By Ed Brennen
Arianne Brundrett knew she’d learn about exotic wildlife and diverse ecosystems when she joined the Outdoor Adventure Program’s annual sea kayaking trip to Florida over winter intersession.
Much to the surprise of the senior exercise physiology major from Milford, however, she also learned about Brazilian culture and the Chinese education system — an unexpected bonus of taking part in an unforgettable 12-day adventure with fellow students.
“It was great because everyone brought something new about their culture to the table,” says Brundrett, one of nine students to participate in this year’s trip. “I didn’t think I’d learn so much about the other people, but everyone was so open and friendly. It was really cool to see the dynamic of different people working together.”
Supported by Campus Recreation, the Outdoor Adventure Program provides members of the university community with dozens of fun and structured experiences throughout the academic year that promote personal development, teamwork and environmental awareness. From ambitious weeklong trips like Appalachian Trail backpacking and whitewater rafting over spring break to weekly excursions to a rock-climbing gym in Woburn, the program is for people of all skill levels and abilities.
Pallav Ratra, a first-year master’s student in engineering management, had never been camping in his life, let alone spent five days paddling from island to island in a sea kayak. But when he saw a poster advertising the Florida trip at the Campus Rec Center last fall, he decided to go for it.
“It was amazing. I loved it,” says Ratra, an international student from India who earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Liverpool in England. “My father suggested I go to New York City over winter break, but I’ve done the touristy thing in so many places. I wanted to do some outdoorsy stuff.”
Despite being a kayaking and camping novice, Ratra says the trip leaders did an “amazing” job of teaching everyone the necessary skills to make the most of the adventure.
“Everyone can do it,” says Ratra, who appreciated learning about sea navigation from trip leader Kevin Soleil, assistant director of outdoor and bicycle programs. “When we were in open waters, Kevin was leading us in an arc. I said, ‘Why can’t we just go straight?’ But he explained how it’s easier to go with the tide rather than straight through it.”
Participants had the option of making the three-day drive to (and from) Florida with the group in a Campus Rec van or flying to Florida on their own. The university provided the kayaks, paddles, life vests and tents, and the $375 program fee helped cover the cost of groceries that the group packed into their boats for meals.
Once together, the group spent a day reviewing basic paddle skills and safety. It then set off on a five-day journey through the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge along Florida’s Gulf Coast, ending in Everglades National Park. Each night the group camped on a different island, preparing meals and taking part in activities such as yoga on the beach.
“We come home exhausted, but also refreshed and renewed,” Soleil says. “It’s a great way for students to enjoy the outdoors over their break.”
Ratra says the toughest part of the trip was going without a shower for several days, but that was easily outweighed by the way the experience changed him.
“I used to be squeamish about touching things like a starfish or picking up a hermit crab, but then Kevin picked up a starfish and put it on his face,” Ratra says with a laugh. “When he did that, my fear was gone.”
Brundrett works part-time with the Outdoor Adventure Program and served as one of the three leaders on the trip, along with fellow student Matthew MacDonald. She says the experience taught her that it’s possible to unplug and live off the grid for a few days.
“People did use their phones to take pictures, but there was no cell service and no way to charge them,” she says. “So people ended up having conversations and learning about each other instead of texting someone who’s hundreds of miles away. Everyone had a really good time.”
Brundrett, an avid rock climber and rower who estimates she’s participated in 10 different trips with the Outdoor Adventure Program, says they’re a budget-friendly way for students to get out of their comfort zones and recharge, even for a few hours.
“It’s great that we have these opportunities to do so many cool things like hiking, snowshoeing, surfing and skydiving,” she says.
Ratra is already looking ahead to his next adventure with the program.
“I’m going to try something new like rock climbing,” says Ratra, who can’t imagine planning such a trip on his own. “If I go kayaking on my own, it would cost five times as much, and I wouldn’t have nearly as much fun. It’s more exciting in a group.”
Ratra says he had “hundreds of emails and Facebook messages” to catch up on when he returned home. But he’s also found time to meet up — in person — with several new friends he made while sitting around the campfire on the beach in Florida.