When they got to the river, they turned off the Phish song shaking the Garrett College van and tugged two fat rafts down for class. Matt "Jeep" Balassone looked at the pale green water churning with white rapids and said, "Holy moly, she's running."
Students pumped more air into the rafts, tightened life-jacket and helmet straps, sealed the bag of first-aid supplies and laughed at Chris Poticny of Poolesville, better known as Tic -- he had balanced a paddle on his nose like a seal and was wobbling, arms out, to keep it steady. "Did you have class like this in college?" asked Balassone, of Bel Air, Md. He grinned and spread his arms wide to the blue sky and bright sun. "Welcome to our world."
Michael L. Logsdon, left, of Garrett College's adventure sports program guides Calvin Shepard and Chris Poticny, obscured, on the Cassleman River in Pennsylvania.
(Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
At Garrett College, a two-year school in Western Maryland, students can raft, hike and snowboard their way through a college education, receiving a degree in adventure sports. The Maryland General Assembly took a step toward making it better, approving $845,000 in design and engineering funds this week for a recreation center for Garrett County. Eventually, the program will move to that site, atop a mountain on the other side of Deep Creek Lake, where students will be able to walk out the door to the ski area, to a new whitewater training course being built alongside and a 550-acre wilderness area.
It's a sign not only of how popular extreme outdoor sports have become but also of just how much higher education has changed: Even the people who dream of living on the river feel like they need a college degree now.
Some of the students here hated high school; others were bored. Sarah Copeland of Tappahannock, Va., visited colleges last year, feeling so unmotivated that the biggest plus she could see on one campus was that it had a Chick-fil-A. "But where I'm from, it's the next step," she said.
College is the next step for well over half of students who graduate from high school nationwide. As it has become an increasingly essential means to a better income and more opportunities, some say college has gotten much less philosophical, much more keenly focused on getting a job.
Some people need to explore a little first, figure out who they are and where they're going. "Not all who wander are lost," Poticny said.
At the Center for Adventure and Outdoor Studies (nicknamed Chaos), students learn to repair a mountain bike, make a splint for a broken leg in the middle of the woods and teach troubled kids about the outdoors. Here, there's no excuse not to take some chances.
It all started years ago, during an afternoon of shooting through rapids on the Cheat River. Logsdon, a Garrett College professor and sometime river guide, was barking out commands to his seven frantically paddling customers. The sun was shining off a rock wall, the sky was blue and he thought: The college should teach this as an academic program.
He could see that interest in the outdoors and extreme sports was growing and that the industry was changing in the 1980s and early '90s -- from giving customers the most hair-raising experience possible to a safer approach. "People running shabby operations," he said. "They can't get insurance. They can't get clients." And they get sued. So there should be a growing market for well-trained, expert guides and business owners, he reasoned.
And because Logsdon teaches physics, he could see how traditional academics could help an athlete: "Rock climbing and using ropes is all vectors. Running the river is hydrodynamics."
He gets asked all the time about the math and English and science classes students must take if they plan to continue on to a four-year degree (through the school's agreements with Frostburg State University and Plattsburgh State University of New York or at another college) or receive an associate's degree: "Why do we have to take this stuff?"
He tells them college gives them a toolbox, with skills and knowledge they can pull out when solving a problem. He envisions students who can not only plan a mountain-biking race but write the promotional fliers, manage risks and calculate the costs and the revenue.
They have setbacks -- flat tires, trucks stuck in the mud, warm days when they want to be ice climbing. Occasionally there are injuries; Nate Phlegar of Williamsport, Md., lost part of his toes to frostbite this year in class. Students get lost and find their way back.
At the river last week, Logsdon pulled his lesson plan -- laminated -- out of the depths of his loose Gore-Tex wetsuit. Students had already gone over the safety lessons and begun to learn the basics of working as a team, balancing their strength with the force of the river, to move forward.
With Logsdon and Assistant Professor Terry Peterson guiding them in two rafts, students practiced paddling in flat water. They pulled onto shore and pushed through brambles, neoprene booties sinking into soft river sand as they walked along the banks looking at the rapids, looking for the best line through.
"Scouting makes me think about how I look at my life," Peterson told them. "You look at where you want to end up," she said, pointing to the calm water downstream.
After finishing at Garrett, some graduates work at stores selling gear or lead trips anywhere from West Virginia to Costa Rica to the Rockies to Thailand. Some wait , some lead university outdoor adventure programs.
Poticny wants to own an outfitter business. "First, I want to play -- be my own person for a while, do the Manifest Destiny thing, go west, be a guide for a while, do as many rivers as I can, as many mountains as I can." He paused, and grinned. "Then get an MBA, I guess."
After scouting the rapids, students climbed back into the rafts and surged forward, with Peterson and Logsdon shouting commands and paddles flying in unison, cold water spraying their faces and their legs braced as they bounced up off the sides. Balassone, in a kayak, got tossed upside down and fought his way upright, still pitching through the rapids. And then they were out the other side, floating downstream in the sun.