When freshman Jocelyn Erbele came to Wheaton this fall, she felt dismayed about the lack of outdoor experiences available. Last year, she participated in Vanguard, Wheaton College’s gap year program in HoneyRock’s woods of northern Wisconsin. Needless to say, this year in the suburbs of Wheaton is off to a different start than last fall, when the woods were her backyard and HoneyRock’s outdoor activities were accessible at every turn. Upon arriving in Chicagoland, never-ending strip malls and cookie-cutter houses replaced the natural beauty she’d grown accustomed to.
“I’ve had to be okay with there not being as much woods and nature nearby,” said Erbele. “Even though that’s very important to me and I’ve been very blessed to have that at Vanguard. I really made use of being able to go hiking and wandering around in the woods.”
Erbele said one of the primary difficulties with engaging in the outdoors in Wheaton is accessibility – you have to drive to most scenic areas, and not having a car as a first-year student has made experiencing nature difficult.
But like-minded students have started to get the wheels rolling, quite literally. Look no further than the bike and hike excursion on Sept. 23, led by Wheaton’s first Outdoors Club.
Phoebe Jeske, the new club’s vice president, is a sophomore from Madison, Wis. studying communications and computer science. She said she was inspired to start the club by a project in her oral communication class, taught by Danielle Corple, professor of communication.
“It was a group project where we had to come up with an idea for what we would do if we were given $3,000 by Wheaton,” said Jeske. “I said ‘You know what is really missing on Wheaton’s campus? We don’t have any club that is intentionally focused on getting Wheaton students off campus and outside.’”
Over a meal at Saga, Jeske joined forces with fellow sophomore Caroline Hart, whom she’d known since freshman year. Hart, an English major from Indianapolis, Ind., shared Jeske’s passion for encouraging outdoor recreation. She had noticed that many other nearby colleges, including the University of Chicago, already had an Outdoors Club. She proposed the idea to Amy Sparks, the chief advisor for all student-led clubs on campus. Sparks suggested that Hart should rebrand the Nature Club, which was about to be disbanded, to include a broader focus on enjoying the outdoors.
On the afternoon of Sept. 23, the Outdoors Club made its debut when the group departed from Chrouser Sports Complex on a “bike and hike” trip. Riding rented bikes, the hesitant group of sixteen students biked under the autumn morning’s golden sun along the Prairie Path to Blackwell Forest Preserve. Nestled behind the stripmalls and monotonous suburban grid of Chicago, students found beautiful oak trees filled with chirping birds, winding trails and a sunny September sky.
Perhaps the greatest takeaway for the group, however, was simply the fact that nature was accessible to Wheaton students. Hart wanted to start the year with a local trip to show students that it is not as hard as people might think to experience the outdoors in DuPage County.
“There are forest preserves accessible without a car,” she said. “For freshmen or any students who don’t have cars, there are bikeable parks and forest preserves.”
Jocelyn Erbele eagerly joined the trip and wasn’t disappointed by the first outing.
“It was a lot of fun and it was nice to get to bike,” she said. “There was an overgrown path we went on that was super cool, and it was really nice to be back in nature again.”
Tim Schill, sophomore biblical and theological studies major from Bloomington, Ill., attended the bike and hike as well. He was surprised by both how many people he knew on the outing and how many people he had the opportunity to meet.
“It was really fun,” he said. “I’m personally a huge fan of biking…I knew a lot more people there than I was expecting to going in and it was great to hangout with those people… and meet some new people, too.”
In addition to enjoying the community aspect of the outing, he also appreciated getting to engage in new outdoor experiences.
“I don’t think I’ve actually walked around Blackwell before, so it was really fun to get to see some new sights,” he said.
This is only the beginning of the Outdoors Club, and many more adventures await. Hart and Jeske hope to host canoeing, ice skating, cross-country skiing and downhill skiing trips.
The club leaders believe that through the Outdoors Club, students can improve more than just their physical health.
“Nature produces joy in us…you’re allowed to wonder at things and meditate on God’s beauty through creation,” Jeske said.
Caroline Housworth is a first-year student studying biblical and theological studies and communications. She is a guest contributor to the Record.