Before Bellingham: A Conversation with WOOT

Zach Becker
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WOOT stands for Western Outdoor Orientation Trips. It is a first-year-student based program that takes place prior to the start of the first quarter at Western Washington University. WOOT runs seven weeklong trips with nine incoming students and three leaders per trip, who are all previous participants of WOOT themselves. The idea with WOOT is to support, enhance, and ease the transition into college for first-year students through outdoor adventure.

What is your role with WOOT?

I am responsible for planning and coordinating all the trip leader hiring and training, as well as the planning and logistical support for all 7 of the individual WOOT trips. This year, after the trip leaders were hired on, we all completed a week-long training in the Cascades in which they learned foundational leadership skills and risk management skills to enable them to become effective outdoor leaders.

How does WOOT mesh with Bellingham outdoor culture and lifestyle?

We focus on the idea of bringing in students not only to Western, but to Bellingham, too. Trip leaders are giving them advice and talking about Bellingham as a whole, and what it has to offer not only in terms of outdoor recreational opportunities, but the resources as well. Sustainability is a highly motivating principle in Bellingham, and we’re already delivering that concept to students prior to them ever taking a class here. We recognize our impact of taking 84 people out into the field so we take that chance and educate students on how to protect these beautiful areas we’re exploring, and how to do it in a manner where we are creating the smallest impact possible.

Zach Becker

How does a typical WOOT trip go?

With WOOT, students get an early check-in to the dorms, arriving Sunday morning a week before the start of the quarter. It creates a unique experience where the parents only have a few hours with their kids before they have to step back and the students join up with WOOT around midday. We have a lot of ice breakers, then transition into smaller communities, becoming their WOOT groups. They then create a group contract, setting expectations not only for themselves, but for the group as a whole. They also create WOOT flags, similar to Tibetan prayer flags that they’ll fly at camp every night. First thing the next morning they depart for the field. That initial day is a lot of foundational skills: putting on a pack, learning how to pace themselves, and how to set up stoves and tarps for the first time. As the time progresses throughout the trip, leaders hand over more responsibility to the students, enabling them to work together, problem-solve through any mistakes, and develop their character.

What were the locations this year for the seven trips?

We had two groups in the Chuckanuts. One group hiked straight from campus and into the mountains at the beginning, while the other group finished their week by hiking back into campus. It’s a surreal feeling realizing how close you are to the mountains. In the Chuckanuts, the two groups stayed at Lily, Lizard, and Pine and Cedar Lakes. We also had four groups in Rainy Pass and Cascade Pass, where two groups would do reverse loops of each other. The final group was on the east bank of Ross Lake, with an end location of Desolation Camp. They actually got to return to Ross Lake Dam via the water taxi.

Zach Becker

How has WOOT evolved?

It first ran in 2010, a project designed by Marli Williams, Eric Messerschmidt, and Katy Howell. This pilot year was just one trip with three leaders and no more than 12 participants. Over the next few years it evolved through different sports until last year we shifted to all backpacking trips. This year we had seven trips, but this is the first time WOOT has a full time coordinator. This has allowed me to create “Weekend-WOOT,” which are freshmen-only weekend trips that still focus on the traditional WOOT outcomes. The transition into college doesn’t end after the first week; it exists all year long. Where we’re heading next year hasn’t fully been determined yet, but it will most likely expand the number of trips and diversify the areas we are exploring.

Why is WOOT important for the relationship between students and the outdoors?

A lot of students coming to WWU are from Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. WOOT is very attractive to these students because the outdoor recreational activities are one of the great reasons students come to WWU. The program creates a bridge where the first week they come up to Bellingham, they immediately get to spend seven days in different parts of the Cascades. WOOT enables students who are already interested in the outdoors to see these places that are now within an easy drive of where they are going to school. It also teaches them the foundational skills to get out and go on trips themselves, such as anything from lighting a stove to basic navigational skills. A unique thing with WOOT is that it’s not just about getting people outside. A large part of it is building a community that helps develop a sense of belonging at Western.

For a fantastic video that captures what WOOT is all about, check out WOOT in the Mt. Baker Wilderness in 2013.

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