCU’s Footprints on the James course, instructors have led students on a month long hiking and paddling expedition of the James River focused on how past and present use of the waterway impacts its health. The next session of the course will be taught on the Salmon River in Idaho.

The Rice Rivers Center Nature Camp is a day camp that focuses on stream science activities and river recreation. Over four days, the students will learn about oyster restoration efforts in the Chesapeake Bay by the VCU Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program and conservation studies by the VCU prothonotary warbler research team.

Schmidt will train Outdoor Adventure Program guides — undergraduates who currently have more than 800 hours of training in leading outdoor excursions — to work with middle school aged campers. She has worked extensively with children while facilitating outdoor programming for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which manages the state’s parks system, and as a mountain bike skills coach in a Salida, Colorado, bike shop.

“Working with kids is very fun and rewarding. You’re always asked random questions you might have never thought of before,” Schmidt said.

Andrew “Joey” Parent, assistant director of the Outdoor Adventure Program, said Schmidt’s experience with children helps expand the program’s mission beyond mainly serving college students.

“I got into collegiate recreation because I enjoy working with college students, but I also know the sooner you get young folks involved in the outdoors the better,” Parent said. “It’s not just about going climbing or shooting down a rapid; it’s about learning how these rock formations formed millions of years ago and how river ecosystems work.”

Schmidt said the educational partnership strives to ensure that environmental science research “doesn’t just sit in a file,” but instead increases environmental stewardship in youth.

“I think future generations have a right to benefit from healthy river ecosystems,” she said. “River health impacts not only humans, but wildlife within and around rivers."