From Outdoor School to Expedition School

IT’S A HOT 104 degrees when Andrew Hernandez gets out of the car at Woodlawn Lake in San Antonio. He waves goodbye to his mom and heads over to two shipping containers sitting conspicuously in the parking lot near the shore—both filled with kayaks, paddleboards, and life jackets.

A few months ago, Hernandez had never been in a boat. Today, he is an employee of The Expedition School, teaching kayaking and paddleboarding.

What changed? He went to Echo Valley with San Antonio ISD to participate in the H. E. Butt Foundation Outdoor School. Adam Shedlosky, an outdoor guide with the The Expedition School, helped the students kayak in the Frio River, and told them about a new boat house opening at Woodlawn Lake. They were going to need some part-time employees, he said casually. Within a week, nine students and several parents were learning to facilitate kayaking at the new employee orientation.

“I went from not knowing anything about kayaking,” Hernandez said, “from not even doing anything outdoorsy a lot, or camping, but now I am teaching people how to kayak.”

“I went from not knowing anything about kayaking … now I am TEACHING people how to kayak.”

Hernandez may be underselling his transformation. In fact, his first time on a kayak was a bit wobbly, so much so that he tipped over into the Frio. “I was the only one that fell in,” he confessed. “Most of them laughed, but it was a joking thing, you know. I laughed about it too … it was a learning experience.”

Kayaking wasn’t the only learning experience for Hernandez in Echo Valley. Other firsts included swimming in the Frio River (“the water was really super cold”), rock climbing (“I personally thought I could never do that”), and disconnecting completely from technology. He has a warning for people planning to visit Echo Valley: “There’s not gonna be any cell service.”

Lack of mobile service didn’t throw Hernandez as much as someone might think. As a sophomore at CAST Tech, an SAISD public charter school, he spends many hours each day working on screens and studying user design (UX). More importantly, he enjoys the screen time: virtual environments are fun to explore with friends. But he also enjoys exploring natural environments.

“To me, personally, it matters,” Hernandez said. “You know, sometimes we take this world for granted and I feel we could get more experiences just by walking outside and experiencing more nature in general.”

Hernandez is not wrong that Americans could benefit from experiencing more nature in general. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, teenagers 8-18 were already spending seven and a half hours on screens each day in 2010—not counting the time they spent on screens at school. Since then, smart phones, tablets, and computer screens have become even more widely available. More time on screens means less time outside. America’s youth are spending 30-35% less time outside than their parents did, according to the 2019 Kamik Free Play Survey.

“I was excited personally to not have a phone,” Hernandez said reflecting on his time at Echo Valley, though he conceded that “it was a weird adjustment.”

Back at Woodlawn Lake as dusk approached, the oppressive heat dropped into the 90s, and more people inquired about boats. Hernandez helped them sign waivers and choose single or tandem. He showed them how to handle the oars and warned them not to paddle too close to the dam.

The urban lake is a good reminder that outdoor opportunities don’t need to be hours away. There is a special kind of wonder that comes from paddling on the water with a view of San Antonio’s downtown skyline and the West Side’s yellow domed Little Flower Basilica.

“I feel great about when people go out there,” Hernandez said, “and [they] kind of get that spark in their eye. Like, yeah, I’m doing this thing. I’m in the water. I’m feeling the sun, the breeze. It’s fun for me to have people experience that—like I did at the H. E. Butt Foundation Camp.”

Hernandez still loves computers. Games help him stay connected with friends. He is actively training to work in the technology sector. When he does, he will remember to unplug too.

The winds on Woodlawn Lake are strong tonight. Hernandez watches a new kayaker struggle to avoid being blown into the shore. Someone’s dog runs through a group of ducks, and surprisingly catches one briefly. The duck gets away. Hernandez smiles, clearly happy to be outside, even in the middle of a sprawling city.

“I’m outdoors here too, you know, feeling the sun, the wind, the everything.”

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