The Transylvania Times -

By Jeremiah Reed
Staff Writer 

Outdoor Business Owner Shares Her Experiences - Brevard NC


At Brevard College one of the more unique and popular majors available is Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education (WLEE).

Last Friday, the WLEE department hosted the college's 22nd annual Adventure Education Conference.

The keynote speaker for the conference was Sara Bell, who, along with her husband, Tim, owns and operate Green River Adventures, as well as The Gorge Zipline.

As a BC alum and WLEE major, Bell shared some of her personal experiences after college and the path that led her to creating one of the more success outdoor recreation businesses in Western North Carolina.

After creating a business plan and getting financial backing from the bank, Bell said she spent six to eight months in 2007 readying Green River Adventures to be up and running for the 2008 spring tourist season. However, when that time came, a massive drought hit the area so hard that Bell had to negotiate with Duke Energy to release more water into the Green River.

"You can imagine what I said to my husband at the end of that season. 'If this even works, don't ever let me do this again,'" she said.

Despite that warning, after weathering the initial growing pains and making it through the post-recession period of 2008, Bell said her husband convinced her to expand their business and in May 2013 the couple owned The Gorge Zipline in Saluda.

Western North Carolina is undoubtedly one of the biggest draws for outdoor tourism – an industry that boasts annual consumer spending of nearly $650 billion – and Green River Adventure and The Gorge are two of the hottest tickets.

Bell said that during Green River's first year of operation the business had 150 clients participate in whitewater tours.

So far in 2014, both businesses combined have hosted 20,000 clients.

One of the highlights of Bell's address was a topic that for those on the outside might be one of the more intriguing aspects of the WLEE major.

Bell said unlike other career pathways, WLEE majors might graduate college without a clear idea of what they want to do or where they want to go - something, she said, that is completely okay.

"If you're about to graduate or slugging through your first job out of college or trying to explain to your parents that piecing together seasonal work is okay, all while you really don't have a clue what you're meant to be doing in life, don't stress. It's normal," she told the crowd of roughly 75 students.

Bell said her first job after graduating was guiding adventure trips in Costa Rica, but she became a bit worried at the end of the year as others around her seemed to be on some sort of career path. She described her situation as "directionless."

Her husband was in a similar situation and eventually decided to go to graduate school in Vermont. Bell said she didn't care much for the Green Mountain State but learned several invaluable lessons during her three years there.

The couple moved to Bennington, Va., where Bell worked as a residential counselor at a "dysfunctional school."

The job was one of few that paid enough to provide for her family, but the work environment was very tense for students and teachers, leaving Bell coming home most nights "feeling like I'd been in a bar fight."

Drawing on the foundation of her education background, Bell said she employed a new tactic – taking the students outdoors. She started slowly at first, with simple tasks such as having the children build snowmen, play flag football or building a walking trail around campus.

While the strategy was a stark contrast to her fellow counselors, ultimately, it slowly but surely began to pay off as students caused fewer problems and became more disciplined.

Eventually, the idea worked so well that Bell wrote a proposal to develop an entire outdoor program that the school accepted.

"I went from working 14-hour shifts, indoors, making $9 an hour, making kids sit on the sofa to working Monday through Friday 8-4 earning twice as much money," she said.

In a brief interview after her talk, Bell said it's hard to imagine where she would be had she not graduated from the WLEE program.

She was glad to come back and speak to so many students who are going through the same thing she did less than a decade ago.

"I have a ton of empathy for the position they're in and know how stressful any transition in life is...getting out of college in this economy (and) trying to figure out what to do," she said. "So, I hope that what I have to say means something and resonates."

Bell said the outdoor recreation industry poses its own unique challenges and most students in the WLEE program or those already on the career path in the outdoor industry understand it's a lifestyle as much as it is an occupation.

Despite those challenges, Bell said she believes those who enter the outdoor industry enjoy a more rewarding, personal experience than those in more traditional "9 to 5" type professions.

Women, "20 Questions"

While there are gender stereotypes in perhaps every profession, women in the outdoor industry know all too well that for many people activities like Rock Climbing and going on a three-day caving expedition are suited more toward men.

That was the topic of discussion at a workshop presented by Janna Peterson, a senior at UNC-Asheville. Peterson works at UNC-Asheville as a kayak instructor, teaching safety and various rolling techniques and also works at Second Gear, an outdoor equipment retailer in Asheville.

Peterson said she has experienced on many occasions what she calls "the 20 questions," when she would show up as a kayak guide only to find her credentials and experience were immediately scrutinized.

"I was previously the only female guide in the company I worked at and you could tell people would be like, 'Oh man, I got the girl guide,'" she said. "Or, they would just ask, 'How long have you been doing this? Are you even 18 years old? How are you supposed to take us out in the wilderness? What happens if somebody falls out? Are you going to be able to pull me back in?'"

Peterson said when outdoor sports became more mainstream in the mid to late '70s, women's involvement was minimal and leadership roles for women were virtually non-existent.

As time progressed, women did become more visible in the industry.

However, Peterson said women in today's industry are often judged by predisposed notions and stereotypes that compare them unfairly to men.

"Most people see guys and associate them with having being doing this forever," she said. "They're thinking guys have probably been Hiking since they were 12 and girls have probably only recently gotten into this industry, so people often want to make sure (girls) are certified and they know what they're doing because it's not expected.

"No matter if I'm working in the outdoor gear store, if I'm teaching raft guiding or Kayaking roll sessions, you still get those questions. It's like, 'Wait, you're a girl and you're feminine, so now I'm going to make sure you know what you're doing,' and it's just not like that for guys."

Peterson was not the only person who felt that way as several students sitting in on the workshop, some of whom have previous experience in the outdoor industry, said supervisors often allow men to perform duties without oversight but a woman doing the same job frequently has somebody watching over them.

Bell's keynote address also touched on the issue. Bell, who grew up the oldest of three sisters in Birmingham, Ala., said she would often ask her father, who was an outdoorsman, to accompany him and his friends on their adventures but he would never allow it, saying the outdoors was no place for girls.

WLEE Program

One of the biggest draws for Brevard College is the chance for students to engage in experiential education, and no major better exemplifies those ideals than WLEE.

While students in other programs show up to class with pencil, paper and textbooks, WLEE majors are more likely to arrive in Gorges State Park with their mountain bikes or be seen readying their kayaks to put-in at the French Broad River.

The WLEE program features an immersion semester where a group of 10 students study six interrelated WLEE courses under the direction of a faculty member.

Students embark on such activities as a six-day sea Kayaking expedition, a three-day caving trip and a 21-day wilderness expedition.

There are also opportunities for students to earn certifications through a Wilderness First Responder Course and a Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics Master Education course.

The job opportunities available to WLEE majors are often as diverse as the program itself, with some such as Bell or Sam and Jordan Salman (owners of The Hub in Pisgah Forest) going for more traditional outdoor career paths and others like Alycia Andrade using their degrees in other ways.

Andrade, a 2008 graduate and WLEE major, works as a program director at The Cindy Platt Boys and Girls Club of Transylvania County.

For the past several years, Andrade has headed up a gardening program at the club that teaches children everything from how and when to grow different plants and vegetables to the annual harvest season.

Andrade was also conducting a workshop during Friday's conference and said she feels it's important for students in the WLEE major to understand just how many job opportunities they have beyond those typically associated with the program.

"I think it's good for people in the WLEE major to see the possibilities of what you can do with it," she said. "I'm happy to talk about gardening and youth because it's something I didn't think a lot about wanting to do in college, but it's definitely something that I'm really passionate about now."

Andrade added that while her everyday tasks might not be as directly hands-on as fields held by other WLEE majors, she feels the experiential aspect of the WLEE education can be applied to her students in any situation and make her a more effective instructor.

"I feel like I definitely observe different learning styles on a daily basis. I can see there are visual learners, kinesthetic learners, kids that can sit down and learn from a lecture," she said. "So, I feel like I have some flexibility in my teaching style because of that and also just knowing how to gauge the emotional climate of a group and tailoring the activity or lesson to how the group is feeling that day. Those are definitely things that I practiced in the WLEE major and honed those skills and definitely use them now."


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