Hitting a wall

‘Silver Samplers’ keep learning with age through outdoor-centered adventure group

At left, Sandy Bonsall repels down the wall after her climb on Wednesday with help from her belay partner, staff member Noah Ballek. The Silver Sampler group from the Marquette Senior Center takes many adventurous outings, usually outdoors, offering free activities, education and community to like-minded senior citizens. Below, staff member Madi Larsen, center, demonstrates how to put on the rock climbing harness, while, behind and to the left, Janet Koistenen, group organizer, offers some instructions. (Journal photos by Mary Wardell)

MARQUETTE — Adventure and aging are not mutually exclusive, and one group of Marquette seniors has proven that point many times over.

The Silver Samplers, a group organized by the Marquette Senior Center, went rock climbing on Wednesday, and even though the vast majority had never done it before, no one seemed fazed.

About a dozen Silver Samplers met at the Physical Education Instructional Facility at Northern Michigan University, strapped into their harnesses and started climbing the Boreal Boulder — a 1,450 square-foot artificial rock wall with numerous different trails of varying levels of difficulty.

Group member Don Bode, 62, said he joined the group after retiring in May and has found opportunities for life-long learning and a sense of community.

“Our group seems to enjoy going on adventures where we fill our lives with physical, mental, spiritual and emotional moments, and these friends of ours, or members of the group, are some of the nicest group of people I’ve met,” Bode said. “We learn something every time we get together. … I can honestly say every time we’ve gone on an adventure, it’s been something new and exciting.”

Organizer Janet Koistenen said this is the third year for the group, and they’ve done activities like cross country and downhill skiing, dog sledding, mountain biking, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking and even zip-lining. This winter, they have plans to go snow shoeing, cross country skiing, luging and ice climbing.

Koistenen said it’s impressive to see people in the group challenging themselves, while also building camaraderie.

“They’re getting out there doing things they would’ve never done on their own, and our goal is to make the experience, safe, supported and build kind of a community of people that will get out and play with each other outside of our weekly events. And that has happened,” Koistenen said. “It’s just amazing how an outdoor challenge can really build friendships.”

Koistenen said she used to climb seriously, but the vast majority of the group hadn’t climbed before. As they strapped into their harnesses, Koistenen told them climbing is more mental than physical, and that communication with their belay partner on the ground is vital.

Chris Smith, outdoor recreation center manager at the PEIF, said the staff is specially trained in communication, knot-tying and general safety. They have all kinds of groups visit the wall, including kids, students, sports teams, community members and even a group of cancer patients have made the climb.

“It’s a unique sport that anybody can really try at least once,” Smith said.

Sandy Bonsall, who said she seemed to remember repelling once when she was young, said the group is “wonderful.”

“I thought it was going to be mostly hiking, but Silver Sampler means you’re sampling many experiences,” Bonsall said.

She joined this summer and said she appreciates getting helpful tips on safety, nutrition, how to dress and what to bring, and especially loves learning new things about familiar places.

“I just love those tidbits of information,” Bonsall said.

Koistenen said incorporating education is an important aspect. For instance, the group recently learned about outdoor first aid, and in the same week, one of the group members was able to assist a hiker’s injured dog while out on a trail.

They also familiarize the group with local places of interest and showcase local vendors, businesses and groups.

“Many people have no idea what Marquette can offer,” Koistenen said.

Activities are posted by the Marquette Senior Center on its Facebook page and in The Mining Journal. Marquette residents can call and sign up. All activities are free of charge.

These adventures can help improve people’s physical and mental health as they age, and even make you feel a little younger, Koistenen said.

“We’re old, I’m 66,” Koistenen said. “But I’ve been doing this stuff since I was in my 20’s. A lot of people are just starting to pick it up now. … So for me, being outside is second nature. For a lot of these folks, it’s not. It’s not even on their radar until someone says, ‘Hey, let’s go out and do this.'”

It takes confidence and it also builds confidence.

“You have to think ‘I can do it,'” Koistenen said.

Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is mwardell@miningjournal.net.