Outdoor recreation is a huge industry in southern Utah, and for many students attending Southern Utah University, it’s a future career and a lifetime of adventure.
SUU’s degree in outdoor recreation in parks and tourism is a four-year program that not only teaches students specific industry competencies, but exposes them to agencies and organizations where they might start their career.
Class of 2019 graduate Kenny Kirker is one of those students who has utilized his ORPT experience not only to secure a job, but also to go on personal adventures of his own.
Recently, Kirker went on a multi-day backcountry canyoneering trip with two companions through a particularly technical canyon in Zion National Park.
The rare opportunity was arranged in part by Hunter Birch, one of Kirker’s companions who is also an SUU alumni currently working as a wilderness ranger in Zion.
Taking place Sept. 17-18, the trip required two permits: one for canyoneering and one for camping in the canyon. The group was issued just the sixth permit of the year, and for good reason.
Though the canyon isn’t very long, with the rappel section lasting approximately less than a mile, the length of rappels and the exhausting conditions make it quite a challenge. It requires special gear and plenty of experience to attempt.
The time of year, lack of direct sunlight and persistence of icy water in the canyon required the company to wear dry suits while rappelling and swimming the many pools of water in the technical section.
“You have to do a ton of swims and wet disconnects from the rope,” Kirker explained. “That’s where you rappel and when you reach the bottom you’re in a deep pool of water so you have to swim while disconnecting from the rope.”
Kirker described the process as continual swimming and rappelling for almost 12 hours before reaching their campsite at Big Springs, located in the upper section of the Zion Narrows, at 10 p.m.
Because the group elected to do the trip in two days, much of their overnight gear had to be stored in dry bags within their backpacks. Kirker had his food stored in Ziploc bags as his 75-liter backpack often became saturated with water throughout the trip.
“It was cold enough while you’re swimming through the canyon all day, so if your dry bag failed and you didn’t have a sleeping bag, that would be really scary,” Kirker said.
As a wilderness ranger, Birch had access to specialized equipment from Zion, and aside from using personal gear the group was supplied in part by SUU Outdoors and an anonymous local outfitter.
Kirker relayed that the difficulty of the canyon, with eight significant rappels–the longest of which was 165 feet down a waterfall–afforded some solitude during the expedition.
“The entire first day we didn’t see a single person, not on the trail on the way in, not in the canyon, and not even when we hit the Narrows where our campsite was.”
The second day was spent hiking and descending short, 10-15 foot rappels down through the Narrows about six miles to the Temple of Sinawava shuttle station.
Though physically exhausting, Kirker remarked on the amazing beauty of the canyon that made the trip worth the effort.
“The coolest feature was after finishing the technical section, you come around this corner and there’s a massive waterfall about 500 feet tall just blasting off the canyon wall.”
The canyon proved to be the hardest Kirker has done. All of Kirker’s base knowledge came from the Canyoneering I and II classes at SUU, taught by Jacob Manning, Assistant Professor of Outdoor Recreation in Parks and Tourism.
“That’s how I learned the basics: how to set up the rope, how to rappel, how to sequence the canyon and look for resources,” Kirker said.
Manning spoke of the program’s design to empower students to learn and execute specific skills in the outdoors.
“We offer courses specific to many of the skills students have an interest in going out and doing on their own. We have introductory classes in backpacking, canyoneering, climbing, winter backpacking, skiing, etc,” Manning said.
In these courses students get foundational skills, mentorship, oversight through their instructors and are exposed to agencies and certain careers in the recreation field.
Higher-level sessions provide opportunities to hone skills and apply the material in real-life assignments that involve preparation, planning and execution. This results in students gaining the competency to embark on extensive expeditions, like Kirker’s, on their own.
Manning noted the change in students’ confidence as they complete their degree and discover their abilities in the many areas associated with outdoor recreation.
“I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of students come through our program, and it really is inspiring to see the development that occurs,” Manning said. “They move from unconsciously incompetent to consciously competent, not just in the skills but as professionals.”
Students learn how to assess risk, how to lead effectively, and take on more meaningful roles. Manning mentioned their growth in their abilities and in their voice and awareness.
Manning was also emphatic about the program’s success in preparing students for quick transitions to careers in outdoor recreation following graduation.
Kirker attributes his new job as a field instructor at RedCliff Ascent, a wilderness therapy program, to the understanding he gained through his minor in ORPT while attending SUU. Such knowledge includes understanding how companies organize themselves and operate, to outdoor leadership and interactions and teaching in the outdoor setting.
As an alumni, Kirker joins many other undergraduates who benefit from life-long skills and an adventurous spirit gained through their outdoor recreation experience at SUU.
Story by: Reyce Knutson
Photos by: Reyce Knutson, Kenny Kirker, and Dex Ezekiel on Unsplash