An avid climber and outdoorsman, Randy Baum grew up playing in the woods and fishing in the lakes outside Lawrence, Kan., where he grew up. It was his sophomore year in high school spent enrolled in the National Outdoor Leadership School that really set him on his current trajectory. He spent that year hiking, camping and exploring in the Wind River Range of Wyoming and the Canyonlands of Utah, all while earning high school credits.
“That was it for me,” Baum said.
A Chinese language and web design teacher at Edison High School in Minneapolis, Baum, 35, also works to share that love for the wilderness and all things outdoors with his students. He and colleague John Strand started the Edison Outdoor Club in 2013, which now has upward of 150 students participating in school and out-of-school events each year.
The list of activities they introduce to the students is extensive: mountain biking, rock climbing, ice fishing, archery, sailing, camping, paddleboarding, canoeing, hiking and more. They take groups backpacking in the western United States and camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness among other day and overnight trips.
Of his work, he said, “The goal is to provide outdoor opportunities to these students and be able to broaden their horizons and let them challenge themselves and fulfill their potential.”
In a recent interview, Baum talked about what motivates him to share his passion for the outdoors with his students and what it’s like to experience nature again for the first time through them.
On creating the club
Kids in the city often don’t have the opportunity to be out exploring in the woods, so I wanted to give them that chance via a lot of different activities. The kids don’t know what they don’t know. They understand what it means to rock climb or ride a bike, but most just haven’t done much in terms of outdoors stuff. We knew if we could show them what’s out there, maybe they would discover some new passions and it even might make them more aware of issues related to the environment and maybe different career paths, like working for the Department of Natural Resources or being a guide.
On witnessing the students in awe of nature
When we are in the wilderness, the distractions fall away and there are fewer reminders of civilization. When you round the corner and there’s a 10-foot-tall moose or you see a bear’s footprint the size of your head or a mountain for the first time — those things wake kids up. One of the great things about nature is that you can’t argue with an awe-inspiring sight. Getting them out there and out of their bubble is the most important thing for city kids. Once you get them there, they get into it.
On the impact of the club
There are small things, like when a kid sees a mountain or a moose for the first time, but also big things, like kids who go on to work for Wilderness Inquiry or Outward Bound or study environmental science in college. Wilderness experiences increase resiliency and grit, but it can be hard to quantify that, so we just make sure we ask: Did you spend time outside? Did you meet some people? Did you have fun? We figure the rest will follow.
On connecting with kids
I learn all sorts of things about the kids. They tell me about the music they like, if they have a child of their own, their experiences living in refugee camps, and, for some, that the trip is their first night spent away from their parents’ house. Big and small stuff. In the hallway at school, conversations are usually pretty straightforward, but on the trail we can just talk. The stuff that some of these kids have been through and continue to go through on a daily basis and they still manage to show up at school ... it reinforces more and more that these are really good kids. In the end, I learn way more from them than they learn from me. They make me a better person.
On his summer vacation
Every summer I do a two-month trip. I find the cheapest flight I can and go climbing and camping. This summer I’ll mainly be in southern France — the Holy Grail for sport climbing — as well as Croatia to meet up with my wife. I almost always go alone for much of the time and along the way I meet people and learn about different local cultures and history. It’s restorative after grinding all school year. The pace of life with teaching involves always being on the clock, getting ready for class and grading, and I love it, but my summer trips are pretty amazing, too.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.