GWINN - To a handful of Gwinn Middle School students, the term "take a hike" doesn't mean what it used to.
Tell them to take a hike and they'll probably grab their gear and go.
That's because of a new, 31-member club started this school year by a science teacher Kristy Gollakner and a group of students eager to learn about the outdoors.
Gwinn Middle School students trek through the snow on a recent hike to Laughing Whitefish Falls. The students are part of a new middle school club called Take a Hike. Each month, club members go hiking on a Saturday to new destination, learning about proper gear and survival techniques. (Photo courtesy of Kristy Gollakner)
Gollakner is an avid outdoorswoman with a passion for hiking, backpacking and kayaking. These are the activities she partakes in in her spare time, often sharing stories and photographs of her outdoors adventures with her students.
But it was her most recent adventure, in which she took a three-week-long trip with other Michigan teachers to Africa that inspired the club's creation.
"It was one of those moments, part-way up Mount Kilimanjaro, you know, I need to figure out a way to have kids start hiking and not just simply, 'Hey, check this out, it's neat.' I need to push them to do it," Gollakner said. "You can't teach appreciation of the outdoors from inside the classroom. You can talk about these amazing things that we have, that the Earth's provided for us, but you can't really appreciate them until you're out there and you get to see them first hand."
And thus was born the Gwinn Middle School Take a Hike Club.
With space for 31 students, the club heads out once a month to a hiking destination somewhere close by the Gwinn area. So far this year, students have hiked up Hogback Mountain, gone on a night-time snowshoe around Anderson Lake and trekked out to Laughing Whitefish Falls.
Saturday, the group is heading out to see Eben's famous ice caves.
The club has become popular among the students, with Gollakner having to turn kids away who asked to join following the registration deadline.
Two students who managed to make the cut, seventh-graders Amanda Anderson and Gracie Cook, said they're learning a lot about proper equipment for winter and summer hikes, the types of vegetation that surround them when they're outside and how to survive in the great outdoors.
"I think it's nice to let kids our age go outside and exercise and have fun with that with their friends," Anderson said.
Both girls agreed the club was opening up a whole new world of hiking to them and their families.
"My mom and I, we've never been to any of the places that we're going," Anderson said.
Cook said she's hoping she, her father and her brothers will hike more now than they did before.
"I like to go with them," she said.
Indeed, the parents appear to have caught the hiking bug right along with their kids.
"I never thought of the parents being as excited about it," Gollakner said.
She said the goal of the program was to expose students to the beautiful hiking areas within an hour of where they live, to teach them basic survival skills and to appreciate the outdoors. But the club is also performing another service - bringing families outside, together.
"I've been overwhelmed and so thankful," Gollakner said. "These parents are definitely embracing it. It's definitely lit a fire in getting outdoors more with some of these families."
Students in the club are allowed to bring along siblings, so long as their parents attend. Each hike typically sees between six to 12 adults, along with Gollakner.
Sometimes, older siblings in the high school tag along, Gollakner said, and even the younger ones get a chance to head outside, with one hike including a 4-year-old pulled on a sled.
"I think next year I might have a whole different challenge in a good way," Gollakner said. "I feel like next year I might have so many kids who do want to join, (I might have to) put a cap on it."
Most hikes last from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., though the group's culminating hike will likely last much longer than that.
In May, the club will take a trip to Pictured Rocks, with a plan to hike a 10-mile loop.
Though running the club means giving up at least one Saturday each month to teach the kids, Gollakner said she wouldn't have it any other way.
"There's those discussion you have, maybe you end up walking with a kiddo and, because you're falling to the back and they're tired or whatever, you have these awesome discussions that in school, normally you don't have time to just walk and talk," Gollakner said. "And two, there's something about ... you're both tired and you're both sweaty and it breaks down those barriers. You feel like you can talk about all kinds of things, so you definitely have a different relationship with those kids."
For more information on the club, visit gmstakeahike.weebly.com.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.