Sierra Magazine: Explore, enjoy and protect the planet.
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COOL SCHOOLS | School's Out

In these classes, no one ever struggles to stay awake

Backpacking trips, gear-loan programs, and rock-climbing walls are common college offerings nowadays. But these schools take nature-based extracurriculars to a whole new altitude.

From left: courtesy of UCSD, courtesy of Andrew Dreher, Montana River Photography

The Outdoor Program at the University of Montana trains students to become certified rafting guides as part of their undergraduate education. During a weeklong course, recruits negotiate the Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers' abundant rapids. The certification includes wilderness first aid, boat rigging, and river-rescue skills.

The ocean is just across the street from UC San Diego, so the school's surf team is superior. Members get a coveted gate key to legendary Black's Beach, where they meet at dawn throughout the school year. Casual wave riders can join UCSD's noncompetitive Surf Club or take a recreational surfing class.

The Grand Canyon's south rim is less than a two-hour drive from Northern Arizona University, which offers a "Grand Canyon Semester" in conjunction with the National Park Service; students hike, raft, and discuss stewardship. NAU also offers a ranger certification course.

Each spring in North Carolina, a group of Brevard College students and faculty load their gear onto kayaks and paddle a major river from source to sea. They camp on the banks, discuss the relationship between humans and rivers, and come away "profoundly impacted by the experience," according to one program organizer.

Ithaca's Cornell University caters to student spelunkers with a caving course for P.E. credit. An instructor leads students on weekend trips to study geology and explore the region's grottoes. Indiana University also has a thriving caving club. Participants squeeze through tight tunnels, discover cathedral-size caverns, arrange cave cleanups, and learn about mapping, safety, and conservation.

At the University of Texas at Austin, a fledgling climbing club is scrambling toward official recognition. Members compete across Texas and train at local crags or the campus's rock gym. UT is among a handful of colleges with a climbing team; others include Western State College of Colorado, Appalachian State University, and Baylor University. — Sophie Matson




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