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Chad Dayton and Wilderness Inquiry aim to expand the reach and impact of student outdoor experiences

Courtesy of Wilderness Inquiry
Chad Dayton is director of youth education programs and partner relationships for the Minneapolis-based Wilderness Inquiry.

It’s a Tuesday evening in June, and Chad Dayton is telling a yarn about the weekend that just wrapped up that’s Hollywood-blockbuster unreal.

He was in Colorado, recertifying as a swift-water rescue technician. The exercise is a high-wire act even when the river’s low, but the waters were flood-stage high. Two of the rescuers got swept away.

No sooner had the first responders switched into real-life rescue mode, a mudslide turned the water instantaneously and impenetrably black. The mountainside that sheared off dumped trees into the river, where the roiling current turned the timbers into giant projectiles — which the rescuers could not see in the blackened water.

As he recounts the tale, Dayton has one arm slung over the chair next to his and his other hand wrapped around a glass of something amber and sudsy. He looks like his blood pressure is about to top out at 90/60. And he looks like he’d do it again tomorrow.

The credential attached to this hard-won recertification is vitally important to Dayton’s work as the director of youth education programs and partner relationships for the Minneapolis-based Wilderness Inquiry [WI]. In that capacity, he spends a lot of time convincing people all over the country that they and their children are safe in the program’s signature Voyageur canoes on much calmer waterways.

(And yes, for the record, Chad Dayton is one of those Daytons; he’s the grandson of Donald, one of the five brothers behind Dayton Hudson and Target.)

A three-year effort

Dayton is the point man on a three-year effort that starts today, July 1, to dramatically increase WI’s ability to integrate outdoor, or place-based, education into Twin Cities schools. With $1.1 million from Minnesota’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund  [PDF], the organization will help more than 15,500 metro-area students experience the outdoors and will have compiled data on the impact those experiences have on academic performance.

Teachers in Minneapolis and St. Paul high schools where WI has piloted outdoor clubs report greater engagement among students who canoe, fish, camp and otherwise apply their book learning in the great outdoors.

It’s a natural extension of the original mission of the organization: to make experiencing the wilderness possible for everyone, regardless of physical ability, income or experience level.

Eventually, Dayton and WI Executive Director Greg Lais envision a formal place in Minnesota’s academic standards for place-based education, as well as a model that can be replicated throughout the country.

Poetry came first

None of this was in Dayton’s original plan for his life, which was to be a poet. After a boyhood spent mostly in Texas, he earned an MA in literature and contemporary poetry from the University of New Hampshire and then an MFA in creative writing from University of Minnesota.

Courtesy of Wilderness Inquiry
Dayton with Washington, D.C., school kids on the Anacostia River for Great Outdoors Week June 25.

Not surprisingly, that turned into stints as an adjunct professor of English at Hamline University, the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and the now-defunct College of Visual Art in St. Paul. Dayton loved curriculum design and delivery, but not so much the stacks of papers demanding nightly grading.

Around the time his first daughter was born, Dayton was feeling burnt out. He read “Last Child in the Woods,” which sparked his first epiphany.

“It occurred to me there might be a way to marry my background as an educator with my passion for the outdoors,” he said. “But I wasn’t sure what that would look like.”

Dayton began attempting to assemble a career as a freelance outdoor educator, getting involved with the National Outdoor Leadership school, the Dodge Nature Center and WI’s Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures.

Second epiphany on the river

His second epiphany took place in the latter gig, a program to get urban kids onto urban waterways, where they are forced to pull together, take risks and see their communities quite literally from a different vantage. On the Mississippi, Dayton watched as teens looked up at bridges they had driven across countless times, likely without ever truly seeing the river below.

The power of this experience is better witnessed than described. Typically the canoes carry kids who cannot swim, and who come from families in which generations had feared the water. They come from neighborhoods where no one can afford swimming lessons, much less outdoor gear.

And the canoes? They wobble, they seem like they might tip, they require teamwork and they snuff out bravado and swagger in a way no classroom discipline system could ever accomplish. Staying afloat changes a young person’s worldview.

“Paddling those Voyager canoes, it occurred to me, was an extension of the classroom,” he recalled. “In that boat I could teach and talk whatever those students wanted to learn: math, physics, literature. It was in that boat on the Mississippi River that it became clear to me this program was not only fabulous, but had the potential to increase its impact and really grow.”

He spent the 2012 canoe season staffing WI’s Canoemobile, a traveling extension of the group’s Minnesota waterways program. That year the tour visited seven cities where it took 4,100 young people out in canoes.

“It was in the Bronx that it became clear to me that the program was extremely unique and has the ability to reach kids all over the country in a meaningful way,” Dayton recalled. “We introduced kids to public spaces in urban watersheds ….

Change is immediate

“You can see individual change on a kid-by-kid level immediately,” he continued. “You can also see the overall impact.”

But Dayton didn’t want an office job — a boundary his new boss, Lais, nodded and paid lip service to. A quiet curator of talent, Lais had also used the love of the mission and its possibility to lure food writer Beth Dooley and Homegrown Minneapolis founder Megan O’Hara onto WI’s staff, among other big thinkers and doers.

Courtesy of Wilderness Inquiry
Dayton with a Wilderness Inquiry student on the Mississippi.

As Dayton’s job morphed into instructional design on a macro level, Lais made sure he was out in the canoes as often as possible. With every trip, the vision just got bigger.

Indeed, because the end goal is to make the model “scalable,” WI recruited a number of partners for its three-year urban environmental education initiative, including the National Park Service, Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, Minneapolis and St. Paul parks, Fort Snelling State Park and the Minnesota Department of Education.

In addition to figuring out how to expand WI’s outdoor clubs into a majority of Twin Cities schools, Dayton has returned to the classroom as an adjunct professor of outdoor leadership and programming at the University of Minnesota.

Among other things, he is teaching a graduate course on place-based education to teachers from around the state. And teachers have received micro-grants to create place-based curricula.

“The reality of my life is now I read a lot about experiential education, youth and youth development and social justice,” he said. “One of the things that makes me feel this is a successful career transition is I get to feel I have an impact on tens of thousands of kids, but I also get to have an impact on land agencies and government entities.”

So wait — what happened to the poet? He is very much in there, drawing as many inferences between the great outdoors and his interior landscape as he hopes young people will.

Points of connection

“If you have a sense of place that you identify with and feel some sense of ownership over, whether it’s big or small, public or private, that place influences your perceptions of other places throughout your life,” he said. “Those points of connection can be myriad. It can be a tree, can be an ecosystem, it can be an oasis. But that’s the kind of connection to land that we all need to do a better job of affirming, especially in urban, industrial communities.”

Students go back to school more engaged, certainly. But it doesn’t stop there, Dayton said.

“If you can get a kid to feel a sense of ownership over a place in the civic sense, that will create an environmental ethic,” he concluded. “They will want their water clean, they will want wildlife.”

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