From the Big City to the Great “Dwight Outdoors”

In the midst of a crisp, colorful autumn, eight Upper School students and two faculty members embarked on an adventure: They visited the Hudson Highlands for a beautiful and challenging hike along the Breakneck Ridge Trail, inaugurating the Dwight Outdoors Program.

The journey began in the early morning when the group traveled by train to Cold Spring, NY, to minimize their carbon footprint. On board, the experienced faculty leaders, Shauna Fitzmahan and Daniel Bjelis, demonstrated how to tie some knots useful for outdoor adventuring. When they arrived at their destination, the hikers set out on their steep climb and took in breathtaking panoramic views of the Hudson River and surrounding highlands. 
 
Wild About Nature
Dwight Outdoors is a new program launched by Ms. Fitzmahan, Head of Social Studies and Theory of Knowledge Coordinator; and Mr. Bjelis, Upper School math teacher. Each has a passion for the outdoors that began in high school. Ms. Fitzmahan’s first backpacking and kayaking experience led to much more; she has trekked trails, deserts, and mountains around the world, sometimes going off the grid. Mr. Bjelis, originally from the UK, undertook a 20-day expedition in Northern India as a student. He hiked to a remote village in the Himalayas, where he helped to build a greenhouse and renovate a Buddhist temple. Mr. Bjelis has since run in trail marathons, taken up rock-climbing, and hiked extensively in the U.S and remote parts of Northwestern China. 
 
Deeply influenced by their life-changing outdoor experiences as teenagers, the two were inspired to create a program for Dwight students. “We envisioned an innovative outdoor program that builds community and fulfills Dwight’s vision to foster the next generation of global leaders who can thrive anywhere in the world,” explains Ms. Fitzmahan. And she really means anywhere! “In the wild, stripped of home comforts and electronic devices, students are challenged to overcome apprehensions and realize that they can do more than they ever imagined. They develop an increased tolerance for adversity and uncertainty.”
 
Dwight Outdoors kicks off during a year marked by student activism, with Upper School Lions leading their generation in calling for a cleaner, greener future. Mr. Bjelis and Ms. Fitzmahan want to continue empowering students by furthering their education about environmental ethics. 
 
“As trained wilderness first responders and ‘Leave No Trace’ master educators, we discussed how students can help minimize their impact on the environment, so that we all can enjoy our wild spaces for years to come,” says Ms. Fitzmahan. “Our group was mindful to pick up trash along the trail to make it cleaner for those who followed.” 
 
This first hike took the IB to the great outdoors, as students applied service principles and earned CAS hours. After a long day of traversing the wild, they returned to the city with a greater understanding of their impact on the environment and inspired to continue learning how to conserve our natural outdoor spaces. They also found the challenge of the strenuous hike, and spending rejuvenating time in nature with classmates they don’t always see, to be an enjoyable experience. 

Climbing Onward and Upward
What’s on the map for the future of Dwight Outdoors? “We plan to integrate overnight Dwight Outdoors trips into student orientations, CAS, and various components of the IB Diploma Program,” shares Mr. Bjelis. “We also hope to initiate the Duke of Edinburgh International Award Program at Dwight — an internationally recognized program to encourage young people to become physically active, experience adventure, and serve their communities.”

As for future Dwight hikes, the faculty duo hopes to take students locally to Harriman State Park, Bear Mountain, and back to Hudson Highlands; and head further upstate to the Adirondacks and the Presidential Mountains of New Hampshire. As the program grows, they would love to take students on outdoor trips around the world. 

In the meantime, Ms. Fitzmahan and Mr. Bjelis continue to pursue their passions for hiking with a spring break journey planned to Patagonia, Chile, to trek the Torres del Paine National Park!