The six students were soaked but laughing as they recounted the hour they’d just spent kayaking Lake Macbride on an unseasonably warm October Sunday.
“My favorite thing to see is my students come back with that hey-I-can’t-believe-we-just-did-that look on their faces,” said Mike Loots, a language arts teacher at Northwest Junior High School in Coralville.
Loots and his students were at Lake Macbride on Oct. 13 on an outing with the school’s Viking Adventurers club, a group Loots started in mid-September to get Northwest students outside and help them discover opportunities for adventure in Eastern Iowa.
“The outdoors are for everybody,” he said. “Anyone can go outside and find an amazing experience.”
Loots was inspired to use adventure-based learning locally after attending a training with the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming in 2010. He also modeled the Viking Club after the University of Iowa’s Touch the Earth Outdoor Recreation and Education program, which offers similar adventure activities for college students and others in the community.
“That’s really the vision, to get kids who usually don’t have access to things like this, out here,” said Loots, a second-year teacher at the junior high.
The group’s first event was evening hike during a full moon. Since then, the students have gone kayaking twice. Another hike is planned for later this month.
So far, the feedback from students and their parents has been positive. The University of Iowa’s Outdoor Rental Center, Adventure Trips and Climbing Wall provided the Northwest students with the kayaking equipment.
“Lucky kids to have him as a teacher,” said David Patton, assistant director for the center and a Northwest Junior High School alumnus. “These are lifetime activities. Kayaking is something you can do for your entire life. It’s nice to develop some of those life skills at an earlier age.”
The students and their parents agree with Patton’s assessment of Loots.
“He’s awesome,” said eighth-grader Joseph Verry. “He’s like the best teacher ever.”
Loots’ goal is to show the 29 students who have participated so far that they don’t have to be Davy Crockett to enjoy the outdoors.
He is cautious, though, to be honest with his students about the potential risks in the wilderness.
“Anything you do outside, you can manage risk but you can’t guarantee safety,” he said. “We work with the students to develop the skill set to manage risk.”
For example, he told them if they tipped over in their kayaks, they were to swim out from under them and float alongside until an adult could come help.
Eighth-grader Dashae Barlow Barlow was the only one to put that advice to practice when she fell out of the kayak.
The misshap turned out to be the highlight of her afternoon.
“It was fun,” she said.
The students are not just learning outdoor skills. They are also learning about leadership and they bond over the shared experiences, Loots said.
“I love it,” said Stacey Smith, whose seventh-grade daughter Claudia went on the kayaking trip. “She’s an outdoorsy kid.”
Eighth grader Julia Lassner, 13, who signed up because “I like kayaking and usually I don’t do anything else on Sunday afternoons,” said her favorite part of the trip was squirting everyone with water.
When the weather turns colder, Loots plans to continue to partner with university’s outdoor rental center to take the students snowshoeing and cross-country skiing and climbing on the facility’s indoor rock wall.
In the spring, he wants to take the students who have participated in the majority of the events on a paddling and rock climbing trip along the Maquoketa River.
“We have amazing rivers. We have some really great high-class climbing,” Loots said. “There’s so many things you can do outside in Iowa without having to go that far.”
His goal is to offer two events each month, partnering with both the University of Iowa and Coralville Parks and Recreation, “to put together a program that has all the resources to do these really cool adventures.”
While there are ample opportunities regionally, he’d also like to take his fledgling adventurers out west and is hopeful he can find funding to offer financial assistance for students.
“The West is romantic because everything’s bigger out there,” Loots said. “You send a kid outside, especially for an extended trip … they come back with a greater understanding of what it means to be self-directed.”