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High school outdoors clubs offer students opportunities to recreate

Jul 07, 2023 12:58PM ● By Julie Slama

This summer, local trails or courts may be busier with teenagers than in previous years.  

Area high school teachers say it’s a lasting positive impact from COVID-19 when participation in outdoor recreation increased. 

According to Penn State University’s Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management and Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, outdoor recreation increased to nearly half of Americans taking part monthly, including 20% who are new to it.

As many national parks saw a record number of visitors during the pandemic, the outdoor recreation boom has continued as boating, running outdoors, bicycle riding, and walking in nature can be accessible to people of all ages and ability levels, the report said.

That stretches to students who may be adding adventurous experiences—sailing, mountain biking, kayaking and other non-traditional high school sports.

In fact, many area high schools offer clubs focusing on outdoor activities. Even with school dismissed for the summer, some students even plan to continue to meet through the summer on their own. Here’s a look at some outdoor high school clubs in the southern end of the Salt Lake Valley.

Cottonwood High hiking club

Senior Matthew Gordon, along with his hiking buddies from Cottonwood’s hiking club, plans to hit the nearby canyon trails this summer once they’re clear from snow.

“We haven’t gotten in very many hikes; it snowed a week after our first hike last fall and this spring, there’s the whole flooding situation,” he said. “We’ve been to the lower falls in Bell Canyon, and we’ve done some hikes in Millcreek Canyon. This summer, we’re wanting to hit the trails, starting with Donut Falls.”

During school, the club of about 20 students usually met at lunch to discuss hikes—the length, its difficulty, carpooling. They’ve hiked on days when school wasn’t in session.

“We usually stay together and talk music or other things, usually not school. Some club members are my good friends, but I’ve also gotten to meet new people who I’ve become friends with. It’s a lot different than interacting with people at school. I feel it’s a lot more genuine,” he said. “I love getting into nature and getting away from things. It brings you a lot closer to the people you’re around and I love the physical exercise. It’s a lot different than sports or going to the gym because you’re always walking uphill or downhill, getting lots of fresh air. I like that you get a big reward at the end of the hike when you get to see the sights.”

Gordon, who also is in the Madrigals and orchestra at school, has taken on an informal club leadership role—from helping plan to often carrying the first aid kit and extra water on hikes.

“I think it fell on a few of us because we were the first people who were meeting and organizing the year. One of my friends does a good job getting the word out and passing out fliers. I have a van that I can drive, so that helps get our group to a trailhead,” he said. “It’s something I’ll miss after this year.”

The club’s adviser, Audryn Damron, said that the students have been proactive.

“They have a chat bringing up, ‘Who wants to hike?’” she said. “They created a Google photo album for the hiking club and put all the pictures in there. Not everyone has hiked before, so I helped them pick a hike. We use the All Trails app that tells them how hard the hike is and how long the hike is and direction to the trailhead.”

Damron, like some of the students, said she really loves to hike, but didn’t have friends who enjoyed it.  

“I grew up close to Glacier National Park, so I love getting out in nature; I love the smell of the outdoors, the freshness, the views,” she said. “Creating this opportunity was perfect. You have a club with a variety of people of different levels and they learn how to plan and how they can do it. It’s just really fun to see the kids take on leadership roles in a club they care about and in a space they love. I also love to share my love of hiking. We live by the mountains, and I would love to have kids be outside engaged with nature. If I can provide some coaching or guiding, I’m all for that.”

In addition to the student hiking club, she started a faculty hiking club during the COVID-19 pandemic and created a Google form of hikes.

“It has been fun because there are several teachers and counselors who share the love of hiking,” she said. “I had just moved here and started teaching at Cottonwood right before COVID hit. It was a way I could make better friends with Cottonwood faculty, do something I enjoyed and go to places where we could avoid the crowds. Now we continue hiking because we love it.”

Corner Canyon High roller-skating club

Corner Canyon High School’s roller-skating club began last fall when a student came to teacher RJ Green asking him to be the club’s adviser.

“I said, ‘Sure, let’s make that happen,’” he said. “If kids come to me with a fun opportunity to get other people involved and doing fun stuff, and I can facilitate that, I’ll almost always say yes. I thought it’d be fun. When I was in undergrad, I rollerbladed around everywhere for about two years.”

That first year, the club met a couple times to skate in the evenings. They were hoping to get together as spring turns into summer.

“COVID was a catalyst for the group. Last year was the first year that they had a full year not masked. They wanted a stress-free way for the kids to get together and do something fun. They call it the retro experience, just that high school and arcade pizza socializing thing,” he said about the two dozen students who get together to skate.

While some kids own their own, others rent skates or blades.

“We’re hoping to build the culture and add a couple more events because it’s definitely fun and we have people who are quite interested,” he said.

Green’s experience with rollerblading began as a mode of transportation across his college campus.

“It looked really cool in the ’90s. That’s why I started—and literally everybody else did it. I also love staying in shape. It’s really fun,” he said. “I like that this roller-skating club isn’t a sedentary activity with a phone. These kids are showing up, getting some exercise and socializing outside of the confines of school with friends their age. It isn’t just limited to school time.”

Brighton High rock climbing club

About 10 Brighton students regularly hit the climbing gym during the school year.

“Some of them start off, learn about climbing and hopefully have a positive experience climbing with their friends in the gym,” Brighton High adviser Ben Hall said.  

Hall said students pay their own way as there are no fees associated with the club. Everyone is welcome, no experience is needed.

“Some have experience, others are brand new. If you’re brand new, there’s always somebody in the club who will climb or boulder with them to teach them how to climb,” he said. “If any of the kids are interested in becoming better or stronger, I share some training techniques. The best way to train is to climb more, focus on doing hard individual moves when you boulder. You can shift to longer routes on ropes to work on endurance. You’re always climbing and building technique, getting comfortable and learning how it feels to climb.”

Hall, himself, is a climber.

“This is my first year as a teacher, so I was looking to get involved and the previous adviser was ready to pass the baton for me to take over,” he said. “I got into climbing during college in Michigan; I was just looking for something to do and I figured I’d try. Climbing is awesome. It’s a great way to get outside, do something in nature and see a lot of amazing places. It’s adventurous. It’s thought provoking. It takes some strength, but it’s also about how you can move and work through problems. I like being out in a beautiful place and trying something hard. Climbing is ultimately how I ended up here in Salt Lake City. This is a great place to climb and enjoy the outdoors.”

While he has climbed in the Utah desert to nearby canyons, he said that there are some easier crags in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

“In the future it would be good to start at just doing maybe more of an after-school climb in the spring when there’s a lot of daylight. Go out for a couple hours. Get the climb around here. When we have an experienced group, we could look into organizing a trip over summer break,” he said. “But for now, we’re building up, getting that experience and keeping it to the gym.”

Jordan High pickleball club

Jordan High pickleball club adviser Sandra Brown became a fan of the sport during the pandemic.

“I started playing pickleball with another teacher during COVID because we were losing our minds when we both had to teach online and felt locked up in our houses,” she said. “As we played, we became best friends. I love having another sport that I can play and be outside. I love that pickleball is free. It’s a way that I can get together with some friends or meet new strangers in the park and exercise and just enjoy the sunshine. I love the community aspect of it. I love it when people bring their speaker and listen to good music and just having a good time in the park.”

When they started playing, the colleague’s son, who now is a junior at Jordan, started playing with them.

“It was so fun that he and I started the club because we fell in love with pickleball and wanted the students at Jordan High to be able to play,” Brown said.

Twenty or more students get together at a nearby park with courts to play weekly, weather permitting.

“Everybody’s welcome to come. If they don’t know how to play, we have extra paddles that students can borrow and other students teach them how to play. That’s the great thing about pickleball, it’s easy to learn,” she said, adding that while the sport has been around since the 1970s, it got a boost during the pandemic. “The kids like that it’s not a sports club where you have to commit. They just show up with a ball and paddle and play with their friends, or with new people.”

Brown is excited about the club.

“It’s a sport for all ages and most abilities, even grandparents can play pickleball with grandkids. The goal of the club is for kids to just make connections so that they can then go play whenever they want. We like the idea to keep it simple,” she said. “I like that students are falling in love with something athletic so that they get some healthy exercise and are having fun.” λ