As far as hikes go, this was as basic as it gets.
A little before 10 a.m. on a recent Saturday, a group of about 12 people, including three kindergarten-age girls and their parents and guardians, met at Richardson Nature Center in Bloomington. A hike was the intent, before the sun rose high enough to create discomfort.
Hike organizer Kelsey Wotzka gave a brief introduction, listed potential pitfalls and problems, made sure water was available and handed out a scavenger hunt sheet to the youngsters with pictures of simple items to be found along the walk.
“I found a hole,” one of the girls said excitedly not long into the hike, its pace best described as leisurely.
“Better mark it down on your sheet,” Wotzka said.
The adults, meanwhile, busied themselves with conversation, searched for birds and other wildlife along the trail, digested a few interesting factoids dispensed by Wotzka (“Did you know that the trees at the edge of a prairie are less likely to burn, which is why they’re still there?” she said. “Fire dictates everything in the woods.”) and just enjoyed their time along the trail.
This was not a trip for your hard-core environmental enthusiasts, more resembling a walk to a neighborhood park than an outdoor excursion. And it was exactly what its organizer, the outdoors outfitter L.L. Bean, was aiming for.
“Our goal,” said local L.L. Bean store manager Guy Booth, “is to introduce people to the outdoors at an entry level.”
On the list of things that cause stress, somewhere after speaking in public, comes “trying new things.”
The first time for anything nearly always comes with a case of nerves. It’s not uncommon to put off doing something new, or even avoid it altogether, out of uncertainty.
That’s where L.L. Bean’s Outdoor Discovery School steps forward. Some might think an institution with such deep-rooted ties to hiking, camping and fishing as the venerable Maine-based outdoors outfitter would be inclined to sink hip-wader deep into the wilderness experience.
That, however, is not the school’s goal. Its mission is simply to soothe the apprehensions of those trying nature on for size.
“Our programs are really designed to help people get out and do activities they maybe haven’t done before,” Booth said. “We’re a little more entry-level to intermediate. What I’ve found is that there are people that want to try something but are intimidated for whatever reason. We see our program as a way to take away those concerns or address those concerns and say ‘Hey, you can do this.’ ”
L.L. Bean has long had success in other regions of the country with outdoor programs, featuring classes that run the gamut from novice to experienced adventurer, including kayaking, fly-fishing, hiking, camping, biking and stand-up paddleboarding.
The company opened its first — and still only — store in Minnesota at the Mall of America in the fall of 2014. The decision was made to introduce the program slowly to Minnesota, shedding some of its more extreme pursuits while trying to establish a local foothold. The programming largely consists of hiking and camping tips and preparation with an emphasis on simplicity and accessibility for all ages. Most importantly, everything is free, including the supplies and gear needed for any excursion.
“This is a unique case due to the already thriving outdoor culture of the Twin Cities and Minnesota in general,” said Wotzka, who is the Outdoor Discovery School’s program coordinator. “There is [already] a lot of local outdoor programming, much of it paid. We could compete with that or we could build our presence in the community and fill a niche for people that are just looking for ways to get outdoors. L.L. Bean decided on the latter.”
The response has been good and the program has reached a point where participation in many events has been capped.
“We’re trying to keep things smaller so we have a better opportunity to interact with people,” Wotzka said.
Justin Henry of Roseville brought his wife and daughter to this hike. He said the opportunity for a free, family-friendly organized hike was too inviting to pass up.
“It’s fantastic,” Henry said while inspecting a stone found on the trail by daughter Ember. It likely came from a broken piece of jewelry, but it was a discovery nonetheless.
“It’s a chance for us to get outside and get exposure to the outdoors,” he added. “And it’s easier for the whole family, which is very nice.”
For more information on the Outdoor Discovery School and its upcoming programs, go to www.llbean.com and click on the “Outdoor Schools” tab.