Sheridan College is a community college. The emphasis, at least for Julie Davidson, the school’s director of recreation and outdoor education, is on the community part.
When Sheridan College purchased Spear-O-Wigwam in 2011, it kick started what both Davidson and the school hoped would be a wide array of outdoor opportunities.
Spear-O was the catalyst.
The 17-acre piece of land sits nestled in the Bighorn Mountains, about 30 miles outside of Sheridan. For four months out of the year — June through September — students, faculty, athletes, tourists and Sheridanites take the bumpy, windy drive up Red Grade Road to the scenic plot of land along Park Reservoir.
The vision of Spear-O-Wigwam, or the mountain campus as it is often referred, is to provide unique and diverse learning opportunities, enriched by outdoor experiences.
In layman’s terms, it’s a foundation for people to take advantage of the beautiful surroundings Sheridan County and the Bighorns have to offer.
While Spear-O is a focal point, a tangible, functioning piece of property that is home to these numerous opportunities, the Northern Wyoming Community College District had a bigger plan in place when they purchased it four-and-a-half years ago.
“We knew that would be the highest profile thing, the thing that most people would notice right away,” Davidson said of the mountain campus. “But at the same time, here at Sheridan College, we’ve been making really big efforts to increase outdoor opportunities for students as well as for community members.”
Davidson came on as the director right when Spear-O was purchased, so she’s been involved in the school’s efforts every step of the way.
For the first couple years, the emphasis was on utilizing the new facility to catapult those outdoor opportunities and establish a program.
Classes were formed, retreats were set up, and Sheridan College slowly developed interest in formerly unavailable areas of education.
With an established outdoor education program in place, Davidson and her peers have been working on the next step: opening their resources to the Sheridan community.
But it didn’t happen at the drop of a hat.
“The gear rental program, I would say we started it two years ago, but the first year was really just conceptualizing everything,” she said. “I don’t think we rented more than a couple pieces of equipment, because it was really building it from the ground up.”
School officials were OK with that. They knew it would take time; they knew it was part of their original plan. The opportunities were there, and the buzz was forming.
“Last year, we started pushing it, and students really grabbed on,” Davidson said of the eventual success of the program. “And then, enough of our community members take some of our outdoor recreation courses that people were like, ‘Can the community rent that stuff?’”
While Davidson and her staff would have loved to respond with a resounding “yes,” they aren’t quite ready for that just yet. They’re still in the meticulous process of reaching that point, and they’re taking it one step at a time.
So this fall, the college is opening the gear rental program to anyone who signs up and takes one of its outdoor education courses. Those courses — some of which can be completed in one weekend — are open to anyone and cover numerous topics like fly fishing and avalanche safety.
The exciting part, Davidson said, is that anyone who takes one of these courses can rent gear anytime during the semester, even if the course isn’t a semesterlong course.
“We would have to kind of see where that takes us,” Davidson said of this fall’s trial period. “We would definitely have to expand to make sure we have stuff available for students and the community. But I think there’s some awesome opportunities for folks to take workshops and classes, so it shouldn’t be like, ‘Ugh, I have to take one of those classes in order to use the gear rental program.’”
Sheridan is full of opportunity. From the mountains and trails to the rivers and lakes, Sheridan College officials feel they’d be doing a disservice to the community by not taking full advantage of those opportunities.
“We like that we are a little quieter,” Davidson said, comparing Sheridan County to the likes of Bozeman, Montana, and Jackson. “It’s great that the Bighorns, in a lot of ways, are kind of untapped. But a lot of people grew up here, and they don’t even know what’s right outside of town. If we can at least connect our local folks with their place in a lot more intentional way, I think that we would be accomplishing a pretty big thing.”
For now, Davidson said to be on the lookout for new course opportunities this winter and to utilize those programs to not only learn, but to borrow gear from the school and get out and explore. There’s no timetable on a fully-operating public gear rental facility yet, but it’s hard for Davidson to contain her excitement and optimism.
“I don’t expect this community piece to be as full as it has the potential to be right off the bat,” she said. “But I would love to see everything we put together fill up, so I can say, ‘We need to do more.’”