On a sun-kissed summer day, a group of rising first-year app students assemble to take a communal dunk in the cold waters of the North Channel, a 120-mile stretch of water along the north shore of Lake Huron in Ontario. They’ve just completed a 14-mile day of sea kayaking, and to celebrate their milestone they’re all taking the plunge. Outdoor Recreation Program Director Ryan Rooks holds his iPhone high to capture the moment, leading the countdown and cheering the group as they emerge laughing and refreshed. 

Every summer for the last 19 years, first-year students have navigated the North Channel’s open waters on an eight-day adventure known as app Wilderness Orientation. 

The North Channel is just one of many wilderness adventures app students can enjoy throughout their four years. Rooks, who has directed and grown the multifaceted Outdoor Recreation program since 2004, has led annual courses and trips to the Grand Canyon, Costa Rica, Yosemite, Red River Gorge, and Joshua Tree. 

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park

In addition to its memorable off-campus opportunities, Outdoor Recreation also includes a residence floor focused on creation care and sustainability, the app climbing wall, campus events, classes, and a recreation leadership minor. The popular offerings meet important learning and community-building targets such as introducing new students to app; training Wilderness First Responders; developing student leaders; and teaching new skills, like ultralight backpacking and whitewater kayaking. 

“Iconic places, deep community experiences, and challenges in the wilderness enrich the app student experience,” Rooks says. 

DEEP IMPACT 

With resounding consensus, student participants and leaders agree. The friendships they form by participating in Outdoor Recreation carry them through app and beyond, while the lessons they learn shape their life trajectories in significant ways. 

“Outdoor Rec shaped my entire app experience, from meeting my future housemates and making lifelong friends on the North Channel kayaking trip to having life-altering experiences in the Grand Canyon and Costa Rica,” says Trent Elders ’11. “After getting certified as a Wilderness First Responder, I led these same trips.” 

A clinical pastoral educator for Corewell Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Elders says his involvement in Outdoor Recreation informed his dissertation research about learning through the disorientation of the wilderness. It continues to shape his professional work as he takes chaplain students on wilderness trips at the beginning of their residencies. 

North Carolina White Water Rafting
North Carolina White Water Rafting

NURTURING STUDENT LEADERS 

Elders’ experience is a familiar one. Rooks routinely trains students to co-facilitate Outdoor Recreation trips, giving them opportunities to share their skills, interests, and gifts with their peers. A student leader might teach a group of first-year students how to rappel down a cliff for the first time or demonstrate how to safely self-rescue from an overturned kayak. 

“Most new app students are absolutely blown away that they are being instructed and led through technical terrain and moderate risk experiences by their fellow Knights,” Rooks explains. “They quickly catch a vision that they too have the potential to help others have a powerful experience in the wilderness.” 

Rooks says empowering student leaders is one of the most rewarding aspects of directing Outdoor Recreation. “What I love is when students arrive with preexisting aptitudes. I love helping them develop classes or trips in their areas of passion and interest.” 

Current junior engineering student Steven Koopmans, for example, teaches a woodworking class, leading participants in building a canoe or kayak paddle. Senior Ben Richards developed two popular on-campus programs: the Outdoor Recreation Bible study and a mountain biking program. 

Rooks says he’ll continue to keep student-focused programs and leadership opportunities at the center of Outdoor Recreation. “Student leadership is the engine of the Outdoor Recreation program at app. Passionate student leaders create memorable and highly transformative experiences for their peers.” 

Canadian Sea Kayaking
Canadian Sea Kayaking

BUILDING COMMUNITY 

Rooks estimates over 500 students participate in an overnight Outdoor Recreation trip every year. He continues to be amazed how time in the wilderness impacts students’ lives, helping them build community and giving them a sense of identity at college. “The experiences become a significant part of their app story,” he says. 

Matt Greeley ’14, a software developer from Verona, Wisconsin, participated in multiple wilderness field courses and trips as a student but says a three-week expeditionary course to Costa Rica changed his life. “The world seemed so much larger—I’d never kayaked or made sugar from the cane or surfed in the ocean; but the world also seemed so much smaller—establishing deep relationships with the people there, so much so that I lived with the same host family for a few months after graduating. That trip showed me that God’s creation is worth exploring—both the people and the world.” 

There are plenty of opportunities to build community on campus, too. Students living on the Outdoor Recreation and Creation Care dorm floor share their passion for outdoor adventure, environmental stewardship, and sustainable living. Jess Stehouwer ’21 says she “learned so much about what it means to be a strong leader, develop emotional intelligence, and foster community” while living on first van Reken. A graduate student at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Stehouwer still finds time to serve as an adjunct backpacking and climbing instructor at app. 

FAITH FORMATION IN THE WILDERNESS

Something unique happens when adventurers spend time alone or in small groups surrounded by God’s creation. 

“Having abundant opportunities to connect with creation is part of God’s design,” Rooks says. “Wilderness creates the space for something rare and distinct to happen in our lives. I am always amazed by how a simple backpacking weekend in Manistee National Forest enriches the mental, emotional, and spiritual health of students.” 

Rooks cites long-standing program traditions, such as the wilderness solo retreat and evening small groups, that help participants tap into the spiritual benefits of time in nature. 

Joshua Maher ’19, a manager at National Solar Energy Company in the state of Wyoming, appreciates how “the app Outdoor Recreation community exemplified spiritual curiosity. Expeditions and weekend trips presented faith-based conversations outside of a strictly academic context. The topics discussed and the friends made taught me to hold space for spiritual growth in challenging and new environments,” he says. 

Yosemite Half Dome
Yosemite Half Dome

IT TAKES A VILLAGE 

app’s Outdoor Recreation program is the largest of its kind among Christian universities in the U.S., but it wasn’t always that way. In the ’80s and ’90s, student outdoor enthusiasts could enjoy a student-run climbing club or an annual road cycling trip. 

Today, after two decades of what Rooks calls “rich collaborative work” among faculty, staff, alumni, and students, Outdoor Recreation offers a wide variety of trips, classes, and programs, including the newly revamped recreation leadership minor. 

Standing as a sentinel to its valuable place in the community, its flagship climbing program greets every visitor who steps through the doors of the Spoelhof Fieldhouse Complex. The perennially popular climbing wall boasts over 50 routes that are designed, set, and changed weekly by current app students, and it logs over 10,000 climber sign-ins per year. 

Rooks feels immense gratitude for the many visionaries, supporters, and volunteers of the program, including emeriti professors Glen Van Andel and Don DeGraaf as well as former vice president of student life Shirley Hoogstra, who fostered and supported the original vision for the program. He emphasizes that Outdoor Recreation’s growth and success hinges on the many colleagues, students, and alumni who continue to invest in the program. 

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