They are bearded, rugged mountain men and tough-as-nails mountain women. They are cliff-climbing, wave-crashing adventure seekers. They are wilderness bound survivalists responsible for lives. At least, they’re learning to be.
The student employees working for USF Outdoor Recreation have one of the most unusual jobs on campus. Each year they lead novice adventurers on a number of trips into the wilderness, both near and far.
But, the process of learning to be so responsibly rugged is an adventure in itself.
* * * * *
As I desperately stomped on the pedals of my rented mountain bike, I wondered if the spots in my vision were a sign that I’d soon be passing out.
I was in the middle of the wilderness in Ocala National Forest in northern Florida. My lack of preparation for this kind of thing was becoming more and more obvious as my gasps for breath became both louder and more embarrassing. I was only five minutes into the trip.
I had met Ashley Talbot, the blond-haired, blue-eyed, physically fit leader of this Ocala mountain biking trip, one year earlier on a similarly harrowing excursion. That trip was a full week of sea kayaking in the Ten Thousand Islands region of Everglades National Park, south of Naples on the southwest coast of Florida, and it was my first big outing with Outdoor Recreation. Between rough seas, record-breaking low temperatures and paddling nearly 10 miles a day, there were several times I thought the trip was actually going to kill me.
As it turns out, that trip was also Talbot’s first trip with Outdoor Recreation, as well, and she was leading it.
“I didn’t really have any training,” Talbot said. “The other trip leader handed me a map and told me to lead the group to the next island that was 10 miles away. And I had never done this,” she laughed. “I had no idea what I was doing. But, I led the way.”
The group of novice kayakers followed Talbot along the route with painfully cold winds and unforgiving waves battering against them. After hours of paddling, the group realized it had overshot the island by two miles.
“As the leader, you’re out here in the middle of nowhere, and there are a lot of pairs of eyes looking to you for guidance,” Talbot said. “That made it hard. The first few days of that trip were really tough. I just wondered what I had gotten myself into.”
* * * * *
Talbot now was leading the group down the mountain biking trail. I lost sight of her within the first five minutes. She didn’t have much experience with biking, she said. But, in the last year working for Outdoor Recreation, she has built up an incredible endurance.
I should have realized sooner that I’d be a panting, gasping mess as I tried to get a bike to climb over the sand dune hills that Florida mountain biking has to offer. The trio we met at the trail head eyed our group suspiciously as we took our preliminary training lap around the parking lot.
“Which trail did you say you were taking?” asked the very fit stranger in the fancy biking outfit. “You should have tried the other trail down the road – the one with the packed down turf. That one would have been nice. This one – yeah, it’s pretty. But it’s got a lot of sand.”
Sand, trails, packed down turf – it was all foreign to me. I was still looping around the parking lot trying to remember how to keep the bike going straight when I turned my head to the side.
The expert-looking bicyclists finally got my attention with the last few words they threw out before riding out of sight. “It’s all uphill from here!” he said loudly, seemingly excited by the thought.
* * * * *
Nathan Clubb is a tall, broad-shouldered guy with a pretty mellow attitude. He is one of those bearded mountain men, as well as one of Outdoor Recreation’s newest employees. He is also a very patient person.
“I think if we adjust your seat this might be a little easier for you,” Clubb told me. I was thankful that someone was finally showing me some mercy. I had been ready to walk my bike the next 10.75 miles of the 11-mile trip.
Clubb is a sophomore environmental science major from northern Georgia who plays on the USF rugby team and describes himself as outdoorsy. I gladly handed over my bike and let him work his magic.
“What gear did you have it in?” Clubb asked, as if I should know these things. In my defense, I am a fairly outdoorsy kind of girl myself. I even own two tents. But, biking was a whole new animal.
When he was done making his adjustments, the trek didn’t seem as bad. I was finally able to get some speed. I knew I wouldn’t be able to catch up to Talbot and the rest of the speedy crew, but I was pretty proud of myself when I realized I had put enough distance between myself and Clubb, along with the other new biker he was making adjustments for, to lose sight of them.
So there I was, alone in the forest, not-so-swiftly swerving around the trees, but I was making progress. I wasn’t even the very last one anymore. I decided that it would be a good chance to take some pictures. After stopping my bike and pulling out my camera, I saw Clubb and the other biker in the distance coming my way. Hoping to get some action shots, I pointed my camera and watched them through the viewfinder. They got closer and closer to my proud perch on top of one of the sand dunes. And then suddenly, they started getting farther away. When I realized what was happening, I almost dropped my camera.
“Hey!” I yelled, frantically waving my arms. I was easily 20 feet above the pair and a good 40 yards away. “Why am I up here?!”
As it turned out, I had proudly and fervently spent the last 10 minutes creating my own path off of the main trail. After staring at me for a few long moments, Clubb sent the other biker along the real trail and he started into the lengthy patch of thorn bushes that separated us.
It’s a good thing for me that Nathan Clubb is a very patient person.
* * * * *
“More often than not, it’s the employees who end up injured,” Talbot said. “People don’t really understand what they’re getting into when they come into these situations. So, we try to take the brunt of it.” After going on two excursions with Outdoor Recreation, I felt it was necessary to ask if any participants had not made it back. “But,” Talbot continued, “that’s what we’re here for.”
Oh, those pesky, unprepared adventure seekers.
While a few participants grasp the concept of what they’re really getting themselves into on these trips, Talbot and the other employees often have to explain to new adventurers that no, they will not need their laptops, and no, there will not be outlets for hair dryers. One of Talbot’s favorites is, “No, I’m sorry, we can’t stop somewhere for steak or beer.”
Only eight of the 12 student employees who work at the Outdoor Recreation Center on campus are trained to lead trips. The employees working to rent bikes and outdoor gear from the air-conditioned office make just over minimum wage at $8 per hour. The employees leading lives through the wilderness generally make $25 per day for each day of the trip. The love for the job is enough to make up for the difference. Well, in all cases except perhaps for the kayaking trip leader who came down with a staph infection that turned the veins in one of her legs green while in the middle of the Everglades on a weeklong trip. Yet, after a boat evacuation and a week spent in the local hospital, it wasn’t long before she was back on the trail leading trips again.
This year’s Ten Thousand Islands paddling trip brought a new round of unseasoned kayakers, one of whom decided on the first day that she wasn’t paddling anymore. Talbot is also a very patient person. She and another leader on the trip took turns tethering a cord around their waists and paddling double time to tow the weight of the kayak and its unwilling adventure seeker, who, by then, was working on her tan.
* * * * *
I managed to finish the 11 miles of biking, but not before I hit a hill, lost control, fell over sideways, flipped my backpack up over my head and twisted my knee. By that point I had been alone in the woods for nearly an hour, too slow to keep up with the real bikers but at least fast enough to stay ahead of the ever-patient Clubb, who was by then riding the trail on the one bike that lost its chain.
Talbot saw me coming as I finally hobbled into the finish line. When I got there, she was smiling and waiting for me with a chair, a snack and a place to elevate my knee.
Working for Outdoor Recreation has changed Talbot’s life. She began working with the department as a sophomore majoring in both biology and anthropology and she continued working as a trip leader beyond graduation, which took place in December. As she leads her last few trips for Outdoor Recreation, she is preparing to interview in California to become a trip leader with a big adventure travel company.
“Leading trips is really tough, both mentally and physically,” she said. “But, when people come out here, they actually trust you with their lives. That’s what I love about it. That trust that you build when people need you, that makes it worth it.”