Sixteen-year-old Emily Roberts is claustrophobic, so she never imagined she’d be crawling through a cave and loving it. Yet here she is, on her first spelunking trip, and she’s fascinated by everything: the cave formations, the flying bats, the blackness when the flashlights are off.
Emily is no neophyte to nature or risk-taking, however. Through the Environmental Learning Center program in Red Wing, Minnesota, she has cross-country skied through snowstorms, rock climbed steep bluffs in the Mississippi River Valley, built a tepee, and camped for three frigid January days. And she has two more years ahead of her full of backpacking, snow shoeing, canoeing, trout fishing, orienteering, and other excursions lasting from one to six days. As junior instructor in the co-ed programs, Emily and her six peers will also lead younger explorers on regional trips and learn how to help girls love the outdoors. Then, as a final challenge, the group is planning an expedition to New Zealand.
Learning Through Doing
ELC programs exist around the country, providing valuable opportunities to help girls learn self-reliance, confidence, and an appreciation of the outdoors. “This isn’t like school or a sport,” Emily says. “Here, it’s personal. You can set your own goals and challenge yourself. Plus, we see so many cool places-awesome, beautiful places-that most people never get to see.”
Elizabeth Foot, another junior in the program, says, “On the trips, you realize what really matters. You eat when you’re hungry and sleep when you’re tired. It’s not about cliques in school. During the school year I get so caught up with being busy and stressed, and when we go out there, I feel . . . ahhhh.”
Hannah Betcher agrees. “When I’m on a trip, I understand what I really need to concentrate on, and I become more efficient and focused,” she says.
No Sexism in Nature
He’s not surprised girls love the program, says Jason Jech, an ELC alumnus who now directs the organization. “There’s no discrimination in nature,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. Everyone is dealing with the same things. If you’re cold, you’ve got to do something about it. If it’s raining, everyone is enduring it.”
That leveling ground proves to be a great ego booster to girls and teaches equality to the boys, as well. The girls nearly always catch more fish than the boys, and are often better at assessing a task because they think ahead, Jech says. “I’d put our girls up against our guys any time,” he says.
The girls also feel good about earning respect from all the team members. “When we were younger, the boys might have said things like, ‘Girls can’t do that.’ But once we proved ourselves, the boys respected us. It’s definitely not an issue any more. We’re a tight group-the girls and the guys,” Emily says.
Thirty-three-year-old Heidi Welsch looks back fondly on her own ELC experiences, and credits the program with shaping her sense of self as a teen. “The ELC gave me the tools to accept that piece of myself that’s bold and aggressive,” she says. “It was a place where it seemed normal to love rock climbing and kayaking, and it didn’t seem odd that I liked the challenge of carrying a heavy backpack.”
Her experiences also led her to seek more adventures in Alaska, New Mexico, and Africa as an adult.
The current junior instructors also have big plans after graduation.
Hannah, for instance, wants to be an environmental lawyer, and then a Supreme Court justice. Whatever they do, they believe their ELC experiences will help them succeed. Spelunking may never be a job requirement, but for Emily, simply knowing she can do it makes everything else seem possible.
Finding an Environmental Education Program
To get your daughter involved in an environmental learning program, call your state’s department of natural resources or state park headquarters. Local organizations, such as the YMCA, YWCA, Girl Scouts, and science museums also provide terrific opportunities. Or try typing in “environmental learning recreation:” and your state name on the Internet. Many ELC programs, such as Oregon’s River House Outdoor Program, resemble the one at Red Wing. Others, such as the Virginia State Parks Youth Conservation Core or California’s Headland Institute Golden Gate National Recreation Area, combine environmental learning with service projects.