UAF administration dedicated to outdoor education
The University of Alaska – Fairbanks (UAF) has been dedicated to education about the outdoors since it was originally founded as the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines in 1915. From the development of a campus-wide trail system in the 1920s to today’s Green Bikes program and outdoor climbing wall, UAF has a long history as an advocate of outdoor education.
Students can see the most recent manifestation of this advocacy in the rapid development and construction of the first climbing tower that will make up the Outdoor Education Center. The idea for the center came about almost two years ago, when Mike Sfraga, the Vice Chancellor for Students, was first hired.
“When I took this job, if it (outdoor education) wasn’t the first thing we talked about, it was the second,” Sfraga said, referring to his first discussion as vice chancellor with Chancellor Brian Rogers.
In addition to his administrative role within the university, Sfraga is also an avid mountaineer, having bagged Mt. McKinley and several climbs in the Alaska and Delta Ranges – that is, “most of the usual suspects that a lot of our students are on,” he said.
Mark Oldmixon is another UAF-based climber with an eye toward student interests. Oldmixon, the coordinator of Outdoor Adventures (OA) and self-described “glutton for punishment,” traces his interest in the outdoors back to middle school summer camps. He became interested in outdoor education during his undergraduate studies at St. Michael’s College near Burlington, VT. For three years, Oldmixon trained and helped develop courses with the director of the college’s Wilderness Program. After he graduated, he became the program’s assistant director before finally making his way to Alaska.
The development of programs aimed at out-of-shape and inexperienced students is of particular importance to Oldmixon. While he is an avid outdoors enthusiast, he spends much of his time (regrettably) behind a desk, he said. Hours before our interview on Aug. 24, Oldmixon watched four groups of students head out as part of his organization’s Wilderness Welcome. The program takes freshmen and exchange students out into the Alaskan wilderness as a substitute for the normal new student orientation.
“I just sent, three hours ago, 30-plus people into the field. And I’m sitting here. Doing budgets,” Oldmixon said. “Is there a drawback? Yeah, but I know that because this program exists there are 30-plus people out in the field. If the program didn’t exist they’d be going through the general orientation and not getting that extra benefit of exploring the Alaska wilderness.”
In addition to coordinating OA, Oldmixon teaches several outdoor-based recreational courses. These classes include Introduction to Technical Climbing – Ice and Rock and Introduction to Sea Kayaking, both are listed as REC 140. He plans on developing other courses based around the new outdoor climbing wall, all of which can be used as elective credits for UAF’s minor in guiding management.
This year’s Wilderness Welcome include two backpacking trips along Kesugi Ridge, a rafting trip along the Chulitna River and a canoe trip on Tangle Lakes.
In addition to their current outdoor programs, OA will be involved with the day-to-day management of the the outdoor education center. The climbing wall will provide year-round use, and can function as both a rock and ice climbing wall. The maximum difficultly for rock climbing will be a 5.12, a moderate challenge for enthusiasts but a tough haul for any novice.
The ice aspect to the wall is unique among campus-based climbing facilities. While many universities nationwide having climbing walls, only one other wall (at Colorado Mountain College) can function for ice climbing. The ability to climb ice and rock on campus is exciting for Sfraga. “You’ll see me on the wall,” he said.
Both Chancellor Brian Rogers’ discretionary fund and the Associated Students of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (ASUAF), the student government, provided funding for the climbing wall.
According to Oldmixon, what sets the the outdoor climbing wall apart from the climbing wall in the Student Recreation Center (SRC) is its ability to act as an instructional space. The SRC wall is a climbing gym while the outdoor wall has been designed with programming in mind.
“It isn’t just all about climbing a wall and coming back down,” Sfraga said. “It’s actually about team building and leadership.”
Oldmixon intends to use the climbing wall as a bridge for getting people from the dorms to the Alaska Range. “It’s my personal opinion you need to get out of the dorms,” said Oldmixon. “The dorm is just a killer on seasonal affective disorder. It’s dark and gloomy.”
“You’re having really good fun, but you’re getting healthy too,” Oldmixon said. “We snuck that one in there on ya.”