“These trails allow adventure no matter what that word means to you, whether it is one step or 1,000 miles."
—Eric Oberg, the Midwest regional director for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Outdoor adventure has a way of pushing people to their physical limits while also inspiring them to meet the challenge. This was especially true for 13-year-old Cooper Folck, who only learned to ride a bicycle the week before a three-day, 55-mile school biking trip along the Little Miami Scenic Trail in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
“I fell over a lot during the first half of the ride, but I didn’t fall over during the second half,” said Folck. “I felt surprised that I was able to do the ride, because a few weeks earlier I couldn’t even balance on a bike and pedal.”
Folck is one of 47 students that participated in Into the Wild, a hands-on learning adventure hosted by McKinney Middle School for the seventh year this past fall.
“We should be exposing our students to lifelong physical activity and should be helping them develop the skills and confidence to enjoy those activities,” said Jack Hatert, principal of McKinney Middle School. “Our schools are the heartbeat of a cycling community, and we have to pass the passion on to our students.”
An Outdoor Classroom
Designed for 7th graders, the program provides a unique opportunity for education outside the walls of the classroom with an itinerary that includes camping, canoeing and taking water-quality samples. During the trip, students not only get to experience a beloved recreational amenity in their own city, but also have the chance to visit other communities by trail.
On day one, the group departed Yellow Springs for a 36-mile ride to Morgan’s Riverside Campground in Morrow. Along the way, they tested the water of Spring Valley Lake near Waynesville.
“Seeing them out in nature, disconnected [from technology] and communicating face to face to set up a tent, ride bikes on the trail and work together [were some] of my favorite things,” said Alicia Horvath, a 7th and 8th grade math teacher at McKinney Middle School.
A Pedal and Paddle Adventure
Fully paved with a relatively gentle grade, the Little Miami Scenic Trail provides an ideal route, whether a trail-goer is a first-timer, like most of these students, or an experienced long-distance cyclist.
“Adventure is in the mind of the person doing it,” said Eric Oberg, the Midwest regional director for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. “These trails allow adventure no matter what that word means to you, whether it is one step or 1,000 miles.”
Largely following the Little Miami River, the trail also offers easy access to the waterway, which the students canoed along on day two, enjoying an up-close look at the river’s plants and wildlife. Participants performed scientific assessments, took river invertebrate surveys and learned the importance of a healthy water habitat from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
On the last day, students packed up and headed back, stopping after 19 miles for a picnic lunch to celebrate their accomplishment and then bussing the final miles to Yellow Springs.
“The difference in day one to day three in the kids was a shift in mindset,” said Horvath. “It was cool to see. The thought of doing another 19 miles heading home was nothing, because they had already done 35.”
Pride in the Ride
Preparations for the trip started weeks before and tied in a range of educational disciplines. The arts and performance teacher instructed the students about trail safety and how to communicate in a large biking group; the physical education teacher worked on the physical aspects, like instructing them in how to set up tents; the science teacher prepped them on field work techniques, and in math, they learned about collecting data samples in order to decide the food for the trip.
“Can you imagine having 7th graders trying to decide what to eat at a campground?” Horvath said in laughter, indicating that the food options were difficult for hungry middle-schoolers to narrow down.
Although food prep was the one area where the students needed a little guidance, the rest of the decisions and execution of plans were all the effort of the kids. The engaged process for preparation and the optional bicycling practice in the weeks before the trip helped in its success.
Despite all the preparation, the trip was still a mental and physical challenge—but one that will have an impact in many ways lasting long after 7th grade.
“I felt relieved that I had finished the bike trip, and really proud of myself,” said student Claire Schubel.
“When we first told the kids they were biking 50 miles, they looked at us sideways, but it was great to see their sense of accomplishment,” said Horvath. “They didn’t care if they were the first ones in or last ones in.”
And, what about Cooper? He completed the full 55-mile ride, falling off the bike and getting back up each time—finishing with a smile on his face, a sense of accomplishment and perhaps the discovery of a lifetime love of biking.
“I think I will probably keep on riding now that I know how to ride,” said Folck.
Ohio’s Little Miami Scenic Trail
The Little Miami Scenic Trail extends 78 miles from southwestern Ohio’s Springfield to the outskirts of Cincinnati, meandering through five counties (Clark, Green, Warren, Clermont and Hamilton). The Hall of Fame Rail-Trail takes riders through some of the most picturesque scenery in the state, including quiet countryside, forests and fields.
The pathway provides access to the adjacent Little Miami River and connects nearly two dozen communities, where riders can stop for a bite to eat or an overnight stay. The route also offers an opportunity to learn about nature and railroad history and to visit unique attractions like Fort Ancient, an American Indian archaeological site.
Additionally, it’s part of two larger trail systems: the regional Miami Valley Trails, the largest connected paved trail network in the United States, and the state-spanning Ohio to Erie Trail connecting Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.